The National Catholic Review

Two of the most stirring images of the papacy of Pope Francis center on a person with a disability. In the first, featured on the cover of America (4/29/13), the pope embraces young Dominic Gondreau, a boy with cerebral palsy. In the second Pope Francis is shown kissing a man disfigured by severe tumors. Pope Francis’ outreach to these two individuals impressed observers as both heartwarming and just. With simple gestures of compassion, he extended to them the love they deserve as human beings made in God’s image and likeness.

As is often true with Pope Francis, his actions demand a response from us. How do we minister to people with disabilities in our own lives, whether the person is a wheelchair-bound relative or a homeless veteran with a missing limb? On a societal level, how do we treat people with disabilities? Do we provide them with the tools and services they need to live a healthy and productive life? Or are they left, as they have been for so much of human history, on the margins of society, isolated at home or forced to beg for money on the street? These questions are especially important for Catholics in the United States as we recommit ourselves to the defense of life this month at the annual March for Life. They are also pressing questions for leaders in Washington, who have thus far failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities.

The U.N. convention is an international treaty that seeks to ensure a basic level of human rights for disabled persons throughout the world. It is part of a welcome campaign to shine a light on the plight of the disabled in countries that fail to provide them with the infrastructure and social services they need to thrive. When the United Nations set out to address global poverty through the Millennium Development Goals, persons with disabilities were not mentioned. The United Nations is now seeking to address that gap by including disability rights in all its discussions on poverty.

People with disabilities constitute a disproportionately large number of the world’s poor. The United Nations estimates that two billion people worldwide suffer from some sort of physical or mental disability. In developing countries, 90 percent of disabled children do not attend school, and as many as one of every three street children is disabled. Persons with disabilities also face high levels of unemployment. Simple innovations we have come to take for granted in the United States, like elevators, ramps and designated parking spaces, can radically improve the prospects of the disabled in the developing world.

Here is where the moral leadership of the United States can do much good. Like Britain and other countries in the West, the United States has codified protections for people with disabilities. But the campaign for the basic human rights of the disabled did not end with the adoption of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. By declining to ratify the U.N. convention, Congress has declined to support the extension of disability rights to individuals worldwide. Legislators should rectify that wrong by bringing up the matter again for a vote.

The challenges facing the disabled merit special attention during the March for Life. In some industrialized countries, including the United States, prenatal screening leads to the abortion of an estimated 60 percent to 90 percent of children with Down syndrome or other genetic anomalies. Sadly, this aspect of disability rights is not mentioned in the U.N. literature. The rights of the disabled must be defended from the very first moment of existence. A natural extension of pro-life advocacy would include the promotion of services for individuals with disabilities and their families.

Church communities should also undergo a process of self-examination. Too many Catholic schools and churches do not have adequate resources for people with disabilities. Elevators, song books in Braille, better sound systems for the hearing impaired, sign language interpreters—developments like these would send a strong signal that all are welcome in our church communities. These are not inexpensive measures, to be sure, but a commitment to the flourishing of every individual will require some financial sacrifice. The National Catholic Partnership on Disability is an excellent resource for groups looking to offer these services in a sustainable way.

By reaching out to people with disabilities, Pope Francis follows in the footsteps of Jesus, who was a special friend to the blind, the lame and the deaf. The disabled, like the poor, have always been with us. The disability rights movement of the last 50 years has been a journey of liberation, one that began in the West but must continue in the developing world. For millennia individuals with disabilities lived in the shadows. As Pope Francis reminds us, it is our responsibility to welcome them into the light.

Comments

Kathleen Hazelton | 1/25/2014 - 7:30am

And what about those with mental or emotional disabilities? Among parishes and dioceses I'm familiar with, any ministry to those suffering these challenges is on an individual basis, and the subject of how to minister to the mentally or emotionally disabled is not addressed from the pulpit. "When You're Mentally Ill, No One Brings You a Casserole" was an NCR article by Dennis Coday back in 2009. Have we made any progress as a Church?

Bill Krautz | 1/10/2014 - 11:56am

Sadly, we still see many priests in our diocese try to avoid the disabled, the homebound, the poor, the incarcerated. They ignore LGBT people, in fact they act like this group doesn't exist. They ignore distress phone calls from families with dying relative (these calls always go to their recording and get lost over time). They always show up at the elaborate celebrations where the bishop, the high ranking diocese officials are. Who do they provide "pastoral service"? The rich, the famous, the fat donors. That's why they do real well, financially and professionally - careerism - For example: A priest was promoted to monsignor at his early 30s! One wonders what was his special contribution to the Church to merit this title at that age! When Pope Francis warned the clergy about careerism, about the "airport" bishop, about the shepherds not having the smell of their sheep, the Holy Father must know what is going on in the Catholic church. May God bless Pope Francis.
(This comment does not intend to take away the respect and admiration to true religious people the world over - priest, nun, monk, etc. Their humility, their life-long sacrifice, their SELFLESS SERVICE to the Church and the faithful should always be acknowledged (as I do). Their life should be used as the role model in the training of future generation of priest, or else as Pope Francis expressed lately that they will become the 'little monsters'!)

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 1/10/2014 - 8:55am

I can't think of anyone more disabled that Jesus on the Cross. There he was impaled hands and feet on two pieces of wood made from trees he created and caused to grow fulfilling destiny. Jesus couldn't even swat a fly off his nose, sipping nutrients from blood and sweat trickling down the Lord's face and we all know how annoying a persistent fly can be! He was trapped like the handicapped in their wheelchairs, or sick beds, unable to do anything, or go anywhere unaided. At least those in wheelchairs and sick beds may theoretically move at will, but Jesus was absolutely unable to move at all! We often tell the handicapped compassionately, "Hang in there!" Well, Jesus certainly did that, the best of models for the handicapped which for sure we'll all someday be, in one way or the other! May Jesus light up the lives of all who are now handicapped with the particular consolation they personally need, and may we begin to prepare for our "impalement" in the name of Jesus. And to do so with a sense of joy that becomes possible only through Faith in life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

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