Handling Members’ Special Needs


“Come visit our classroom,” the teacher said, smiling. We were fairly new in the ward, and I was attending a Primary open house for parents. I stepped into the room and was immediately intrigued by the absence of chairs.

“This is Michael’s classroom,” his teacher explained. “He is hyperactive, so we’ve adapted our class to his special needs. Each corner of the room is a teaching station. As the lesson progresses, we rotate to a different corner—one corner for the prayer and lesson introduction, the next for a story, the third for an activity, and so forth.”

I was curious and excited. Who was Michael? I had heard of programs for the deaf and for those with intellectual impairments, but never a program to help a person with hyperactivity. It sounded unique.

I learned who Michael was when I visited the class on Sunday. Brown-haired and solemn-faced, Michael alternately stood, sat, and lay down through the entire class session.

“Heavenly Father gave us our hands,” the teacher said, and she told a picture story on a flannel board. During the story, Michael seemed more interested in looking at the walls, getting a drink, and sleeping than in thinking about his hands. Yet he allowed an aide to help him trace his hand on a piece of colored paper to take home with him. As he left the classroom to meet his mother, he was clutching the paper happily to his chest.

For me, Michael was the key to a whole new realm of understanding. I had already met a friendly couple in the ward and their two young sons and had learned that all four family members were blind. And I was impressed with the testimony of a sister whose active Church life had been drastically curtailed by rheumatoid arthritis.

But it was Michael and his mother who added most to my insight. One Sunday in Primary sharing time, Michael’s mother spoke to the children about her son. She told them that in addition to hyperactivity, Michael also had frequent epileptic seizures. She explained what a seizure is and what the teachers and children should do when Michael had a seizure. Then she talked about physical and mental challenges in general. After listing some familiar challenges such as blindness, deafness, and speech problems, she pointed out some not-so-obvious challenges: reading difficulties and several chronic illnesses. Then she asked the children for more ideas.

“Guess what?” my children announced during dinner. “Everybody has a disability. David’s allergic to milk, Shaunda can’t say the letter R, and Erin is allergic to cats!”

I was startled. I had always emphasized that we each have a special talent, but the thought that we each have a disability had never occurred to me. As I mentally reviewed myself, family members, and close friends, I realized that what the children said was true. Then I recalled the verse in Ether: “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; … for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them” (Ether 12:27).

We each have special challenges—just as we each have special talents. Challenges such as those that Michael’s mother and the children mentioned do affect our lives, whether to a greater or lesser degree, but none of them need keep us from experiencing the joy and love found in the gospel.

Some special needs seem obvious: translation facilities for a Spanish-speaking member in an English-speaking ward, signing services for a member who is deaf, braille and audio materials for a member who is blind, ramps for a member in a wheelchair. But often it is meeting the not-so-obvious needs that can make a big difference in helping members feel fully involved.

For example, when we have a class member who is blind, we can avoid using terms such as “over here” and “over there” when referring to maps, charts, or pictures. Instead, we need to verbalize and to involve the senses of hearing and touch whenever possible.

We can allow a member who has only partial sight to closely examine a chart or picture after we’ve shown it to the class. Or we might offer to read scriptures and other literature to a member with visual problems.

We might tape record the Relief Society or priesthood lesson for a member who is homebound, or call and share a thought from a talk.

A member in a wheelchair will appreciate having questions addressed directly to him or her, not to the person pushing the chair.

A member with a hearing impairment appreciates a teacher’s facing the class, not the chalkboard, when speaking. And when a member with a hearing impairment is included in small group conversation, we may consciously address several remarks to that person so he or she doesn’t feel left out of a rapid exchange of ideas.

If we’re not sure that the Scout with cerebral palsy is physically able to participate in the troop hike and campout, we can always ask him, instead of guessing at his abilities. With some modifications and troop assistance, he will probably be able to participate.

Above all, it’s our attitude that will make the biggest difference in helping all members participate fully in the Church and feel a sense of belonging. We can each try to better meet one another’s special needs. In so doing, we will move a little closer to the teachings of the Savior.

[photos] Photography by Matthew Reier

Kathleen Pederson Whitworth is a Relief Society teacher and Webelo den leader in the Ferndale First Ward, Bellingham Washington Stake.