“Six Myths about the Handicapped,” Ensign, June 1988, 19
The bishop of a twelve-year-old came to the boy’s home with a measuring tape. Since the young man was incapable of walking or carrying anything, this sensitive priesthood leader measured his wheelchair and fashioned a wooden shelf that could hold a sacrament tray. Now ward members witness a beautiful example of charity in action each week as other priesthood holders take turns pushing his wheelchair so he can pass the sacred emblems to the congregation.
Many members with special needs are loved and accepted for what they are and what they can do; most Church leaders and members respond helpfully and in positive ways. However, on occasion, misunderstandings, ignorance, or fears get in the way. Let’s look at a few of these misconceptions—and at ways to resolve them.
MYTH #1: The topic of “special needs” doesn’t really concern me because there aren’t more than a couple of people with handicaps in our ward.
FACT #1: More than 11 percent of the general population has a serious disability. To get an idea of the approximate number of individuals with special needs in your ward, simply divide the total membership by ten. For example, if there are five hundred members in your ward, a conservative estimate would be that fifty members of your ward have special needs. (See chart, “A Look at the Average Ward.”) If you add to that the 4.8 percent of adults who have severe emotional or mental illness, such as manic depression and schizophrenia, the numbers are even higher. Assuming that these individuals have families, you can say that one-third of the families in your ward have a member with a disability.
But if there are so many members with special needs, why don’t we see them at church? There are at least two reasons:
First, most people who have disabilities don’t look handicapped. People with a white cane or a wheelchair represent only a small percentage. Many people who have handicaps, such as those with learning disabilities, intellectual impairments, communication disorders, hearing impairments, and behavior disorders, may appear perfectly normal.
Second, we don’t see more people with handicaps at church because they don’t come. Ask yourself: Would I go to church if I didn’t feel comfortable there, if I couldn’t understand what was presented, or if I had no opportunity to participate?
MYTH #2: Maybe some people don’t attend Church because of their disabilities, but that can’t have a serious impact on the activity of members in our congregation.
FACT #2: The Church activity of an individual with a disability affects his or her whole family. If a person with special needs feels rejected or feels uncomfortable with the arrangements and stays away from church, a family member often needs to stay home to care for the person.
Can you sense the feeling of isolation in the comment of this parent of a young woman with schizophrenia: “Families who have children who become mentally ill lead a lonely life. Mental illness is common, yet the subject is ignored, neglected, and treated with disdain. It has such a horrible, overwhelming stigma against it.”
“I have found that in many circles,” says another mother, “handicaps are still very much an ‘in the closet’ problem. Ward members don’t discuss it, and family members are left to deal with their struggles alone. In our experience, we’ve needed to look outside the circle of the Church to find support.”
A mother of a son with special needs says: “When we moved to a new ward, I called the Church to see if there was a class for Bobby. I called back several times, but no one ever contacted me. My visiting teachers and home teachers began to ask why we weren’t at church. Again we asked if someone could help us with our problem. But as time went on and no one addressed the problem, we began to drift away and apart. My husband and I were divorced, and I began to go to the Baptist church because they had a class each Sunday for special children. Anyone of any faith was welcome.”
Fortunately, this good woman later met and married a man who was contacted by the missionaries and joined the Church. The family moved to a new area where the leaders responded to the needs of the son, and the whole family has now been sealed in the temple.
These experiences show that the response to the needs of one person with a handicap can have far-reaching impact on the activity and the salvation of an entire family. There are many such families still struggling and desperately in need of our love and concern. Our caring can help bring about many more “happy endings.”
(For deeper insight into families faced with such challenges, see Elder James E. Faust, “The Works of God,” Ensign, Nov. 1984, pp. 54–60.)
MYTH #3: If an individual is not fully accountable, he or she has no need to learn the gospel.
FACT #3: All people, including those with intellectual impairments, need to understand as much as they can about the principles of the gospel so they can view mortality in the perspective of the plan of salvation. The principles of the gospel can give individuals with disabilities the skills and inner peace they need to endure their trials in life. The gospel helps them develop understanding, patience, courage, and hope. It blesses them with the assurance that they are of worth and are loved.
Who are we to keep these blessings from them? They need to know that, despite their disabilities, they are important in the Lord’s kingdom. It is our privilege to teach them and to worship beside them.
One Primary teacher learned to use sign language so she could communicate with a nine-year-old girl who has severe multiple handicaps. “Teaching a child like Ashley has been one of the most challenging and rewarding callings I’ve had,” she says. “As I teach—spirit to spirit—I look into her face and hope that I can be where she is when this life is over: with God.”
A Young Women leader in a Special Mutual remarked enthusiastically, “Every young man and woman can worship the Lord now—not waiting for the Millennium or the Resurrection—but now, in his or her own way.
MYTH #4: I can’t help, because I don’t know how.
