By CAROL ANN GADDIS
A PLACE FOR ALL
I was sitting in church, waiting for Mass to begin, when I heard the sound of a child coming in with his mom – a little louder than usual. I turned to see if everything was okay and smiled when I saw Alex, a youngster living with multiple disabilities. Then I wondered, is a smile the affirmation he and his mom most often experience in our parish? The disabilities that Alex and his family live with are noticeable.
That same night, three other people were at Mass with noticeable physical limitations that required them to use a cane or walker. At any given weekend, the community assists them as needed: helping them in and out of the doors, maybe bringing them communion in their pews, or patiently allowing them extra time to return to their seats after receiving communion.
But not all disabilities are as visible or transparent. Some people in our parish have cognitive struggles or live with mental health realities. Some are blind or deaf, while others have illnesses that cause them incredible pain. One thing I have learned is that I need to be patient and compassionate with those around me because I may not know their story.
As a mom of an adult child with intellectual and neurological disabilities, I remember well the sadness I felt when people would stare and make comments about Adam’s behavior. As that mom, I was protective of Adam; apologetic for Adam; embarrassed by Adam’s behavior; and, sometimes, disappointed that “I wasn’t a better mom.” I often tried to make him fit into the box that was expected of young boys – at church and in the world. I lived in denial of his disabilities for as long as I could. Sometimes I still do.
As a lay minister in the church, I teach the dignity of the human person as much as I possibly can – to children, youth and adults. I often use Adam as an example because he reminds me that all of God’s children are beautiful and that God resides in every heart. As Church, the people of God, it is essential that we look beyond what we see as “behavior problems” or those people who might act out “inappropriately.” Instead, we need to look for God within them. We need to be encouraging, supportive, kind and loving to them and to their caregivers. And whenever possible, we need to help those with disabilities know that they have a place in our communities and have ways to serve God through that community. My son is at home in our parish. So is Alex. They have been embraced by our community. I just pray that all of us with a disability, visible or invisible, feel that same way.