Courtesy of Sharron Urbaniak - Ryan Gaske and Amy Cavagnaro carry up the gifts during Mass at St. Gregory, Amherst. The Disabilities action team looks to include those with disabilities in the Mass.
In 1978, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on people with disabilities. This document calls for Jesus’ followers to embrace their responsibility to their brothers and sisters with disabilities. It asks people of good will to re-examine their attitudes toward those with physical, mental and emotional concerns and to promote their well being “acting with the sense of justice and the compassion that the Lord so clearly desires.”
Within the Diocese of Buffalo, the Disabilities Action Team seeks to have all parishes welcome and accomodate those who have disabilities with the inclusion they deserve.
“Our job is to bring people to a relationship with God and with each other,” said Sharon Urbaniak, chairperson of the team. “I think sometimes because of their disability people feel very isolated and don’t have a sense of connection to their parish community.”
The action team, which formed in 2007, works with parish advocates to gather and convey information on how parishes can be more welcoming. This spans beyond physical access to active participation in the Mass as Eucharistic ministers or lectors.
The team has a threefold goal, to open doors to accessibility, open minds through education and awareness, and open hearts by ministry inclusion.
Current focus is to work to increase the number of parish advocates, who work on their individual parish needs, which vary from parish to parish. The team offers resources and guidance to the advocates including a needs survey and a building accessibility assessment.
Every parish has different needs, but on a basic level all parishes should open their doors through physical accessibility and attitudinal accessibility. Parishes need to be mindful that people with disabilities have a place in the Church and gifts to share, Urbaniak said, adding that it is great that some parishes stream Masses online, but if a homebound person is transported to the church, he or she can participate more fully.
“Do we go that extra step? Do we remove the roof, like they did in biblical times, and lower the paralytic? Our job is to do that,” Urbaniak said. “We are not complete as a body of Christ until all His children are at God’s table.”
Team member Linda Amabile worked in Disabilities Services at the University at Buffalo for eight years. She brings that experience to the disability advocacy committee at St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville.
“I think (the Disability Action Team) has done a lot of good, because we are finding more and more individuals who have disabilities of various types who are now participating more fully at Mass,” she said.
St. Greg’s has a Mass that is signed. Parishioners with disabilities distribute Eucharist, serve as ushers and bring up the gifts.
“We’d like to see this in more and more parishes,” Amabile said. “It can be done by opening people’s minds. Don’t focus on what an individual with a disability cannot do; focus instead on what they can do. Their disability is just a fraction of who they are.”
The Disabilities Action Team consists of representatives with disabilities, parents, parish advocates, disability organization members and diocesan staff. Meetings take place every other month to plan social events to welcome people with disabilities, to educate parishioners through awareness Masses and fairs, and to provide ongoing training for parish advocates.
The team offered a presentation at this year’s diocesan youth convention involving a motor sensory challenge.
“It’s important that our younger youth be willing to share their gifts and talents with people with disabilities. We plan to have them experience various disabilities and meet people with those disabilities to share their stories,” Urbaniak said.
On Saturday, July 14, the team will hold a summer picnic at st. Gregory the great Parish, Williamsville, from noon to 3 p.m. St. Bernadette Parish in Orchard Park will host the team’s forst Southtowns picnic on Aug. 18.
The team’s website at buffalodiocese.org/disabilities offers information on accessibility, specific disabilities, parish advocates, a calendar of events and lifelong faith formation opportunities.