Like with many of my recent reflection opportunities, I came to Springs of Love by way of social media. I can’t remember where I first saw their post on Facebook, but I was excited that a Catholic adoption and foster care support ministry was exploring the joys and challenges of adopting children with disabilities. I was particularly excited to see that this ministry was offering the Catholic faith, through retreats and other forms of spiritual support, to couples considering this avenue of becoming parents.
I write to you not as a married woman considering adoption, but as a young single woman in my mid-thirties with a developmental disability myself. I was born with mild spastic cerebral palsy and consider myself to be a proud member of the community of people with disabilities, an advocate, and someone who researches and writes about the theology and spirituality of disability. However, my mother’s family line has a long history of miscarriage and premature birth, and I was a micro preemie. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if this might be a part of my fertility journey, too. As I grow older and see most of my friends marrying and becoming parents, this reality becomes more apparent to me. Though I’m intent on following God’s plan for my vocation, more frequently people are assuming that I’m married or have children when I first meet them in conversation, and that’s a kick to the gut many of you may be familiar with.
As a person with a disability, I’ve experienced many roadblocks and stigmatizing stereotypes and mindsets from others, including within the Church. For example, many Catholic schools still do not accept children with developmental disabilities to attend their schools, and receiving access to sacramental preparation classes and the Sacraments themselves can be very difficult. People with disabilities may have difficulty physically accessing their church building or may be turned down for ministry opportunities. Parents who have lively children with disabilities often feel judged and may even stop attending Mass because they feel unwelcome. The Mass and other activities can be overstimulating to some people with disabilities; for others, lack of aides such as Braille, ASL, listening assistance devices or other forms of support mean that they cannot fully participate. Additionally, people with disabilities are often rejected from pursuing the diaconate, priesthood, and religious life due to their disability.
I’ve experienced this last one myself – after more than six years of contacting religious communities, I was finally invited to apply to one I felt really “fit” me. After receiving my application, they rejected me with much of the same feedback about their perception of my disability as other communities had. They also gave a lot of unsolicited advice, such as that I should not apply to other communities because “it just wouldn’t work” and “I would only get my heart broken”. On multiple occasions, vocation directors for religious communities have said I do not have a “valid” religious vocation and I would be a burden to the community due to my disability. So, while I haven’t experienced the pain, rejection, and hurtful comments that many of you have during your journeys with infertility and adoption, I do understand the pain of rejection in my own way. While there are difficulties associated with living with a disability, I feel it’s the mindsets and policies of individuals and groups that make living with a disability more difficult. I can learn to work with my disability. I can’t change the stigmatizing and limiting mindsets and policies of others overnight. And I can’t do it alone.
Understandably, many potential adoptive parents may begin imagining grappling with all of this and feel overwhelmed. They (and perhaps you and even me) feel underqualified and ill-equipped for the challenge. They may struggle with stigmatizing and limiting beliefs about disability themselves. Adoption is hard enough – why add this on too? And yet, I can tell you that not all aspects of living a life with a disability are bad. There are joys, talents, and gifts that came with this experience. We are people of value and assets to our families and communities. We are not burdens, nor are we any closer to God than anyone else. We are people seeking belonging, love, and the opportunity to live out our life’s vocation, just like anyone else. We seek to give and be received in love as all God’s children do. And in order to do that, we need a family or a community to which we belong.
So, I encourage you, if you feel God is calling you to adopt a child with a disability, to explore that option. I especially encourage you to spend time with adults with disabilities to learn about our life experiences and hear our suggestions for grappling with life’s joys and challenges as a person with a disability. Potential adoptive parents often seek out the opinions of experts, mostly in the healthcare arena, for support. These are important resources, but people with disabilities are holistic individuals who have needs and gifts beyond what can be addressed by a healthcare professional. People with disabilities can give you first-hand advice and insight into what our day-to-day life is like and what we remember from childhood. We also love the opportunity to be a support to others, especially your children. We are a culture of our own, so to speak, and it would be great for your child with a disability to see adults and other children with their disability thriving in life and living out their dreams. I didn’t have access to that as a child, and I wish I had. When I did receive it later, it made a significant difference in terms of how I saw myself, my capabilities, and my identity as a person with a disability. It took me from a place of shame and hiding, to one of pride with a willingness to venture out into the unknown.
Know especially of my prayers and gratitude for your consideration of this avenue of parenthood. May the Holy Spirit guide each of us into experiencing the fullness of our life’s vocation as we seek to serve God ever more faithfully.
Julia Sauter is a lay fundraising professional with the religious community, Glenmary Home Missioners, in Cincinnati, Ohio. She previously ministered in administrative roles with secular disability nonprofits in her native southern California. She received her MA in ethics from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California in 2013, specializing in disability ethics, theology, and spirituality research.