#DisabledButNotIgnorant (Disabled But Not ignorant): Response to the Oakland Catholic Diocese

Quick update!  The Oakland Diocese has taken the post down as well as the video.  They have also contacted me saying that they would like to engage in dialogue with the Disabled community to make their parishes more inclusive.  Looks like there is more to this than just a Twitter hashtag!  Hopefully the East Bay parishes will see some changes!

This morning my friend Jenny texted me about something she saw on the Oakland Diocese Facebook page.  Besides being my friend since freshman year of high school, Jenny and I were also Confirmed together (a sacrament in the Catholic Church).  Since then we have taken different paths.  She has stayed active in the church and I have strayed because I feel my spiritual relationship with a higher being is better served outside of an institution (I am a California Native, so you know how we can be).  Jenny’s personal experience with Disability issues are her own and it is not my story to tell.  Let’s just say Jenny knows Disability from many angles and has found solace in her faith and, through this, strength in the Disability issues that are part of her life.

The text that Jenny sent me was about SPRED, a program through the Oakland Diocese that strives to make the Catholic Cathecism (lessons about Catholic beliefs) accessible to children with disabilities.  The Diocese posted the following on Facebook:



“Hear about the work that SPRED does to Instruct those who are ignorant of the Catholic faith throughout the parishes in our diocese. Learn more about SPRED at oakdiocese.org/SPRED.

Want to watch the video about Clothing the Naked or find resources and reflections about Instructing the Ignorant? Visit JubileeOfMercy-EB.org.

‪#‎JubileeOfMercy‬ ‪#‎JubileeOfMercyEB‬ ‪#‎MercyInMotion‬

The https://player.vimeo.com/video/156342744“>video clip proceeds to introduce the program by saying, here is how the instructors of SPRED educate the ignorant.

I taught catechism for two years.  My grandmother Ida taught for many years at her parish.  That doesn’t make me a bible scholar!  Far from it.  I am a Disability advocate, and I do know how I feel about being excluded based on disability.  I feel compelled to write this blog from that perspective.  I also write it from Jenny and Catholics like her who strive for inclusion of their loved ones with disabilities in the church.  I also write it for my dad, who as a child sat on the curb in front of his house asking God why he was hard of hearing.  I also write it for the little stuttering-dyslexic girl in Catholic school who wasn’t given accommodations, told she didn’t belong if she couldn’t spell and read fast enough, and wasn’t picked to read the prayer in church in second grade (even though everyone in the class had done so before and she volunteered).  In case you didn’t get it, that last one is me!    I feel compelled to comment on “instructing the ignorant” and what that might mean for many of us.

Many of us Catholics with disabilities or family members with disabilities have not always felt included in the fabric of the church.  This ranges in a number of ways that are beyond my simple blog.  It is wonderful that SPRED is taking steps toward inclusion.  It is wonderful that most churches I walk into have access for wheelchair users.  I have done trainings at Catholic Schools who see the value in educating all students and that children like I was have value within the school community.  Much has been done and much should be celebrated.  It is unfortunate that the post and subsequent video on “Instructing the Ignorant” is couple with the work SPRED is doing because it makes it look like the “ignorant” are those with disabilities.  Giving the Diocese the benefit of the doubt, I believe they are referring to the Act of Mercy to educate “the ignorant” about spiritual life and speaking generally and not about people with disabilities.  Yet, placing “ignorant” and “people with intellectual disabilities,” as well as other disabilities is problematic.  It reinforces many of the stereotypes and biased language that people with disabilities encounter on a day to day basis, as well as encountered in their own experience in the church.

There were some commenters on the post who objected to the language, to which the manager of the Oakland Diocese page responded,FullSizeRender 4 “Your suggestions better reflect the interpretation. Ignorant was kept because it’s the traditional name of the Work of Mercy, and that’s what is used in the Catholic Encyclopedia entry for Works of Mercy.”

I understand that Catholism is rich with tradition (some I agree with and some I don’t), but wouldn’t the truest intent of educating those on the word of God include not excluding by using language that is offensive?  Oakland Diocese is vast and extends from Richmond and Antioch to Fremont and Livermore (I know because I use to play all those schools in CCD basketball and track).  In the East Bay you can’t throw a rock without hitting a person with a disability.  Throw a rock in Berkeley and you might hit two!  Like in most faith based communities, we are everywhere!  The Diocese should be consulting with us on how to make the church experience accessible to everyone.  Even better, have leadership in the church that represents the Disabled community.  I have never met a priest or a nun who grew up with a disability which means I never saw myself reflected in my church.  There is a saying in the Disability culture; “nothing about us without us.”  Any person with a disability or parent of a child with a disability, would have told the Oakland Diocese that using ignorant in this context isn’t welcoming.

I encourage the Oakland Diocese to change the language they use when talking about Disability issues and to be sensitive to how messages might be received.  The general public may not be aware of language and interpretations in the bible and may be using modern conventions to understand outreach materials.  I also encourage the Oakland Diocese as well as all churches, temples, Mosques, and every form of worship out there, to look at the work being done by SRPED.  Maybe the way that the children in SPRED are taught, is how everyone, with and without disabilities, should be taught.  Universal Design is the design of products, environments and curriculums to be used by the most people possible, without the need to adapt for “special needs”.  It is accessible to everyone, no matter what.  I don’t know the program personally, but my guess is that practices of SPRED would benefit all children.  That way children with disabilities would be included in the general catechism curriculum.  I am sure there is a lot we can learn from each other when we all have equal status.  Like I said, I am not a bible scholar, but I am pretty sure Jesus said something about that.

I encourage discussion about inclusion in communities of faith on Twitter and Facebook under the hashtag #DisabledButNotIgnorant

Some additional notes:

I wanted to acknowledge that as beautiful as the Works of Mercy can be, they were also used to do some horrible things.  I am reminded of this especially as a California Catholic living in Father Serra territory.

When I was writing this, I was thinking of two friends of mine who are members of the LDS church and who always advocate for Disability issues in their communities of faith.  They inspired me to attempt to merge my Catholicism with my Disability identity.  Thank you Calob Taylor and Sarah Price Hancock for giving me a template for bringing my whole self into a religious institution.

About Nina:


Nina G is a comedian, children’s author and speaker.  She is the author of a children’s book titled, Once Upon An Accommodation: A Book About Learning Disabilities, that helps children and adults advocate for their rights as a person with a  Disability.  Nina’s one person show, Going Beyond Inspirational, which is a comical exploration about growing up with Learning and Speech Disabilities debuted in 2015.  Check out her new Tedx Talk, The Everyday Ally at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLOkprmqbRM.  She also has a number of trophies and ribbons from her Catholic School days that reflect coming in last place.  She was no Jason Kidd.