FACT #4: If you want to help, you can! Thinking we can’t help can have devastating results. “I can’t remember my bishop asking me about my son’s condition and how I am coping with this new situation in my life,” says a father. “This is doubly strange, because I am his executive secretary. My home teachers haven’t mentioned the problem with our child, either, and my high priests group leader has avoided talking with me about it.
“If my bishop, home teachers, and high priests group leader were insensitive and incompetent, I would be able to understand. But they’re all good men. As I review the situation, I realize that they are just people who do not know what to do.”
I have thought often about the priest and the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan. When they saw the wounded man, why did they cross over to the other side? Perhaps rather than being inherently wicked, they were simply afraid. Perhaps they didn’t know what to do. Perhaps they didn’t care enough. They allowed their ignorance, apathy, or fear to overcome the feelings of charity to which they should have responded.
It was the Samaritan, a political adversary, who, “when he saw him, … had compassion on him.” He did what he could for the man and then enlisted the support of others to render the necessary care. (See Luke 10:29–37.)
Like the Samaritan, we can help if we want to. All we really need is the awareness and the desire. Try to think of individuals with disabilities as exactly that—individuals who happen to have disabilities. They have the same needs as the rest of us; they want to be loved and recognized, to participate, to experience the same joys we experience.
MYTH #5: It is difficult to involve people with special needs because they can’t do many things.
FACT #5: There are as many ways to involve them as there are people with disabilities. We need to remember that the Church exists for the individual—not the other way around. Adapting Church programs to the needs of the individual requires sensitivity and inspiration.
I know a bishop who presides over his ward from a wheelchair, an intellectually impaired Relief Society sister who serves with great pride in the nursery, and a woman with hearing impairments who teaches Sunday School. Another young man, completely paralyzed except for his head and neck, completed a full-time mission where he had part in the conversion of over two hundred people!
A high councilor says: “I am blind, yet I’ve had major callings in the ward and stake. People relate to me as a person—the handicap doesn’t get in the way. This wasn’t always so; it’s taken a few years to accomplish.”
Whether a person with a handicap is called to serve as stake president or as the helper who turns off the lights after the meetings—he or she can feel the joy of serving in the Lord’s kingdom.
MYTH #6: I sympathize with those who have special needs, but I honestly don’t have the time to take on any more projects.
FACT #6: Assisting those with special needs usually means new attitudes rather than new programs, more caring rather than more time. Several years ago our family attended the Philmont Scout Training Camp in New Mexico. Our older children joined in the activities and were having a wonderful time. However, our nine-year-old autistic son, Brian, was having a real struggle; the Cub Scout events were not designed for someone with social and language impairments. I felt hurt, humiliated, and brokenhearted as I observed the intolerance and impatience directed toward my normal-appearing but handicapped son’s inappropriate behavior. He was as miserable as his peers.
So at a Relief Society meeting I took a few moments to explain his disability and share some of the challenges we were facing in rearing him. One by one, the sisters began slipping out of the meeting to find their families and explain the situation. Within an hour the entire camp had heard about Brian.
Never have I seen such a complete reversal in attitude, nor felt such an outpouring of love and acceptance. That experience confirmed my belief that the Church is made up of wonderful people who will respond in a Christlike manner when they understand others’ needs.
They’ll not only respond, but they’ll also be better because of it. “Kurt is a Down’s syndrome Scout who also has coordination problems,” says a priesthood leader. “He went with our troop on a Mormon Battalion hike of eighteen miles. After ten miles, he lost his walking rhythm. But with his dad in front of him and his Scoutmaster behind him, he walked every step. We waited hours for him to finish.
“When Kurt and his helpers finally appeared through the brush, a spontaneous cheer went up, and Kurt proudly ran the last part, crying, and saying, ‘I did it, I did it! They are cheering for me! They think I’m good!’ No one had a dry eye. We will never forget that lesson.”
Jesus said: “Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither … for I have compassion upon you.” (3 Ne. 17:7.)
This same merciful Savior still lives and loves each one of us, regardless of our disabilities or our unworthiness. May we walk in his footsteps and follow his example. May we be blessed to find that generous tithing of the Lord’s children who have special needs and develop an increased desire to serve them. May we have the compassion to overcome our own fears and love them, teach them, and work beside them in the Lord’s kingdom.
With new awareness and genuine fellowship, let us invite those with special needs to come unto Christ. More often than not, we may find that they are leading us to Him!
In the United States and Canada, the average ward consists of approximately 432 members. In a typical congregation of this size, 50 members will have disabilities affecting them in the following ways:
Chronic Mental Illness and Behavior Disorders
Motor and Orthopedic Impairments
Severe Multiple Handicaps
Chronic Health Impairments
(Figures based on U.S. Department of Education Statistics, 1985, for 0–21 population, adjusted for adult population, and on National Institute of Mental Health Statistics, 1985.)