The Great Discriminator

A few days ago, I read a post on Love That Max about how people with disabilities are largely excluded from worship services. Many people in the comments section of Love That Max’s Facebook post linking to the article shared their experiences of being excluded from churches and synagogues.

I don’t think I’ve ever discussed our experiences with taking Gracie to church on this blog. If I have, please forgive me—I’m going to discuss it again.

When Grace was little, we used to try to take her to church once in a while at the Catholic church we attended. We were “Christmas Catholics,” for sure—we attended the beautiful holiday services but were not religious about attending regular weekly mass. (See what I did there?) But church is interwoven with our story. In fact, it was at church on Easter in 2012 when we realized that Grace’s myriad finger wounds were self-inflicted. And Gracie’s first major hospital stay happened on Jackson’s first day of Pre-K at the Catholic school he used to attend.

Grace has never in her life been able to sit still and be quiet for an hour. When we would try to attend church when she was younger, we would do our best to get her to be quiet, but it was largely unsuccessful. She would play and chatter happily, oblivious to the dirty looks shot our way from various folks around the church. Sure, some people would look at us kindly, but for the most part, the people who noticed Grace (and the rest of us) did so with disdain. Most of the people shooting us dirty looks were elderly, perhaps from a generation where children were whipped into submission or raised to be seen and not heard.

I spent most of the masses we attended walking with Grace through the church lobby. Because I am not particularly enamored with the church anyway (something about the treatment of women as inferiors, and also the sweeping-under-the-rug of sexual abuse), I always volunteered to take Grace out of the mass so that Chad and Jackson could enjoy their religious experience. Chad was especially chagrined by the old peoples’ dirty looks; after mass, he frequently would recount that his family’s priest friend would not have stood for behavior such as Grace’s and in fact would have stopped mass to point out the unruly child. (Sounds charming, no?)

When Jackson attended St. B.’s, the Catholic school, we received a tuition discount for being Catholic. In order to continue to receive the discount, we had to attend mass regularly. The discrimination against Grace and other people with disabilities was apparent. She could not have gone to the church’s children’s program because of her disabilities—the volunteer teachers could not provide the level of supervision and assistance she needed. She could not attend mass because of her disabilities—she is literally physically incapable of sitting still and being quiet while she is awake. Because of her disabilities, she had no option to participate in or attend church. So, she and I spent most of every mass pacing the lobby. It did not take too many of these masses for me to volunteer to stay home with Grace while Chad and Jackson attended the services. If she was not going to be able to attend anyway, why would we bother getting dressed early and spending our Sunday morning away from home?

By the time Grace was old enough to attend school, it was obvious that she would never be able to attend St. B.’s with her brother. She uses a walker, and St. B.s has many stairs that the students ascend and descend several times a day. She is incontinent, and there would be no one at St. B.’s to help her with the bathroom. She is legally blind, and there is no way they would be able to modify the curriculum for her or even provide more than the most basic of accommodations. However, we still wanted the kids to be in the same school, like most siblings are. I spoke with the school principal, who advised me to talk to the assistant superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Denver, Sister E. Sr. E. was in charge of deciding whether to allow children with disabilities to attend Catholic school.

I emailed Sr. E. about including Grace in school at St. B.’s or another Catholic school. I wrote an introductory email with a simple explanation of her disabilities (I said “she can’t feel pain and is legally blind” in the email). Sr. E. emailed me back dismissively—her exact words were “kids like her belong in public schools.” I bristled at “kids like her”—she had no idea who Grace was or how special she is! How dare she compare Grace to all the other children she does not know? How dare she make a sweeping generalization about children with disabilities in the first place? Sr. E. had no intention of allowing Grace to attend any Catholic school in our large metropolitan area and made it clear in her email. She did not even ask what it would take to accommodate Grace—she never tried to make any effort to include Grace. Chad’s uncle, who was the superintendent of Catholic schools in another state, urged us to keep trying, even though we were hurt and upset. I emailed Sr. E. back, a kind email detailing the advantages to all children of inclusion, and reminding her that there must be many other families in our city who would love to send their special needs children to Catholic school. I noted that if even one of the many Catholic schools in the city would accommodate special needs kids, we would be willing to send our children there. I urged her not to miss the opportunity to do the right thing.

She never responded.

Chad and I were both very upset about the closed door we faced at the Catholic school. It hurt our hearts that the school was unwilling to even think of accommodating our smart, funny, amazing daughter. We were willing to try to find someone who would attend school with Grace to help her, even at our own expense. We were willing to drive all the way across the city if need be. But they wouldn’t even look at her, wouldn’t even assess whether it was possible to include her.

It turns out that Grace is thriving at public school, and the dismissive nun was ultimately right—Grace belongs at public school because she is welcomed and accepted, and also accommodated. And after another discriminatory experience with Jackson (he needed help with reading but the school adopted the attitude that “someone’s going to be at the bottom of the class” and punished him for his shortcomings instead of helping him), we realized that ALL children belong at public school.

When parents (like us, admittedly) refuse to send our kids to public school, the kids who remain at the public school are the ones unable to attend a private school due to cost or disability or transportation. That means that the student population at the public schools is not a cross-section of society; it is heavily weighted with children with disabilities and children experiencing poverty. Ironically, though, the teachers are much better than the teachers at the private schools—they are truly invested in helping the children succeed. They express love for their students much more than we ever experienced at private school. They are better at identifying the students who need help and providing one-on-one assistance. They are better at teaching a broad spectrum of subjects, continuing to learn as they teach, providing new perspectives, and they do so much more that their counterparts at the Catholic schools fail to do. Our kids are thriving at public school, moreso than they ever did or would at Catholic school.

But still, the discrimination stings. The church purports to bless the meek and poor of spirit, but it shunned us. Grace was not only unwelcome there, she was actively discriminated against. And judging from the comments on Love That Max’s post, this is a nearly universal experience for parents of disabled children.

The Catholic Church has failed many people—women, the gay community, children who were molested, and people with disabilities, among them. The church is the Great Discriminator; the only people welcome there are men at the top of the bell curve. If the church truly wants to increase its membership, it will take an honest look at its shortcomings and make amends to the large groups of society that it has discriminated against.

Until then, Grace and I will not be attending church. We don’t want any part of the Great Discriminator.

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