Catechesis with Learners with Disabilities: Getting Started

The purpose of the department for Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities is to affirm the integrity of the Baptismal vow of people with disabilities and to work for their inclusion in the life and mission of the Church at the parish level, by working collaboratively with parish leadership.  It does this through: Education, Advocacy, andAffirmation.  This includes people with intellectual, physical and vision disabilities.  

Inclusion begins in our hearts.  It begins with affirmation.  We should open our hearts to one another and recognize the strengths of every person…When we open our hearts and our community to the gifts each person brings, we are all strengthened.”  (Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors)

The primary purpose of catechesis is communion with Jesus Christ. (NDC, 19) All learners have different gifts and challenges.   Therefore, it is more appropriate to refer to special needs incatechesis, rather than “special religious education” or “special catechesis.”  Disability, whether minor or significant, should not isolate someone from his/her catechetical peers or the worship community.  Even if separate programming is appropriate, there are still ways to nurture connections.  

No formal training in education or special education?  Don’t worry!  An open heart, a willingness to learn and a sincere desire to share your faith go far in making individuals and families with disabilities feel welcome.   Ask how he or she learns new material or skills in school or at home.  The same strategies can work for the catechetical environment.

When discussing challenging situations from the catechetical environment with the parents, focus on the behavior, not the person.  For example, say something like, “I love Johnny’s enthusiasm, but his behavior (and name it) when he is excited, or at other specific times, causes a problem.  What can we do about that? “   Even still, parents often hear “constructive” comments as criticism of their child or them as parents.  You may need to repeat yourself, even say specifically, I am not judging Johnny, it is the behavior that needs to change.

Some Strategy Suggestions

  • Attend to Communication – Receptive/Expressive/Combination 
  • Is it happening?  What are the capabilities?
  • Use shorter phrases; Avoid speaking in the negative; Wait before repeating yourself.
  • Visualize sequenced directions.
  • Avoid misunderstandings.
  • Preparation for Transitions – Advance Warning Systems
  • Using Visuals to Reinforce What We Say
  • Writing Stories to Help Anticipate New Situations
  • Thinking Alongside the Person – understanding how he/she learns and interacts with the world.
  • Behavior Supports
  • Ask for suggestions/guidance from school teacher.