Peers with disabilities present priceless lesson

As the mother of a son with a disability who attends religious education classes at St. John, Westminster, I was heartened to read about other children with disabilities who attend religious education classes in the archdiocese (CR, March 15). All of the teachers and aides should be recognized for their selfless volunteerism.

Budget and physical facility constraints can oftentimes cause us to problem-solve in ways that can be less than optimal for people with disabilities, however. The special ed. religion classes at Immaculate “…are open to children from the North Baltimore County region of the archdiocese,” according to Sister Regina. In the public school setting, because public school systems are bound to follow the edicts of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the first choice for educating a child with a disability is the child’s neighborhood school in a regular education classroom with all the services and accommodations necessary for an appropriate education provided in that setting.

Because of the ongoing budget constraints of the public schools (which is exacerbated by the federal government’s chronic refusal to pay the mandated full 40 percent of the federal portion of special education costs) and coupled with the lack of full disclosure to parents of children’s rights, very few children enjoy the full benefits of IDEA in the public school setting. The notion of separating children with disabilities from their peers in regular education classes is rooted in our society’s deeply held prejudices against those who differ from the majority.

Yes, there will always be a few people with disabilities for whom inclusion in regular education classes will be too challenging. However, the majority of people with disabilities are, at the very least, able to make gains in socialization in classes that are non-academic, such as physical education, art and music. Religion classes, where the emphasis is on knowing and loving God and one another, are the perfect venue to include children with disabilities with their non-disabled peers. Studies have shown that siblings of children with disabilities are in no way harmed by growing up with a brother or sister who has a disability. On the contrary, these siblings tend to be more empathetic and responsive to others’ needs.

It would indeed be a balm to the soul of parents of children with disabilities for parishes to actively invite and encourage every child with a disability to participate in religion class first in his or her home parish in a regular classroom. Make it easy for us to participate and to feel welcome in the community of the Lord. The opportunity for children to get know their peers with disabilities presents a priceless lesson in following the teachings of Christ and in recognizing the fullness of the human spirit in others who may initially seem odd or different from us. Children with disabilities have much to learn from their peers as well as much to teach. Children with disabilities are children first; they are not their disability.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.