NCPD head offers lessons on inclusion during a pandemic

Charleen Katra, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, is seen in this undated photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Charleen Katra)

By Mark Pattison 
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — If there is anything to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic, it is that “God is in control,” said the executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

The continuing pandemic is “a very good impetus for us to realize that control is an illusion,” said Charleen Katra during a May 14 presentation, “Lessons on Inclusion From a Pandemic,” which was part of the National Conference of Catechetical Leadership’s annual convention.

Due to the pandemic, the in-person convention was canceled and replaced with an all-online conference, themed “Witness,” that runs through May 21.

“We do so much and sometimes it can be easy to lose track who has control in our lives. It’s God,” Katra said. “God’s right there, God is in charge, all will be well. OK?”

Katra had other lessons to learn from the pandemic.

One is that “change happens,” and one can either “embrace it or fear it!” Katra suggested an acronym for FEAR: False Events Appearing Real.

She listed some of the new dictums stressed in stemming the outbreak of COVID-19, such as wearing masks, washing hands and standing 6 feet away from another person, as examples of change taking place in the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Further, “we almost made it to the end of this year” with children being able to attend school, Katra said, but now they are learning at home, which can be “very challenging to families who at least initially were still working.”

“Parents were all of a sudden called to be educators even if they were not educators in their day jobs,” she said, adding parents may have acquired a “newfound respect and appreciation” for teachers.

Another change Katra identified: “I think people have been praying more. Maybe more individually, maybe more in small groups than we were able to do in the past.”

Katra brought her work with NCPD into the picture. Prior to joining NCPD in December, she had spent 20 years in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, and her portfolio included working with persons with disabilities.

“Not speaking Spanish in that area of the country was a disability,” she said. “But it didn’t stop me from ministering to somebody for whom Spanish was a first language. Why? I worked with someone who was bilingual and trained them.” Those difficulties, Katra added, “shouldn’t stop you and deter you. You’ll just figure out another way to do what you need to do.”

Regarding children with disabilities, “someone was used to going to school. That was their routine,” she noted. “For someone with autism, that’s where their comfort level is. They have a high level of anxiety, more than ever, so a routine is comfort.” That comfort was disrupted by stay-at-home orders.

“It’s very hard to explain to your loved one they’re not going somewhere,” Katra said. “They’re concrete thinkers,” making explanations about the pandemic more challenging. “The reason is abstract since you can’t see the virus,” she said.

A third lesson read like a question from television’s “The Match Game”: “Lack of ‘blank’ leads to creativity — or stress.”

“There are some lack-ofs, and less-ofs, that people are experiencing, that can lead to stress,” Katra said. “People have lost jobs, finances have taken a big hit.”

But by the same token, “boredom can lead to creativity,” she added, telling the story of a college student who came home early due to canceled classes. She was making masks with her mother when it dawned upon her that some deaf people communicate with the help of lip-reading, practically impossible to do with masks. But she found a transparent material for the mouth part of the mask, and started making masks in that manner.

Katra’s fourth lesson was “we learned to adapt.” Be flexible, she advised.

“What can be provided for people to be more successfully engaged in the world and certainly in the church?” she asked.

People with family members who have ADD, (Attention Deficit Disorder), or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), or a sensory processing disorder “need help. Help them. Give them tools,” Katra said.

“Some of our folks will probably regress somewhat because they’re not getting the therapies” they ordinarily got before the pandemic was declared in March. “We realize as catechists and educators we’re going to have some catching up to do.”

Katra’s presentation was prerecorded so that she could send the presentation to a company that does open-captioning. “Some people wouldn’t be able to get this information if it wasn’t done that way,” she said. “Does it take a little extra step? Sure it does,” Katra added. “But some companies do it fairly reasonably and fairly quickly.”

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