WASHINGTON, D.C. — Much has been made of how businesses are grinding to a halt in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Not so with the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, according to its new executive director, Charleen Katra. “If anything, I think it’s busier now,” she told Catholic News Service in an April 7 phone interview.
In contrast to the stilled traffic across much of the nation and world, internet traffic is up considerably. That is reflected in the NCPD’s website, www.ncpd.org, which offers daily COVID-19 updates and an NCPD statement on the rights of persons with disabilities to medical treatment during the pandemic.
“The last two to three weeks intensified our response to the pandemic, the crisis, under our COVID-19 resource section of our website,” Katra said.
Not everything on the NCPD website is from the organization’s own members and staff. There are lots of links. NCPD “works hard to be a clearinghouse for other good information out there — on many topics,” Katra said.
One of the newest is educational in scope. “Some of the major publishers have given anything and everything they have for this community of diverse learning. They’re giving it away right now for several months at least,” Katra told CNS. “They’ve said, ‘Here’s the password, use it for free right now.'”
Katra has a focus on autism and mental health issues, saying both have been on the rise. “We almost can’t provide resources and training fast enough for our church,” she said. “We have a gentlemen on our board who has six children. All six are on the autism spectrum. That’s amazing to me.”
She added. “It’s amazing to see what some families’ family life is like right now. … They have other diagnoses, too, on top of (autism) … as if that wasn’t enough. Often times, depression over an illness, anxiety, it’s really monumental.”
Katra said, “I think it’s sometimes deeper and stronger than they might even imagine. And right now, with the pandemic, I’m really concerned, with people struggling with anxiety and depression. Let’s say you have a brain without that little toggle that tells you to stay rational and calm. What do you do now?”
The pandemic can provide “teachable moments that highlight in positive ways the gifts of someone with disabilities,” Katra said. “It’s more what are our different gifts … even right now.”
She added, “Someone with Down syndrome might have something someone needs to make them laugh, and that that will help them feel joyful an peaceful in stressful times.”
Katra took over as NCPD’s executive director Dec. 1, following the retirement of Janice Benton. She had spent the previous 20 years working for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston as associate director of evangelization and catechesis, with ministry to persons with disabilities being a core part of her responsibilities. “NCPD was a tremendous resource to me at the local level,” Katra recalled.
“I heartily enjoyed working for the archdiocese. I thought our ministry was the best ministry of the whole archdiocese,” she said. “I truly was not looking for anything.” She was aware of the looming NCPD vacancy, since she had served on the organization’s board the past couple of years. “I wasn’t really even putting my name in the hat, so to speak. But someone recommended me,” which obligated the search committee to assess Katra’s interest, a process Katra said she likewise felt obligated to respect.
“It was a leap of faith at my stage in life,” she said, adding she told her former boss, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, “I heard God calling.” That itself was not enough. “I talked to my husband, prayer, of course, God,” Katra noted. “That’s how it started, and within four months I was here. … I just seemed a little open to God’s will.”
She figures about 25 percent of the U.S. population “has some diagnosis of disability.” That leaves “the other population, 75 percent. What are we doing to educate them? That’s where we can turn some corners.”
Katra said she takes to heart something St. John Paul II once said, that “people with disabilities are prophets of how we will all become if we live a long life.”