The Hidden Handicap


How can we help members who have learning disabilities?

Early in my marriage when I was expecting our first child, I noticed a particularly unruly boy in sacrament meeting. I watched at first with interest but then with growing annoyance as the boy wiggled, talked loudly, squirmed, and paid no attention to his mother’s ineffectual (and to my mind, inept) attempts to quiet him.

New to the ward, I knew neither the child nor his parents. But I immediately set myself up as judge and jury. “What that child needs,” I thought, “is some good, strict, consistent discipline!” And I determined that my child would never act that way!

Ironically, my own son was born with the same handicapping condition that the “obnoxious” boy at church had—a learning disability called attention deficit hyperactive disorder (A.D.H.D.). * Since then, I have tried desperately to put into practice every good parenting technique gleaned from classes, Church lessons, and well-meaning sisters in Relief Society. But I still struggle with my son’s hyperactivity and social insensitivity—which are due to a probable chemical deficiency in his body, not to voluntary maliciousness.

What Is a Learning Disability?

Learning disabled is a term used since the early 1960s to describe apparently “normal” individuals who have severe difficulty learning. A person with learning disabilities is usually of average or above-average intelligence, but he learns or performs below his potential for reasons other than cultural, social, or economic deprivation. Problems usually occur in the areas of speaking, listening, reading, writing, or mathematics.

A common example of a learning disability is dyslexia. A person with dyslexia has great difficulty reading because of problems he has dealing with symbols. Other people with learning disabilities have trouble with concepts involving time, space, direction, shapes, or mathematical ideas. Still others may not be able to respond orally to a question, even if they know the answer.

Some people with learning disabilities perform well in academic areas but have severe problems socially. This lack of sensitivity to people and social situations “affects almost every aspect of a person’s life and is probably one of the most crippling disabilities,” says Dr. Don Deshler, director of the Institute for Research in Learning Disabilities at the University of Kansas and member of the stake presidency in the Olathe Kansas Stake.

How Does It Feel?

Take a minute to try a simple experiment using a pencil, a mirror, and the block letter illustration printed on this page. Hold the mirror so that you can see the reflection of the illustration. Looking only in the mirror (no cheating!), try to draw a line between the outer and inner outlines of the letters.

How did you do? And how did you feel? Frustrated? Awkward? Embarrassed? You now have an inkling of what it may be like to try to learn with a learning disability.

Now imagine that you were trying to do it while your peers laughed at you and called you stupid. Can you see why many with learning disabilities have low self-esteem and behavior problems in settings where learning is expected to take place?

The “Hidden Handicap”

Learning disabilities come in such a variety of packages—a person may have few or many characteristics in any combination—that they are difficult to diagnose. And just because someone has one or more of the symptoms does not mean he has a learning disability.

The bottom line in determining if a learning disability exists is that the central nervous system has some type of disorder in its ability to process information, handicapping the person’s ability to learn. The cause of these disabilities is a matter of theory and debate. Although some people respond well to remedial instruction and a few can benefit from certain medications, there is no known cure.

Since learning disabilities are difficult to diagnose, they are often referred to as the “hidden handicap.” When a handicap is obvious, people tend to rally around with support and assistance. But help is not often given when no handicap is perceived.

Misunderstandings about learning disabilities often cause observers to misjudge and mistreat individuals with learning disorders. Rather than being sensitive and accommodating, they may be harshly critical.

Jimmy, a bright, likeable child who has A.D.H.D., is a case in point. Sitting still for three hours of meetings is difficult for most children, but for a child with Jimmy’s condition it is impossible.

Once when he was six, Jimmy was having a hard time being quiet in sacrament meeting. A big man behind him leaned forward and whispered gruffly, “If you don’t sit still I’ll chop your arms off!”

Jimmy tried desperately for about two minutes to sit quietly, but realizing he simply couldn’t do it, he turned to his mother and sadly said, “Just tell him to go ahead and get it over with.”

His mother says, “While most people are understanding, some have said things like, ‘People who can’t control their children shouldn’t bring them to church!’ They imply that the reason Jimmy behaves that way is because we don’t discipline him.”

A Family Matter

According to Dr. Deshler, “The subtle and complex difficulties associated with a learning disability can affect virtually all aspects of a child’s and family’s life. The child’s learning and emotional growth at home and at school—and the very health of the family system—may be affected by the learning disability. Problems created by the learning disability can be a major source of conflict between parent and child. Parents who do not fully understand the condition may attribute their child’s behavior to stubbornness, willfulness, laziness, lack of ability, or other failures. And the confusion and frustration the parents experience can lead them to blame themselves as poor parents.”

