Patrick was born 17 years ago with Down syndrome. At 3 he battled leukemia and won. But none of this scared Patrick’s mom, Beth, as much as the prospect of Patrick being excluded from their community; especially their religious community.
“I can remember a parishioner with Down syndrome in my Catholic parish growing up,” Beth says. “My mom used to say ‘it’s so sad,’ every time we saw him.” Ever since then, Beth says she felt this unusual sense that she would be touched by disability.
She later went on to teach a young girl with Down syndrome in her regular general public education classroom in the 1990s. “Sara was my teacher. She was so capable, and so amazing. It was my bigotry, my stereotype, my unknowing that got crushed daily by Sara’s will to learn and be included,” Beth explains.
“People with disabilities are a gift for the family and an opportunity to grow in love, mutual aid and unity.”- Pope Francis
When Patrick was born, Beth faced the typical medical model of disability: “They put a ‘no visitors’ sign up on my hospital room door, and everyone seemed so sad. There was no celebration.” But her experience with Sara taught her that her son shouldn’t be feared or ignored.
“I had this crazy familiarity that I knew him from birth. I showed my husband our son and said: ‘This is Patrick. He has Down syndrome, and he is just as he is meant to be’.”
Patrick’s family is completely immersed in their Catholic community. Living only six houses away from their local parish, it seemed natural that all the kids would attend school there.
“Since I taught a child with Down syndrome before, I knew it could be done and realized how life changing it was for teachers and students.” Beth approached her local parish and received their blessing to enroll Patrick in Kindergarten.
But Patrick struggled in kindergarten. “His teacher didn’t believe he belonged in her class,” Beth explains. Beth started attending the Network of Inclusive Catholic Educators (NICE) and got Patrick a full-time aide.
Soon Patrick thrived: “He learned to read, and made great growth. His teachers were astonished, and it was wonderful to see what grace Patrick’s presence brought to our school.”
Beth realized she wanted the same experience for other Catholic families. She started a website to give parents “what I always wished I had when Patrick was entering school.” That led to a non-profit, The National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion, which promotes and supports Catholic schools who include students of all abilities.
“An inclusive education finds a place for all and does not select in an elitist way the beneficiaries of its efforts.” -Pope Francis
The National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion has two goals in mind: to advocate for families and support teachers to ensure more inclusive practices in Catholic schools. There were always a few diocese that were inclusive, but there was no national network to connect them. So far, Beth has verified 125 Catholic schools as practicing inclusion nationwide.
The non-profit provides free mentors to Catholic school teachers to help them implement inclusion in their classroom. Beth also helps families with research-based practices, giving them the strength to ask their diocese or school to practice inclusion.
Beth says her organization takes a non-judgemental approach to inclusion. “If a school says no, we have the power of ‘yet.” With proper research and supports we can move the school to a supportive, more inclusive place. We never shame a school.” And she notes that inclusion is different for every student and every school.
“Inclusive education means every person in the school is sacred and wholely, nobody is broken, and everyone has a purpose.”
With over 7,000 Catholic schools in America today, Beth says there’s much more work to be done. While many Catholic schools have remained silent, Beth’s organization has been vocal about the track record of vouchers in parochial schools. “Just look at Florida. The state has a voucher program for students with disabilities, but there’s only 2 diocese in the entire state that practices inclusion.” Still, Beth says the price of tuition is a big issue, and that’s why the National Catholic Board of Full Inclusion raises money to support families.
Even in their own family, the path to inclusion for Patrick isn’t easy. After being included kindergarten through 8th grade, the local Jesuit high school said they couldn’t support Patrick.
“Catholic schools’ biggest barrier to inclusion is mindset, not money. They believe an elite college-prep high school and inclusion are mutually exclusive. That’s just not the case. Look at Vanderbilt’s inclusion program. We’ll get there one day with the power of ‘yet’.”
Find out which Catholic schools in your state practice inclusion, or how you can bring inclusion to your neighborhood school here.