LDS Paralympians Help Others Utilize the Gift of Mobility

Contributed By By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer

  • 5 December 2013

Jeff Griffin, left, and Keith Barney pose outside a Buddhist stupa in Nepal. The two LDS Paralympic athletes traveled to Nepal to help recent wheelchair recipients make the transition to a new life of mobility.  Photo courtesy of Jeff Griffin.

Article Highlights

  • In the past few years the Church has distributed tens of thousands of wheelchairs to those who need one.
  • At the Church’s request, Jeff Griffin and Keith Barney have developed an educational program to help others make the most of their new mobility.
  • The program includes lessons on disability rights, marital relationships, job seeking, and more.

“We want the [wheelchair recipients] to know that they can have a family, they can have an education, they can have a job, and they can enjoy a good quality of life even in a wheelchair.” —Jeff Griffin, LDS Paralympian

A few months ago, a pair of Latter-day Saint Paralympians spent several days in Nepal working with a group of fellow wheelchair users.

The two men are decorated athletes and have competed at the highest levels of their respective sports. But their new Nepalese friends had little interest in their sporting exploits.

“They wanted to hear all about our families,” said Keith Barney, a BYU–Idaho recreation management professor and a retired competitive skier. “They were fascinated with the possibility that they too could have a family one day.”

Brother Barney and his friend Jeff Griffin have worked together to help develop an educational program that will help people who use wheelchairs enjoy a rich, full life.

Over the past several years, the Church has distributed tens of thousands of wheelchairs to those in need who cannot afford one. Each wheelchair offers the priceless gift of mobility, a new measure of independence, and countless opportunities.

But the life-changing transition to mobility can sometimes be difficult to navigate, particularly in areas of the world where disabled people have limited access to education and employment opportunities. Their newfound mobility can bring with it a host of new challenges.

“A wheelchair can be the tool that helps a person get from point A to point B, but that person may not have the other tools they need to socialize or do things in their society,” said Brother Griffin, a wheelchair basketball player and a full-time seminary teacher.

At the request of Church welfare officials, Brother Barney and Brother Griffin created a program designed to help folks in all parts of the world make the most of those opportunities that come with owning a wheelchair.

The program, which continues to be tweaked and fine tuned, is anchored by several “transition to mobility” principles that are relevant to wheelchair recipients anywhere in the world.

The men start with the basics. Included in the program’s various learning modules are lessons on spinal cord injuries and other common ailments, such as polio, that often affect people who use wheelchairs.

Other lessons focus on disability rights, intimacy and marital relationships, job-seeking skills, and finding joy in the independence that defines mobility.

“We want the [wheelchair recipients] to know that they can have a family, they can have an education, they can have a job, and they can enjoy a good quality of life even in a wheelchair,” said Brother Griffin.

Brother Barney and Brother Griffin introduced their mobility transition program during a weeklong visit to Nepal last summer. Prior to their arrival, they worked with Church-service missionaries in Nepal and local welfare workers to translate their lesson materials and identify wheelchair recipients for their classes.

The men’s background offered them instant credibility with their Nepalese students. Brother Barney lost the use of his legs as a teenager following a hunting accident. Brother Griffin was injured in an industrial accident when he fell from a roof a short time after serving a mission.

After his accident, “I had to come to grips with the fact that my world had completely changed,” said Brother Griffin. “My dreams and back were shattered.”

Still, both men persevered, finished college, married, started families, pursued careers, and realized their athletic dreams. Brother Barney represented the United States ski team during the 2002 Salt Lake City Paralympic Games. Brother Griffin competed in wheelchair basketball during the Athens Paralympics in 2004.

Several of their students in Nepal were soldiers who lost the use of their legs after being injured in combat. They found comfort in learning they could follow the examples of their instructors and pursue a meaningful life.

Brother Barney and Brother Griffin don’t use the program as a platform to proselytize. But their efforts do fulfill the gospel’s mission to serve and love one another. Both men said they could trace the Lord’s hand even as they have helped others best utilize their mobility.

“There is no question that the Lord loves His children, and He will make sure their lives are blessed,” said Brother Griffin. “We saw miracles every day.”

The men plan to visit with wheelchair recipients in the Dominican Republic next spring. And they hope the program they helped develop can assist wheelchair recipients anywhere in the world to best utilize their newfound mobility.

“[We help] lift their vision to be more, and that’s much more gratifying than just giving them wheelchairs,” said Brother Barney in a BYU–Idaho student newspaper story.