All of a stake president’s children—but one—were high achievers and model teenagers. The exception was a son who had trouble in school and participated in many rebellious behaviors, such as drug abuse. It wasn’t until the boy had completed high school that he was diagnosed as having severe learning disabilities! Fortunately, he is now attending a university with a fine program for students with learning disabilities and is doing much better. But his father laments that so much time was lost—that the diagnosis that could have brought understanding and solutions much earlier came so late.

Adults With Learning Disabilities

“Most learning disabilities,” says Dr. Deshler, “remain with an individual over time and are not ‘grown out of.’ However, the way a disability is manifest may change as a person grows older. For example, a child’s inability to sit still in a seat may be manifest later on as a continually wandering mind.”

Frances J. Wright, Ed.D., of Murray, Utah, has struggled with learning disabilities throughout her life. Although she has an I.Q. of 140, Frances had difficulty learning to read as a child. She has an auditory disability that makes it difficult to process sounds fast and accurately. She also has an auditory discrimination problem that causes her to confuse similar sounds, particularly in a noisy environment. She frequently finds herself in awkward social situations because her responses—based on what she thinks she heard rather than on what is actually said—seem strange and inappropriate. “I honestly thought I was crazy when I was a child,” she says, “because I could think of no other explanation for my social blunders.”

Although Frances has a doctorate degree in educational psychology and is a successful teacher, her learning disabilities continue to cause problems for her. She sometimes has difficulty following scriptures when they are read aloud, even if she is following along in her book. “And you can imagine what ward members think when a family with small children sits next to me and I get up and move,” she says. “I try to sit alone because any noise around me makes it very difficult for me to understand the speakers. I tend to be a front-row seeker because there, I can see the teacher well enough to read his lips, but it isn’t always possible to sit there.”

Sadly, when problems such as these are not handled sensitively, they may contribute to an individual’s becoming less active in the Church. Some adults struggle with their feelings about the Church because they are unable to pray in public or read from the scriptures.

How Can Members, Teachers, and Leaders Help?

All of the following suggestions relate to both males and females with learning disabilities:

  • Love—don’t judge—him

    As the Savior admonished, we must avoid judging unrighteously and be more understanding and loving. Learn about the person’s disabilities so you won’t embarrass, offend, or place unjust expectations on him. Not every unruly child is a product of lax discipline, and not everyone who refuses to read or pray in public lacks a testimony!

  • Accept him

    Recognize that people with learning disabilities are much more like than unlike everybody else. Include them as part of the group and give them opportunities to serve.

  • Give personal time and attention

    If a young man who has difficulty reading is to officiate at the sacrament table, work individually with him to help him memorize the sacrament prayer so he won’t be embarrassed by reading in public.

    “One teacher became almost like a grandmother to my son,” says a mother. “Instead of condemning him, she tried in many ways to help him. She would sit by him in Sharing Time with her purse full of things to keep him occupied.”

  • Work together

    Meet with the person or his parents and discuss problems and accommodations that could be made. Be very sensitive—some have not yet accepted their own disability.

    “It needs to be a team effort,” says Gladys Tucker, a mother of four children with learning disabilities and project director of the University Bound Learning Disabled Student Transition Project at the University of Utah. “Parents should not be embarrassed to let ward leaders and teachers know about their child’s problems and strengths. And teachers must work very closely with the parents.”

  • Modify the program when necessary

    In certain instances, you may need to modify programs or assignments in order to accommodate a person’s limitations. For instance, some Scouting requirements might need to be altered to fit individual circumstances. One mother told me that her son’s Scoutmaster insisted that everything be done in one and only one way. When her boy simply could not meet such rigid requirements, he stopped going to Scouts—and wouldn’t go back.

    It isn’t easy to achieve the proper balance so that an individual’s full potential is realized while adjustments are made. But the improvement in his self-esteem makes it well worth the effort.

  • Decrease class size when possible

    With smaller classes, teachers are more able to be sensitive to individual needs. One mother tells how grateful she was that her ward leaders were “very understanding and arranged a class with only three children in it. It was very helpful.”

  • Keep him involved

    Interact with everyone in your class, not just with those who always know the right answers and who act appropriately. Give a hyperactive child chances to get out of his chair and move about. Let him help you pass out papers or hold pictures.

