New Information for Disability Specialists Added to LDS.org
By Melissa Merrill, Church News and Events
Julie Brink of Indiana, USA, raised a daughter who is Deaf and served for years as an American Sign Language interpreter in her stake. Elaine Allison of Arizona, USA, had a long career as a public school teacher, where she had both direct and indirect interaction with students with disabilities. She also has a nephew with Down syndrome and close friends who have suffered from multiple sclerosis and ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Neither Sister Brink nor Sister Allison consider themselves “experts” in the realm of disabilities, yet both of them serve as stake disability specialists, a calling for which new information has been added to the Serving in the Church section of LDS.org. (The calling may actually exist at a stake or ward level or, where the need merits it, both.)
Although the calling of ward or stake disability specialist is mentioned briefly in Handbook 2: Administering the Church, some leaders are left wondering what that calling might entail.
“There are situations where ward leaders may not recognize a need or know what to do in response to a particular need when they do recognize it,” said Christopher Phillips, manager of Disability Services for the Church. “There are many situations where a disability specialist might be helpful, but not everyone even realizes this calling exists.
“This new online section of Serving in the Church doesn’t describe in detail everything a person in this calling should do,” he continued, “but it does give ideas and resources so that a person serving in this position can help leaders, teachers, and families with disability-related issues.”
The site defines the role of a disability specialist as helping “facilitate participation and inclusion of Church members with disabilities.” And that—facilitation, or coordination—is something that both Sister Brink and Sister Allison have focused on in their callings.
Sister Brink points out that while it can be intimidating to have this calling without any professional training, she points out that for the most part, in the Church, people aren’t professionally trained in the areas they serve in. So she has relied on her personal experience, a strong testimony of service, and a desire to be compassionate, sensitive, and loving.
And now, with the newly available information about this calling, disability specialists have another resource. The information posted on LDS.org focuses on how specialists can help ward and stake leaders:
- Identify and get to know individuals with disabilities and their families within the ward or stake.
- Include members with disabilities in meetings and activities.
- Respond to disability-related questions and concerns from parents, leaders, and other individuals.
- Identify meaningful opportunities for members with disabilities to serve.
- Identify specific needs of families (including caregiving needs) and, where appropriate, identify community, ward, and stake resources available to assist with those needs.
It’s important to note that the disability specialist isn’t the only one doing these things. Rather, their role is to help other leaders better understand and serve those with disabilities. In addition, the disability specialist also “helps individuals and parents affected by disabilities share information with ward members and leaders in a helpful way.”
Identify and Get to Know Individuals with Disabilities and Their Families
Sister Brink says that ward members getting to know the individual with a disability and his or her family is the best way to know how to help. That is also the best place to start.
Because most stakes include people with a variety of disabilities, she added, it can be overwhelming to try to understand all of the intricacies of each disability. And because what works for one person with a particular disability may not be effective for someone with a similar disability, it’s best to talk to the individuals themselves and their families to find out what works best.
For example, when working with a boy who has autism, a teacher or leader might talk to his parents. “They know better than anyone else what works for him and what doesn’t,” Sister Brink said. “They’ll be able to alert you to major fears their son has that you’ll want to avoid. And they’ll be able to tell you about things he loves. For instance, if he loves dogs, you might be able to incorporate stories or handouts about dogs.”
Include Members with Disabilities in Meetings and Activities
One way to make sure members with disabilities are included is to see that necessary physical accommodations are made. For instance, in Sister Allison’s stake, an ASL-speaking returned missionary taught a 10-week training course for those interested in learning to sign. Several years ago, a bishop notified Sister Allison that one of the members of his ward used a wheelchair and asked the high councilor over facilities whether an automatic door activator could be installed at their meetinghouse. A stake librarian brought to Sister Allison’s attention that the assisted listening devices that the stake owned needed updating.
Of course, physical accommodations, while important, aren’t the only consideration, Sister Brink points out. “It’s not just the physical aspect of [whether or not] we have wheelchair seating,” she said. “There’s an emotional aspect too. If people don’t feel welcomed or included, they’re not going to come.
“I remember a sister who was Deaf,” she said. “Members of her ward sat next to her in sacrament meeting and classes and wrote what was being said. They weren’t given a calling to do that. They just decided that was one way they could help, and several people took turns doing that every week.”
Respond to Disability-Related Questions and Concerns
Because Sister Allison’s responsibility is to help ward and stake leaders respond to disability-related questions and concerns—not always to assume those opportunities herself—she has made herself available as a resource to leadership. This means she provides training for newly called ward disabilities specialists.
“On several occasions I have invited a guest speaker who is knowledgeable and experienced with a particular need either as a caregiver or in his or her career,” Sister Allison said. “The disabilities we have learned about include Down syndrome, autism, and mental illness. We’ve also learned about how to assist those with multiple disabilities.”
Additionally, she meets with ward auxiliary presidencies, at their request, to discuss challenges they are facing within their organizations. On these occasions, she mostly listens, asks some questions, and gives a suggestion or two about what they might try.” She also tries to disseminate information from the Church disability website lds.org/disability to all presidencies so that they are aware of it.
