AIM launched to advocate inclusion of Catholics with disabilities

MUNSTER – Coordinators hope the launch of a new diocesan advocacy group is the answer to a certain disconnect some Catholics with disabilities and their families feel toward the broader Church family.
“We’ve looked into the research and found a lot of parents and families of kids with special needs don’t always feel very welcome or included in their parishes,” said Emily Hackett, director of religious education at St. Thomas More in Munster.
Ability Inclusion Ministry, or AIM, was launched at the conclusion of the Mass for the Other Abled at the Cathedral of the Holy Angels on March 26. Volunteers spoke to families and provided information about the burgeoning initiative, officially commissioned to “strengthen the inclusion of the other-abled in the everyday life of the Church.”
“We want to make other people in the pews aware and to see (other-abled people) as part of the ministry, to see them as active Catholics,” Hackett said.
AIM is under the umbrella of the Office of Intercultural & Other Abled Ministries, of which Erica Jimenez is director. The other-abled outreach has formally been a part of the diocese for more than six years.
Hackett marks ten years as DRE at St. Thomas More. Her experience includes teaching stints at Catholic and public schools. She has a master’s degree in special education. Years ago, the director of the then-Office of Multicultural Ministries, Adelie Torres, expanded the reach of the group and Hackett accepted the task of coordinating functions for the other abled mission.
Recently, Hackett wound down a busy year of working with catechists and religious education students at St. Thomas More. She said she often takes her prayers to the Carmelite Monastery, also in Munster, and has redoubled her invocations as she looks to guide AIM to the next level.
As a first step, she hopes to see more special-needs youth and young adults serving at the altar, and doing their best to “be like Walmart greeters” to welcome churchgoers.
Hackett made presentations about AIM to Father Michael Yadron, pastor of St. Thomas More, at deanery meetings and to other clergy leaders where many expressed interest in learning more about her plans to help provide resources for other-abled integration into parish ministries.
AIM organizational meetings are held virtually to help those who have mobility issues. Hackett also hopes this format is convenient for those who wish to just peek in to see what the organization is all about.
Hackett is casting a net to gather a team of parish liaisons, so the good work that is getting started in Munster can be replicated throughout the four counties of the diocese.
“We’re just starting to roll this out and hopefully start to get some traction and get going,” explained Hackett.
She lauded the efforts of some of the first responders to announcements made at Masses. Someone who has helped the group become more visible is Jason Smola of St. Thomas More. He offered his experience in advocacy for those with disabilities, as well as his organizational skills.
Smola designed the AIM logo, which features a lowercase “i” placed in the middle of a joined capital “A” and “M,” suggesting the phrase “I am.”
“This is not my mission or calling,” Smola said about supporting the rights of the other abled. “It isn’t charity, it’s what should be happening.”
Smola is happy to see the Church addressing the matter of welcoming other-abled individuals but said society has a built-in bias that has existed for ages.
“The stigma is horrendous,” he said regarding the view some have of those with disabilities. “Worldwide every group has done a bad job … they have never been viewed with full equality.”
He hopes that through communications work and educational efforts the obstacles to inclusion will be diminished in Northwest Indiana “It’s so hard to get individuals with disabilities and their families to the table.”
Smola is first to admit that resources and commitment are sometimes lacking, even in church circles. For the group to say, “It can be done,” they must first start to build on a practical foundation.
“My gut thought is that this is a huge endeavor,” he said. “I am wondering if we need to gain traction before we begin a massive endeavor?”
Hackett is of like mind, and she said, as with many non-profit initiatives, “We can always use more people.”
Ethan Ruiz, 13, has been passionate about his service to the Church, especially during the Mass. The Valparaiso teen who has Down Syndrome was selected with his family to bear the Offertory gifts at this year’s Mass for the Other Abled.
Tracy Ruiz, Ethan’s mother, witnessed first-hand along with the bishop and the cathedral congregation, the teen’s trademark excitable way. When they reached Bishop Robert J. McClory, who was standing at the altar, Ethan enthusiastically pointed out the hosts placed in a paten and the bishop and those around smiled.
“He understands the process of Mass, and, with his cognitive disabilities, it is harder for him to learn. But I’ll tell you, he really knows the Mass,” said Tracy Ruiz, a member of St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Student Center of Valparaiso
“We’re really excited,” Tracy Ruiz said about AIM. “In the future, what we’d like to work on is a way for more of these kids to have access to religious education.”
As AIM gets off the ground, Hackett believes the ministry will grow stronger because of the living out of fundamental Catholic values.
“We know there are people very interested in ensuring all people have a place in the Church; all life is sacred and precious. We are pro-life and it’s important that we include all children,” Hackett said.
For more information about the Ability Inclusion Ministry (AIM), call Emily Hackett at (219) 836-8610, or email her at