First Advisor

Eric Mankowski

Date of Publication

Winter 3-24-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Applied Psychology






Catholic Church -- Oregon -- Portland -- Clergy -- Attitudes, Church work with people with mental disabilities -- Oregon -- Portland -- Catholic Church, Christian education of people with mental disabilities -- Oregon -- Portland, Social integration -- Oregon -- Portland



Physical Description

1 online resource (vi, 324 pages)


Community psychology is concerned with the relationship between individuals and social systems in community contexts, but the field has under-explored the role of religious organizations in the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities. Worldwide, most people identify with a religion, and congregations serve as important mediating structure that creates a sense of community and provides linkages between individuals and society. There may be significant benefits to religious participation, including greater life satisfaction, health, and quality of life. Such benefits may be especially important to individuals with intellectual disability who generally experience poorer outcomes. However, we know very little about the inclusion of persons with intellectual disability in faith communities, particularly from the perspective of faith leaders who play pivotal roles in transmitting values and making decisions for their community.

The present dissertation aimed to address gaps in knowledge about how religious leaders make meaning of intellectual disabilities and their perspectives toward individuals with intellectual disabilities. Catholic priests, parochial vicars, and deacons were interviewed to address three overarching research questions, viz. (a) What types of experiences, in and outside of faith communities, do religious leaders have with individuals with intellectual disabilities?; (b) What are the beliefs of religious leaders toward the involvement of individuals with intellectual disabilities within faith communities?; and (c) How does religion inform the understanding of intellectual disabilities among religious leaders?

Participation was limited to religious leaders who are part of the U.S. Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Portland, Oregon. Participation was only sought from religious leaders who are assigned to parishes that either host adaptive liturgies or were identified as having at least one parishioner with developmental disabilities participating in the mainstream mass. A total of 12 religious leaders (pastors, parochial vicars, and deacons) participated in the present study. Semi-structured interviews illuminated the perspectives of religious leaders toward individuals with intellectual disabilities such as the type of involvement individuals with intellectual disabilities are encouraged to engage in within the congregation. Additionally, participants were also asked about how they made meaning of intellectual disabilities.

Using grounded theory analysis, I identified five models of intellectual disability that organize the complex relationships among the focal research questions. These five models include (1) Close to God, (2) Conformity, (3) Unfortunate Innocent Children, (4) Deficient, and (5) Human Diversity. Among the five models, Human Diversity viewed intellectual disability as a natural part of human variation while the rest focused on negative or positive stereotypes of intellectual disabilities. Each model yields a different definition which results in varying determinations of the needs of people with intellectual disabilities. However, each definition is one dimensional and bound in culture. Most of these models suggest that the construction and categorization of intellectual disability may perpetuate inequality. Additional research is needed to explore the boundaries of models of intellectual disabilities constructed within a religious context. The present dissertation is one step in exploring meanings of intellectual disabilities and factors that impact their participation in faith communities


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