Other opportunities Sister Allison has had to be a resource include presenting at a stake Primary training meeting, speaking at combined priesthood and Relief Society meetings, meeting with bishops or bishopric members, and accompanying high council speakers to sacrament meeting speaking assignments, where she talks about caring for individuals with disabilities in harmony with a variety of assigned gospel topics.
Identify Meaningful Opportunities for Members with Disabilities to Serve
It is important that all members have a calling or assignment regardless of their disability, Sister Brink said. “It’s important that disability specialists and leadership coordinate so that leaders can see that the members with disabilities need something to do and can do something.”
In Arizona, Robert Laney serves as the president of the Gilbert Arizona Stapley Stake, where Sister Allison also serves. He said that one of the things that has happened as Sister Allison has magnified her calling is that those around her have increased their awareness of those with disabilities, and that, in turn, has led to greater opportunities for those with disabilities to serve.
“Sister Allison’s ability to focus on their ability rather than their disability has been a great blessing,” he said. “Her efforts have led to stake and ward leaders—and ward members in general—being more appreciative of the abilities all members of our stake have to contribute. It’s just a matter of recognizing what those abilities are and then magnifying them.”
Identify Specific Needs and Identify Community and Ward Resources to Meet Them
Roger Turner, who serves as the first counselor in the Indianapolis Indiana West Stake presidency, where Sister Brink serves, said that something he learned as a bishop also has application to the role of a disability specialist.
“If I had a couple come to me and tell me that they had serious issues in their marriage, I knew that beyond the spiritual direction I could give them, they may need additional professional help,” he said. “I did know the resources that were available to help them. As I counseled with the couple I could then point them in the direction of professional help that could provide more direct guidance for the family while I continued to work with them where I could in the ward.”
“Similarly, in this calling of a disability specialist, we need individuals who are sensitive to needs and who are aware of resources (or a lack of resources) and who are willing to do a little homework to find out what local resources are available. They may look to find out if there are trained professionals within the stake equipped to respond to a particular need, or they may reach out to the broader community.”
Reaching out is something Sister Allison has found herself doing during the years she has served in this calling.
It’s crucial to be aware of the resources the Church has made available for people with disabilities, Sister Brink added. “There is more and more Church material all the time,” she said. “Tap into those resources. There are manuals and DVDs and websites. Make sure that people are aware of those resources as they teach and learn the gospel.”
Help Those Affected by Disabilities Share Information in a Helpful Way
John and Danyelle Ferguson of Kansas have never had the opportunity to work with a stake or ward disability specialist, but through their own experiences with their son Isaac, who has autism, they have found effective ways to share information with those who teach and lead their son. (These ideas could be adapted for others sharing information about their disabilities or for disability specialists.)
For instance, each year, the Fergusons invite Isaac’s new teachers to their home to share a few ideas that are specific to Isaac’s church attendance “in a simple way” and in a relaxed setting. Guiding the discussion is a letter Sister Ferguson writes ahead of time, which can be shared with the teacher and the organization’s presidency as a reference point and that could be shared with a substitute teacher.
“Before meeting, I write a short letter with key points my son struggles with,” Sister Ferguson explained. “Under each point, I list two or three ways to resolve those issues if they arise. I also include some ideas of things he likes to do during class; for example, he loves to set up the chairs each week.” Other topics that could be included in such a letter include food allergies, behaviors, likes and dislikes at church, strengths and challenges, and contact information.
The meeting—and the letter—are really just a starting point. The Fergusons also make efforts to continue the conversation with teachers and leaders throughout the year to see if they have any additional questions.
Of course, not all individuals or families will know how to start such conversations or will feel comfortable doing so. So one thing that Sister Brink has done to share information is attend a stake council meeting. This has allowed her to share information with leaders and has given them an opportunity to share with her. It also helps the group identify specific needs: for instance, in a unit that has no Deaf members, there is no need to worry about ASL interpretation, while in a ward with a large number of people with disabilities—or a wide variety of them—it may be appropriate to call a ward disability specialist in addition to the person serving in the calling at a stake level.
She also points out that in sharing information, those serving in this calling should not “stir up trouble or be demanding.”
“This is an opportunity to bring up needs and concerns and to help make others’ Church experience better,” she explained. “It’s an opportunity to be eyes and ears in considering the needs of those with disabilities, but we need not raise our concerns in a strong, forceful way.”
The Lord Is Perfectly Aware of Each of His Children
Sister Allison said that she would tell newly called disabilities specialists at both the stake and ward levels that because the new training material is so open—for instance, it does not outline what to do, how many meetings to hold, or which material to use in which situations—the calling is “whatever they make it.”
“I have learned to a fuller extent that the Lord is perfectly aware of each of His children and will let me know what I can do for each one if I but turn to Him and then do my part,” she said.
Sister Brink agrees. “When the Savior said, ‘Feed my lambs’ (John 21:15), He meant all of them—whether they be blind, Deaf, autistic, young, old, single, or married—He meant all. As we serve those with disabilities, we are not taking their challenges away, but we can make them more comfortable and help them along the path.”