Raising awareness about persons with disabilities with disabilities

By Connie Berry
Sun editor

At some point, nearly everyone will experience what it is like to have a disability. The aging process leaves many people with auditory and vision challenges, not to mention ambulatory problems. What happens when someone breaks a leg and has to use crutches? Or has surgery and requires recuperation and a prolonged period of rehabilitation? While these are some visible challenges there are more subtle disabilities that are not easily observed. Allergies, mental health impairments and even autism can sometimes be hard to see but are, especially for families, very present.

The Syracuse Diocese has long had a committee or group in place to address how to involve persons with disabilities in the life of the church. Currently Father Charles Vavonese serves as director of Disabilities Ministry and on the diocese’s Advisory Commission on Disability. The commission has been busy putting together a presentation to  “take on the road” to confirmation classes, parish councils and any group interested in finding out more about persons with disabilities and how to include them in parish life.  “Before we ask people to do something, we need to make them aware of the issues and the various dimensions of issues involving persons with disabilities,” he said. “If you change the way you think, you change the way you act.”

He suggested even a small step, such as thinking about the way someone describes a person with a disability.

“Just thinking of the person first as a person, not a disability,” Father Vavonese said. “A person who is blind instead of a blind person.”  When you raise consciousness you raise awareness, he said. “Our goal is to help people see the opportunities for inclusion. How can we set the stage for everybody to participate in the parish? That’s what we want to do.”

Father Vavonese said the people on the commission are dedicated to their goals and have direct experience with persons with disabilities. “They are in it for the long haul,” he said. “And, they are committed to the church. They’ve really helped me grow.” They now have a presence at the Diocesan Pastoral Council meetings as well with commission member Sally Johnson attending their meetings. Each in-road, the commission hopes, will raise awareness.

The committee has two members who will present workshops at the upcoming Building Bridges event Oct. 14 and 15 at Bishop Grimes Prep. Linda Albicelli and Connie Armstrong will share their experiences with the audience and the commission will have a booth at the event with information and resources available. Albicelli and Armstrong will present “Faith Formation and Children with Disabilities” at Building Bridges. Armstrong is diocesan director of Special Education for Catechetics and Albicelli is a retired special education teacher with decades of experience in the classroom and as a catechist.

Albicelli’s parish, St. Joseph the Worker in Liverpool, has hosted the annual Mass for Persons with Disabilities in the past and the parish strives to offer a welcoming atmosphere. Some years ago, Albicelli said, a young man wanted to participate as an altar server at St. Joseph’s. So then-pastor Father Charlie Major agreed to have a ramp installed at the altar to accommodate the boy’s wheelchair. The parish has also hosted the deaf community twice a month for an interpreted Mass. Albicelli said the parish community appreciated the sign language aspects of the Mass so much that they will be disappointed to learn it has been suspended recently because of the difficulty in finding interpreters and the dwindling number of persons who are deaf attending the Mass. Albicelli explained the Catholic deaf community in the Syracuse area usually attends the interpreted Mass at St. Lucy’s Church on Syracuse’s west side.

Albicelli said the new pastor, Father Daniel O’Hara — Father Major recently retired after 35 years at St. Joseph’s —  is very open to continuing St. Joseph’s hospitality to persons with disabilities. The former convent at St. Joseph’s is home to a group of older, mentally challenged women. They helped make the banner for one of the disabilities Masses held at the church, Albicelli said.

Parishes around the diocese are trying in varying ways and at different levels to accommodate persons with disabilities. One area where there is an immediate need for inclusion in the church is with children and young people. There are parents who do not bring their children with disabilities to church, much less to faith formation programs. Those parents need to be assured their children are welcome and that the faith formation experience will be positive, Father Vavonese said. “We have a responsibility to help everyone live out their baptismal call,” he said. “Once you focus on what a person can do, the disability becomes minor and that’s good for self-esteem and that’s good for community.”

Specifically, Abicelli said the commission wants to address the growing number of youngsters with autism in the church community. Autism is a neurological disorder that often manifests in deficits in the ability to communicate and interpret communication. Persons with autism can exhibit repetitive movements and sometimes find it hard to stay seated. The autism spectrum is broad with varying degrees of severity. Albicelli’s experience in the classroom with students with autism affords her the view that those students are often very bright but are dismissed because of their sometimes disruptive compulsive movements such as hand flapping, rocking or pacing.

“Part of our goal is to identify the children with autism and include them in faith formation and confirmation classes,” Albicelli said. “This is an area where confirmation students might be willing to come in and help with the younger classes. They could work alongside the students with autism. And, some of the high school-aged students might be interested in a teaching career and they would benefit from the experience.”

Oftentimes the parents of a student with autism or other disability will either teach or help lead the faith formation class so they can be there with their child. This, Albicelli said, just places another burden on parents. Albicelli said there are also many students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) who need extra help and some creative ways of keeping them interested in the material. She teaches a faith formation class where the students have not been home since 6:45 a.m. that morning. Their faith formation class is preceded by a full day of school, followed by band practice or soccer practice and then faith formation class at 4:30 p.m. All that activity is hard for most youngsters to process, much less those with ADD or other disabilities.

Albicelli taught elementary school for 25 years. She taught in a regular education classroom and for many years special education. Her students have included those with multiple disabilities, both severe and not as challenging. She has seen her students achieve amazing things, she said. She knows how capable persons with disabilities are and she hopes to bring that message to others in the church.

“We’ve come a real long way,” Albicelli said. “For years we just didn’t give these children credit for what they could do. The commission  needs to get into confirmation classes and parish council meetings so we can explain what [persons with disabilities] need. They have as much right to be in our churches as the rest of us do. We have to try to understand them and what their needs are.”

To increase their understanding, people at church should try to recognize that they must look at the whole person, not only that person’s disability, Albicelli explained. They should recognize that anyone can develop a disability at any time. Accommodations such as installing handrails, utilizing technology, improving access to the altar and public transportation may be necessary to more effectively welcome those with disabilities. Most of all, people at church could help by being aware that the disability does not define the person but is rather just one part of who that person is.

“These are the people Jesus would be with. We have to accept them. That’s what we are called to do,” Albicelli said.

For more information on the diocesan Advisory Commission on Disability, or for any questions on welcoming persons with disabilities into parish life, contact Father Vavonese at (315) 470-1491 or email him at cvavonese@syrdio.org.

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