Catholic Schools Struggle to Accommodate Disabilities

After students at the public school started bullying the Winbinger twins, who have cerebral palsy, the girls’ parents knew it was time to pull them out.

For Matt and Becky Winbinger, the obvious alternative was to look to the Catholic school system.

“In a Catholic school it’s true inclusion. Everybody is treated the same way,” Becky Winbinger said. “It’s not like that at a public school.”

But this type of inclusion — the integration of students with special needs into the regular classroom — is new to many Catholic schools.

In Kansas City, where the Winbingers live, the practice of inclusion has flourished in Catholic schools. But in much of the rest of the country, simply including children with disabilities in Catholic schools can be a long and difficult road for parents.

According to the National Catholic Educational Association, the number of students with disabilities in Catholic schools across the country has increased by almost 20,000 over the past three years. (The association began tracking the number of students with disabilities in 2015.)  

But because disability practices aren’t uniform across Catholic schools, families wanting a Catholic education for their disabled children often encounter tough choices.

When Vincenza Spadafore was born with a rare genetic condition known as PURA syndrome, her parents, Christy and Dominic, faced a dilemma. The Catholic school their boys attended in Tulsa, Okla., was built in 1928, with lots of stairs and no elevator. The Spadafores knew it wouldn’t be suitable for their daughter.

It wasn’t that the school didn’t want to help Vincenza, Christy Spadafore said, but there was no cost-effective way to do it.

That’s when they found the FIRE Foundation.

FIRE, which stands for Foundation for Inclusive Religious Education, was started in 1996 in Kansas City, Mo., after a group of parents were “heartbroken” they weren’t able to give their children with disabilities a Catholic education. They’ve since provided more than $4.8 million for inclusive Catholic education, investing $400,000 this past year, buying iPads, providing training and hiring special education teachers.

High school students who benefit from FIRE greet golfers at the foundation’s annual golf tournament “Play with FIRE” in spring 2018 in Kansas City. Pete Whittaker, center, with peer mentors Nate Schwaller, left, and John Hyde all attend St. Michael the Archangel Catholic High School near Kansas City. Photo courtesy of FIRE Foundation

The Spadafores began talking to the nonprofit in fall 2017. Soon they had a list of possible places to move.

“We looked at these places in perspective of what happens to our 21-year-old daughter or when she’s 30, or when she’s of an age where we cannot physically take care of her?” Dominic Spadafore said. “What are the options for her?”

Plus, the Spadafores had their two boys and their own careers to worry about.

Ultimately, Kansas City had the support Vincenza, who is 5 now, needed for schooling, plus some of her specialists were already located there. It also allowed all three children to attend the same Catholic school.

“In a lot of ways, getting her ready for school has been some of the easier part of this relocation,” he added.

But even for those already in Kansas City, it doesn’t come without cost.

One of the biggest problems with serving students with disabilities in Catholic school is the lack of resources. The most common option is to partner with the child’s public school to receive certain therapy services.

For the Winbinger twins, Katie and Lauren, Nativity of Mary Catholic School wasn’t able to provide any of the therapies needed. So, the Winbingers decided to do without physical and occupational therapy.

For a while, Becky Winbinger drove the twins to speech therapy and then back to their Catholic school, where they would have to make up the lessons they missed.

Ultimately, they dropped speech therapy, too.

It’s decisions like this that FIRE is working to end.

The nonprofit is working on starting pilot programs to address therapy needs within the Catholic school.

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Source: Religion News Service