All Persons with disabilities have the capacity to proclaim the Gospel and to be living witnesses to its truth within the community of faith and offer valuable gifts …They are not just the recipients of catechesis – they are also its agents.
National Directory for Catechesis, 94, quoting Welcome and Justice for Persons with Disabilities, 1.

Disability & Catechesis

Formation is an ongoing process that, under the guidance of the Spirit and in the living womb of the Christian community … The community that experiences the power of faith and is able to live and bear witness to love proclaims and educates in an entirely new way.
New Catechetical Directory, 131, 133.

The Ministry of the Catechist

Pope Francis has highlighted how critical the ministry of the catechist is,  to nurture a living faith within each of their learners. Establishing the sense of being a small Christian community amongst their learners can support this. It provides an experience of faith in which the catechist helps Christ’s young disciples unpack together. This is an awesome and intimidating task. Yet, the New Directory reminds us that this happens under the guidance of the Spirit – so it is not up to us alone! Also, it is within the living womb of the Christian community. So again, we are not alone, and we are called to be open to such creativity and new possibilities (Pope Francis, Instituting the Ministry of the Catechist, 6).

Below are a number of resources to support the process. They build on the foundation set on the “disability and pastoral accompaniment” page. Please refer to it to increase your understanding and ability to relate to your learners with disabilities.

Step 1 – Encountering Your Learners

Suggestions for Registration Forms to Support Learning and Participation

A good host wants people to be comfortable and able to participate. For any parish events or programs (all ages), a simple question in the registration form will help tremendously, “Do you require any supports or adaptations to participate fully in this event?”* Provide space for their answer and contact information if they wish to speak with the event planner.

For Parish Catechetical Leaders I am often asked by concerned parish catechetical leaders, “Why don’t parents tell us their son or daughter has a disability?” It’s a fair question. When you ask for information, it would be nice to receive it, so you can provide the appropriate supports. Knowing why you don’t get it may help. Some of the reasons are:

  • Parents want some place where their son or daughter is, ‘just one of the group.’
  • Parents may be concerned about how the information will be used or shared. Will it be shared with people beyond the catechetical office and catechist?
  • It may sometimes have to do with how the information is requested.

A critical task for you as a parish catechetical leader is to establish relationships with the families and learners you serve. Parents need to trust you if they are going to share such information about their sons and daughters. They need to trust you, your intentions, and how you will use the information.

Setting the stage for such questions will be important. You can do this by the way you present your program, its purpose, what type of relationships you foster with the parents, and what their sons and daughters’ experience is like. All parents would be interested to know that you are seeking to provide an engaging environment to nurture a faith that will serve their children throughout their lives.

Questions to consider:

  • Does your son or daughter have any accommodations in school? Yes/no
  • Does your child’s school recommend particular learning strategies for him or her? Yes/no
  • Do you have any recommendations on teaching or motivation strategies that would be helpful? Yes/no
  • Does your son or daughter:
  • Have any concerns with social relationships or situations? Yes/no
  • Use alternative communication devices or methods Yes/no
  • If you answered yes to any of the above, please describe below in the space provided. [provide a few lines for their response.]
  • Please know that I am happy to meet with you if you wish to discuss tis in more detail to provide an environment in which your child is comfortable and engaged.

If you are concerned about space, I still recommend including something like the above stated goal about providing an engaging environment to nurture lifelong faith development. Then:

  • Does your child learn better with accommodations  learning, behavior or communication support needs? Yes/no
  • Provide space for a few sentences
  • Please know that I am happy to meet with you if you wish to discuss tis in more detail to provide an environment in which your child is comfortable and engaged.

Notice language is focused on support strategies for learning, communication, and behavior. There is no diagnostic language, which I strongly recommend avoiding.

Getting to Know Your Learners (Parishioners) – Framing the Conversation

Getting to know someone is the first step in accompanying them. These questions will be helpful to get to know your parishioners living with disability experiences, either their own or those of family members. They can guide your conversations for reaching out to someone new at mass you notice who has a disability, as well as when the parents or another family member approach you.

The dynamic will change a bit based on the person’s age, how much they communicate independently, and if you’re speaking with the person directly, or mostly through the parents. In all cases though, the first step is to develop a good understanding of the person’s strengths, interests, challenges, and desired supports.   

