Parishes focus on making spaces hospitable to people with disabilities

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Parishes focus on making spaces hospitable to people with disabilities

A window inside the adoration chapel at the parish displays a person in a wheelchair at Incarnation Parish in Crestwood on Jan. 29, 2023. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A person in a wheelchair is depicted in a stained glass window in the adoration chapel. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A close-up of the window. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Raquel Gadomski and Codi Piper, parishioners at Incarnation Parish in Crestwood, volunteer at the help desk on Jan. 29, 2023. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

If parishes want to be truly welcoming, hospitable places, they must turn their attention to making it possible for people with disabilities to be full participants in liturgies and other parish events.

That’s the message of several parishes that have taken steps to allow people with disabilities to do everything from getting in the door to serving as a reader or extraordinary minister of Communion.

It’s an idea that has been amplified by Pope Francis who met with people with disabilities and those who minister to and care for them Dec. 3, 2022, in observance of the International Day for Persons with Disabilities.

The church also must meet people’s needs for “belonging, relating to others and cultivating their spiritual lives so they experience the fullness and blessing of the Lord” for the “unique and marvelous gift” that they are, the pope said.

Making such accommodations need not break the budget, either, said Joanne Meyer of That Every Ability May Belong (TEAM Belong). What’s necessary, she said, is that parishes consider the needs of people with disabilities when they are making plans and listen to their members when they say what they need.

At Infant Jesus of Prague Church in Flossmoor, now part of St. Veronica Parish, parishioners who have difficulty standing up from a seated position can use chairs that have higher seats and arms that allow them to balance, said Meyer, a member of the parish.

“That actually came out of a survey of parishioner needs,” Meyer said. “Several people said they had a very hard time getting up.”

Parishioners had seen higher chairs in places like physical therapists’ offices, so when the parish was buying new chairs, it ordered several with higher seats and arms.

Placing an emphasis on the needs of people with disabilities meant that when the church steps needed to be repaired, the parish chose to add a ramp as well, she said, and a ramp to the sanctuary was included in the church renovation when the higher chairs were added.

Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, 690 W. Belmont Ave., also has ramps both to get into the church and to the sanctuary, said Deacon Tom Lambert. A nursing home van brings people to Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel each weekend, and several of them use the ramps, he said.

A parishioner who is blind uses the ramp — which has a railing — to reach to the ambo so she can serve as a lector, Lambert said.

The parish also invested in assistive hearing devices several years ago when a parishioner requested them, he said. While they don’t get a lot of use, there are some people who ask to use them.

What might be more important is the message sent by the signs in the entry and notices in the bulletin that such accommodations are available.

“It’s a sign that we’re a welcoming parish,” Lambert said. “No matter how much they are used, it’s a sign that you are welcome here whether you have a disability or not. … We have an aging population of the people who come to church and their disabilities are more and more. These are all signs that we care, and we want to help you be part of the community.”

Meyer said that sense of belonging is important for everybody.

“I think if parishes reflect on what it means to belong, and what that means for people with disabilities, they can figure things out,” said Meyer, who got involved in the field after having a son who has disabilities. “We don’t want them just to be present. We want them to be accepted and have the opportunity to make friends.”

If some parish leaders think their communities do not include anyone with disabilities, she urges them to think again; it’s much more likely that people with disabilities find getting into the church too difficult, or feel unwelcome once they get there. Such people might find another church community, or they might not go to church at all, she said.

Kathryn McNicholas, pastoral associate and director of lifelong formation at Incarnation St. Terrence Parish, saw how important feeling welcomed and seen is last year when children preparing for first Communion visited the adoration chapel at Incarnation Church in Crestwood.

The stained glass in the chapel depicts parishioners praying; one of them uses a wheelchair. So did one of the first Communion students.

“She looked at that image, and she got this big smile on her face, and she said, ‘That’s me!’” McNicholas said.

Incarnation Church had invested in several accommodations over the past several years, from automatic door openers and handrails on the sanctuary steps to large-print missalettes. The door openers, she noted, help lots of people, whether they are using wheelchairs or walkers, pushing strollers or carrying boxes or babies.

But she highlighted an innovation that is not an accommodation per se: a welcome desk in the entry way. The desk is staffed before and during liturgies by volunteers who can do everything from giving directions to bathrooms to providing assistive hearing devices and large-print missalettes and making arrangements for other accommodations, as well as answering parishioners’ questions.

While Incarnation has an actual desk, parishes could do something similar by setting up a folding table.

“There’s a lot of little things that you can do if you just take a look around your entrance area, inside and outside,” McNicholas said. “Could you figure out how to get help? Is there someone you can talk to? That doesn’t cost anything. That’s just a radical hospitality for your parishioners. … You would be surprised at the questions that come up. It might be someone who’s a parishioner who wants to know what’s the deadline for the gifts for the giving tree, or someone new who wants to know how to register for religious education. And if it’s a question the volunteers can’t answer, they know how to find out.”

For more ideas on how parishes can accommodate people with disabilities, visit



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