Participants in the Faith, Deafness and Disabilities Conference applaud during the keynote address by Gregory Hlibok.
CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Participants in the Faith, Deafness and Disabilities Conference applaud during the keynote address by Gregory Hlibok.
Being deaf is a gift from God, said Gregory Hlibok, the keynote speaker for the seventh annual Faith, Deafness, and Disabilities Conference, held at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville on April 1.

The theme of this year’s conference was self-advocacy, and included three sessions where participants could choose from a variety of workshops, as well as a concert with Christopher Duffley, a singer who is blind and has Autism, and a Mass celebrated by Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout

Hlibok, who is deaf and was raised in a deaf family, recalled his experience going to church as a child and not being able to understand what was happening in the Mass, because he could not hear what the priest was saying. He would ask his parents, “Why do we have to keep going?”

When someone volunteered to interpret, he finally understood and began to love his faith, which instilled values that he said has taught him to be humble and work to make other people’s lives better.

As a child, when people would ask him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” his answer was always that he wanted to be a lawyer. Many adults told him that he couldn’t be a lawyer, because “How are you going to argue in court?” So he abandoned that dream, and decided to try engineering.

But after he had a leadership role in the “Deaf President Now” movement at Gallaudet University in Washington, where people protested the university’s board of trustees choosing a hearing president over two qualified deaf candidates to lead the school, people began to tell him that he should consider going into law. He returned to his childhood dream, attended law school, and became an attorney. He eventually went on to work in the disability rights office of the FCC, and helped establish video relay services.

Hlibok encouraged the attendees at the conference to advocate for themselves, saying, “Whatever you do – whether it be small, whether it be huge – can have a significant impact not just for yourself but for others as well.”

Following his keynote address, a panel of self-advocates – Meghan Jones, Victor Robinson, and Alex Pellegrino ­– answered questions about how they stood up for themselves to do things such as find jobs and live independently.

Jones, who has Down syndrome, said “looking for a job is really hard,” but she found all of her jobs and internships on her own. She said she dreams of living independently, with a well-paying job that leads to a career, and encouraged everyone to never give up pursuing their own dreams.

“I am on my way to achieving my goals and my dreams and you can be on your way to achieving your goals and your dreams too,” said Jones.

During one of the workshop sessions, Jesuit Father Tom Guant presented his research about how parishes, archdiocesan offices, and Catholic Charities across the country are engaging and including people with disabilities. Father Gaunt found the strengths and weaknesses of inclusion vary greatly from diocese to diocese, and “We can have one diocese doing these things very well, and the diocese next door really struggling.”

His findings included how people mental illnesses have the largest amount of programs to support and include them, while veterans and people with chronic illnesses have the fewest. He also found that while parishes generally have made the churches accessible to enter, navigating the rest of the church, such as the bathrooms, the sanctuary, or the church hall, is often more difficult.

What impressed him most in his findings, he said, is not the parishes with the most financial resources that have formed many programs, but rather the parishes having financial difficulty who still find a way to make these programs work, he said.

“The instinct and desire is inclusion, but they may not have the resources or funds behind it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they are going to say no. They are going to find a way.”

Father Gaunt also spoke about the “cycle of virtue” that begins with attention to greater access, and then leads to more inclusion, more participation, more disability leadership, and in turn even more focus on access. When a parish adds a wheelchair ramp for the two people they know of who need it, they often find that many more people end up attending Mass and using it, who they never knew were staying away because of the lack of accessibility, Guant said.

Father Gaunt did this research into the Church in the U.S. thanks to the request of people in the Archdiocese of Washington, such as Msgr. John Enzler, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, and Mary O’Meara, the executive director of the Department of Special Needs Ministry for the archdiocese, and said the findings are “a great gift the Archdiocese of Washington has made to the larger Church.”

Among those attending the workshop was Lauren O’Connor, who recently moved to Arlington after having been a parishioner at St. Elizabeth’s Parish in Rockville. O’Connor, who uses a wheelchair to move around, said she is often reluctant to attend a new parish, because she doesn’t know how she is going to receive Holy Communion, or to sign up for a retreat, if she doesn’t know whether there will be a need to climb stairs. To solve this, she said parishes and retreat houses should publish general information about accessibility. Nevertheless, she said she considers herself lucky to have been a part of the Archdiocese of Washington where “the cardinal makes such an effort” at inclusion.

The workshops were offered in both English and Spanish, and included other topics such as creating a veteran friendly parish ministry, accessibility into the blind and deaf-blind community, forming a spiritual life, self-advocacy skill building, and listening to the stories of people who have disabilities.

During the Mass to close the conference, Bishop Knestout encouraged the participants to be “active participants in the life of faith and grace.”

We are called from the passive acceptance of our circumstances into an active expression of our faith and advocacy for every human being created in the image and likeness of God,” Bishop Knestout said.