ROME – In an effort to reach out to people with disabilities, the Vatican over the weekend launched a new Sign Language service on its YouTube account, and plans are being made to develop other technological tools that would help the disabled more easily access papal content.

On Easter day, the Vatican’s new, “No One Excluded” project formally went live, offering those with hearing disabilities access to the pope’s livestreamed general audiences and Angelus and Regina Coeli addresses.

As part of the project, two new Sign Language channels are now available the Vatican’s YouTube account, one providing translation into Italian Sign Language (LIS), and the other offering American Sign Language (ASL) translations of the pope’s remarks.

A project of the Vatican department for communication, the new Sign Language channels have been in the works for over a year, and officially went live for the pope’s April 4 Easter Sunday Urbi et Orbi blessing.

Sometime in the next few months, the Vatican is also expected to release a mobile app for those with sensory disabilities allowing for integrated use of the Vatican’s social media content, with particular attention to the visibly impaired, as well as those with communications disabilities.

Translations in to Sign Language are being coordinated by Sister Veronica Donatello, head of the Italian bishops’ National Service for the Pastoral Care of People with Disabilities.

Speaking to Italian news agency SIR, the official news site of the Italian bishops, Donatello called the new service “a concrete sign of response and closeness to many people, especially in this historic time in which those who were already living in a condition of fragility are even more severely tested.”

The project, she said, “was made possible thanks to the contribution of many men and women of goodwill, who have donated their time, skills, and donations.”

“It is a unique attention, which manifests respect and dignity,” she said.

Sponsors of the project include the Pius Institute for the Deaf in Milan, CBM Italia – the Italian branch of the Christian Blind Mission, which prevents and treats blindness in developing countries throughout the world – as well as the Friends of Vatican Radio organization, and the St. Francis Borgia Center for the Deaf in Chicago.

According to Donatello, the addition of Sign Language intensifies efforts by the Vatican and the Italian bishops “to build an increasingly evolved and inclusive society through a synergetic action that contrasts the culture of waste, putting the person at the center.”

The project is apparently a response to Pope Francis’s 2020 message for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, in which he stressed the need “to make available suitable and accessible means for handing on the faith.”

“I also hope that these can be made available to those who need them, cost-free to the extent possible, also through the new technologies that have proven so important for everyone in the midst of this pandemic,” he said at the time.

This decision to launch Sign Language YouTube channels, then, is not only a response to that appeal, but it marks the latest step the Vatican has taken in recent years in an ongoing push to reach out to people living with a variety of disabilities.

Several conferences have been held by the Vatican department for the New Evangelization in recent years, focusing discussion on how the Catholic Church can better involve disabled people, with specific suggestions being made to develop catechesis programs designed for the disabled, particularly those with intellectual disabilities.

The Vatican’s evangelization office, headed by Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella, last year weighed into a longstanding debate about whether people with intellectual disabilities ought to be allowed to receive the sacraments, saying in a set of updated guidelines for catechesis that the Church’s sacraments are a gift, and as such, they cannot be denied to disabled people.

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Published in June 2020, the guidelines state that, “The sacraments are gifts of God and the liturgy, which even before being understood rationally, ask to be lived: therefore, no one can deny the sacraments to people with disabilities.”

“The community that knows how to discover the beauty and joy of the faith of which these brothers are capable becomes richer,” the guidelines said. “This is why pastoral inclusion and involvement in liturgical action, especially Sunday, is important.”

Pope Francis himself echoed this statement a few months later in his message for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, published in December 2020, and in which he said that disabled people are members of equal standing in the Catholic Church and, as such, have the same right to the sacraments as everyone else.

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Efforts to include the disabled in the Church’s life “must also entail efforts to promote their active participation,” he said, adding, “Before all else, I strongly reaffirm the right of persons with disabilities to receive the sacraments, like all other members of the Church.”

“All liturgical celebrations in the parish should be accessible to them, so that, together with their brothers and sisters, each of them can deepen, celebrate, and live their faith,” he said, adding that disabled people “should be welcomed and included in programs of catechesis in preparation for these sacraments.”

“No one should be excluded from the grace of these sacrament,” he said.

The new Sign Language channels are an experimental project set up for one year trial, with the hope that they can become a regular service and expand into other forms of Sign Language.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen