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Resources and support available for individuals with disabilities and their families

All people baptized in the Catholic faith are called to full and active participation in the life of the Church, particularly at the parish level.

The Office for Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities of the Archdiocese of Newark exists to affirm the baptism of individuals with disabilities and to affirm the promise the Church makes at baptism to support them, along with their parents and families, on their faith journey. The office works with parish leaders and other archdiocesan offices so individuals with disabilities can participate and serve the mission of the Church in ordinary ways.

The archdiocese offers many services and resources through its parishes for individuals with disabilities and their families to feel welcomed and engaged in the life of the Church, from Inclusive Family Masses and catechesis to sacramental preparation, support groups and other communal activities and special events. Much is available in the archdiocese’s many welcoming parishes.

However, the archdiocese recognizes that more awareness and education is still needed for many clergy, religious and laypeople.

“People do not have ‘special needs,’ we all have human needs, though some individuals may require more intentionality. But we all have the need for education, love, relationships, opportunities to take risks, participate in community life, employment and worship God,” said Anne Masters, the director of Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities. “Within community life, such as the Church, we all desire to be welcomed, noticed, valued, needed, supported, befriended, in short, to feel like we belong. If this can’t happen within the body of Christ, where can it?”

This need was recently brought to light when an archdiocesan priest asked a 7-year-old boy with autism to be removed from church while attending his sister’s baptism.

The archdiocese has since offered a heartfelt apology to the family for the “abrupt behavior” the pastor demonstrated. “The pastor was unaware that the sibling playing in a nearby candle room during the ceremony has autism. The pastor did not understand the child’s behavior, he felt unprepared to respond appropriately, and his reaction to the situation was not pastoral. He acknowledges and is regretful for the mistake,” the archdiocese said in a statement.  

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, C.Ss.R., personally reached out to the family to offer words of support and healing. Masters also remains in touch with them and is working with all to come to a pastoral resolution and to ensure there is greater awareness in working with individuals with disabilities and their families.

“It was important to the parents for the situation to become known so that attention could be brought to the need for awareness,” Masters said. “Individuals with disabilities and their families often are marginalized both by attitudes and exclusionary practices that don’t value or allow for the diversity within our human family, all of whom are created in the image of God. Pope Francis says, ‘The community must not lack the words and, above all, the gestures for encountering and welcoming people with disabilities.’”

Not recognizing this issue can have serious consequences, Masters said. Statistics show children and teens with disabilities are four times more likely to be bullied. For adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), only 28 percent are employed versus 76 percent of people without disabilities. They are three times as likely to live below the poverty line and are four times more likely to be victims of violent personal crimes.

The marginalization of individuals with disabilities, particularly autism and IDD, not only diminishes opportunities for development and growth but also contributes to these greater risks, according to Masters. 

“It’s really important to be reassessing the great programs we have. If individuals with disabilities aren’t able to participate, shouldn’t we ask ourselves if we are truly living as whom we say we are? Are we living as the body of Christ,” she said.

To learn more about the Office for Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities, including resources and support, visit www.rcan.org/disabilities.