July 22, 2012

From the Department of Education Newsletter, Diocese of Ogdensburg

All are Welcome

Over 30 years ago, the US Bishops issued their Pastoral Statement on People with Disabilities to promote a greater awareness of, and justice for, those with special needs. Their aim was to have parishes across our country welcome Catholics with special needs as full participating members of the community. Since that time, we have made some progress, but much more remains to be done. Is your parish program doing its part in welcoming those with special needs?

When I ask if a parish has a program for children with special needs, the response is often, “We don’t have any children with special needs, but if some do enroll, we will give you a call.“

Statistics say that every parish has a number of persons with special needs. You may not know who they are, where they live, or what their specific needs are, but they are in your parish. If this is true, how can we persist in saying that we have no one who needs special program accommodations? Although not intentional, the presence of children with special needs may be “secret”. The fact of the matter is that we are often not welcoming those with special needs. Parents often recognize that no program designed to fit the needs of their child(ren) is in place and so do not enroll them. They may not see your existing program as welcoming enough to accommodate the needs of children with disabilities, so again, choose not to enroll. Another scenario is one in which a parent of a child with special needs may opt to keep the information from you, in hopes that the child will be treated as one of the crowd for at least the one hour a week they are with you and the catechists. They do not want to have their child singled out or treated differently. A well designed registration process and program may help eliminate these potential negatives.

In the absence of a well designed registration process and program, it is likely that you may not have identified the children in your program who do have special needs. You need to be sure to include questions about learning styles and/or needs on your registration forms so you can adjust your program design as needed. We need to let everyone know that all are welcome by including a place on your registration forms, asking parents to share what we can do to assure their children’s inclusion in our instruction. Appreciate potential sensitivity. Careful wording will quickly let them know that we want to assist, rather than label or segregate. Never negate the ability of parents to help us make our programs better. Include them in the design process, not only for the forms, but special programs as well. They will be your strongest advocates when it comes to publicizing a well-constructed, inclusive program that invites all to come together.

Take a look at your program and see what you can do to make it a more welcoming place for all, regardless of ability. May all who are invited by the Lord be able to feel they are truly welcome in our community!