Determine what the individual (as much as possible) and parent(s) want regarding the level of participation. Besides the person and family members, their teachers and/or service providers can be the best source of information to nurture ideas for parish pastoral leaders and catechists.

  • Demonstrate an attitude of openness and support. 
  • Begin with the questions in the above block if you have not met with them before.
  • Assure them that your questions are motivated by a sincere desire to provide the most supportive environment possible and that privacy will be respected.
  • Reassure them that the information, and how much of it, will be shared only as they approve. Hopefully, this will at least include the people interacting directly, such as the catechist and their circle of friends, etc.
  • It is important to begin with someone’s strengths and interests, what makes them unique, and then proceed to their preferred supports. 
  • Focus on the person’s name and the person wholistically, a unique individual created in God’s image.
  • We are each a person first. Particularly in a faith community, different abilities and disabilities do not determine our value as a person, though they do influence what each person is able to do.
  • A person’s diagnosis only helps to the extent that it provides a sense of limits and helpful supports, but this will still vary by the individual.
  • The information, and how much of it, will be shared only as they approve. Hopefully, this will at least include the people interacting directly, such as catechist, circle of friends, etc.
  • This will help to explain different behaviors, leading to awareness and improved understanding in the parish.
  • Respect that each person/family will have different goals and supports, AND that each person/family will have different desires for parish involvement.
  • Use Person First Language, such as a girl with Down Syndrome. But verify if they prefer Identity First Language, such as disabled woman, wheelchair user, or autistic man. Verify their preference, but it is always appropriate to refer to someone by their name.
  • Seek to understand the person, more than the disability.
  • A diagnosis is only helpful to the extent it provides a general understanding to support learning and participation.
  • Parents, teachers, the person, caregivers, and support professionals are a great source of insight and guidance.
  • Possibly observe in other settings: school, home, work, enrichment activities, etc.

There are some questions to guide your conversation in the next block. But remember, it IS a conversation. You are not simply filling out a form. 

Questions to Guide Your Conversation

You want to understand how they participate in community life and learn, and what would be helpful ways to support participation in parish life and catechesis. No matter our age, we continue to learn throughout life, including about our faith and ways to participate. These conversations will typically be between parish catechetical leader and parents, and possibly a catechist, so the questions are asked in the third person. However, whenever the individual child or teen is present, include them in the conversation as it makes sense. Often people talk about individuals with disabilities, instead of to.

Below are some questions to guide your conversation. And remember, it IS a conversation. You are not simply filling out a form. 

  1. Begin with their name. This should be your primary reference, not their disability.
  2. What kind of experience do you want – what level of participation? 
  3. Do they have particular or potential interests in Mass or Catholic traditions? (for example, really enjoys music, ritual, singing, etc)
  4. What other things interest them?
  5. What are their particular strengths?
  6. What kind of situations are challenging or make them uncomfortable?
  7. What are signs that they feel uncomfortable? (What behaviors might this include?)
  8. What are helpful actions or strategies to redirect or make them feel comfortable again?
  9. What kind of supports would help them participate more effectively?
  10. How do they communicate?
  11. What are effective learning strategies?
  12. What are good motivators?
  13.  What is helpful to hold their attention?
  14.  What is their diagnosis? This is only to provide some additional sense of supports that could be helpful.
  15. How would you describe their social relationships with:
    • Siblings?
    • Same age peers?
    • Other members of the family and community?
  16. Do they know any other children in the catechetical program?
  17. What is their school or day environment like: inclusive setting, separate programing, or mixture?
  18. What adaptations and supports for learning and participation are used there? 
  19.  Do you attend Mass together? If yes, briefly describe the experience. If not, why not? (This is not for judgment, but to determine if there are any behavioral issues preventing it. If so, learning to attend Mass i a part of the catechetical experience and may be the place to begin.) 
  20. Do they have any diet or environmental issues we need to know about?
  21.  Do they have any medical issues we need to know about?
  22. Is there anything else you would like to share?

Came for the Juice Boxes, Stayed for the Soul Food

Cindi Swanson, MSW shares a story about a group of children learning compassion and concern for each other in their parish catechetical program, set up as a small Christian community.


Anne Masters, PhD, FAAIDD

Follow the Office for Pastoral Ministry with Persons with Disabilities