  • Give him advance notice

    “If a child who knows he can’t read well is called on to read a scripture or a quote in class,” says Sister Tucker, “he will probably act out in some inappropriate way rather than have to admit he can’t do it. Acting out is a way of saving face.”

    To alleviate this problem, she says, “I asked new teachers not to call on my daughter to read in class without giving us advance notice so that she could practice at home. And I asked them to try to include her in other types of participation.”

  • Invite others to teach children with learning disabilities

    “You often see parents called to teach their own children in Primary because no one else wants to cope with the child,” says Sister Tucker. “But other people need to interact with these children to be able to know and understand them. Besides, the parent needs some relief from the struggle of coping with the problem.”

    A group of leaders was discussing who would chaperon the ward youth on an outing. Someone said to the mother of a child with learning disabilities, “You are the one who should go because your child causes the biggest problems!” The mother was deeply hurt and embarrassed by the thoughtless remark. Her son, of course, did not act that way deliberately.

  • Use a variety of methods in the classroom

    Try role playing and modeling. Use visual aids, audio- and videocassettes, and class discussion. No single method is equally effective for all students—even those without disabilities. Everyone benefits from a variety of teaching techniques.

  • Present information clearly

    Frances Wright suggests ways members and teachers can be more helpful to those with learning disabilities: “Speakers should not be afraid of the microphone but speak directly and distinctly into it. Teachers should not turn their backs to the class when speaking, and they should write major points on the chalkboard. Whenever possible, teachers and leaders should duplicate directions and assignments both verbally and visually so that those with either type of learning disability will have a chance to understand. Most important, parents should take crying children out of the meeting since such disruptions make it impossible to hear what is going on.”

  • When appropriate, use special materials

    Recorded Church manuals, handbooks, scriptures, hymnbooks, and other materials are available through Church distribution centers for those who have trouble reading print. Also available are materials designed specifically to teach nonreaders or beginning readers and a workbook and cassettes designed to help teachers and leaders work with handicapped members. Refer to the distribution center catalog in your meetinghouse library, or write Church Special Curriculum, 50 East North Temple Street, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150, telephone 801-240-2477.

    For further information on learning disabilities, contact the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDAA) at 4156 Library Road, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15234, telephone 412-341-1515.

  • Emphasize strengths, not weaknesses

    Perhaps the most important way to help a person with learning disabilities is to emphasize his strengths rather than his weaknesses—and to plan lessons and programs accordingly. Include opportunities for him to demonstrate his strengths and avoid situations where his weaknesses would predispose him to failure.

    Danny Booher of Renton, Washington, struggles with dyslexia and has trouble reading and writing. But he is a real outdoorsman. When he was a young Scout living in Texas, his Scoutmaster, Mike Spears, put him in charge of food for the group during a nature hike. Danny treated the group to a feast by procuring a chicken and skinning and preparing it and by getting crawdads and mussels from the lake. The boys were impressed by his ability to live off the land.

    Later on, Danny was having a difficult time writing letters and reports for a citizenship merit badge. Mike worked one-on-one with Danny. Although Danny had to do the writing himself, Mike was there to help him with difficult words and phrases as problems occurred. Because of hard work and diligence on the part of both, Danny became an Eagle Scout. He later served a mission.

Strength from the Lord

Many individuals with learning disabilities are demonstrating tremendous courage and determination in the face of almost overwhelming obstacles. With the help of the Lord, they are learning to turn their weaknesses into strengths. (See Ether 12:27.)

Alison Tucker has struggled with visual and auditory perception problems all her life. Her difficulty with language was so great that some thought it would be impossible for her to learn a foreign language. But Alison felt strongly that the Lord wanted her to serve a mission in South America. When she received a call to serve in Brazil, she was determined to succeed. The Missionary Training Center experience was very difficult for her, but with her determination and with help from the staff, she did learn to speak Portuguese and is now serving in Brazil. “She knows she is where the Lord wants her to be,” says her mother. “It takes faith and trust in the Lord for so many things.”

The Lord could remove any obstacle, impediment, or handicap from our lives. But because of the need to test our mettle in adversity, he will often allow the problems of mortality to persist. But he will always strengthen us according to our faith and trust in him.

Understanding and meeting the challenges of disabilities can be the Lord’s way of teaching valuable lessons—not only to individuals and their families, but also to other members of the Church.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Cary Henrie

Laurie Wilson Thornton is Gospel Doctrine teacher in the West Bountiful Fourth Ward, West Bountiful Utah Stake.

Show References

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    There is currently controversy among experts about classifying A.D.H.D. as a learning disability.