Helping the Handicapped


The bishop of a twelve-year-old confined to a wheel chair came to the boy’s home with a measuring tape. Since the young man was not able to walk or carry anything, this sensitive priesthood leader measured his wheelchair and made 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, sometimes we misunderstand, feel ignorant, or have fears. Let’s look at a few of these misconceptions—and at ways to resolve them.

Misconception 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:

The percentage of people with handicaps within the general population is reflected in the Church population. In some areas this can be a substantial number. 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. Blind people, for example, or those in a wheelchair represent only a small percentage. Most people with handicaps look perfectly normal, such as those with learning disabilities, intellectual impairments, communication disorders, hearing impairments, and behavior disorders.

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?

Misconception 2:

Maybe some people don’t attend Church because of their disabilities, but that can’t have a serious impact on the general 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 uncomfortable with the arrangements and stays away from church, a family member is often needed 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 a mental disorder: “Families who have children who become mentally ill lead a lonely life. Mental illness is common, yet the subject is often ignored, neglected, or avoided. Some feel a handicapped person is a disgrace or a punishment to the family.”

“I have found that handicaps are still very much an avoided problem,” says one mother. “Ward members don’t discuss it, and family members are left to deal with their struggles alone. In our experience, we’ve needed to go to organizations outside the Church to find help and guidance.”

A mother of a son with special needs says: “When we moved to a new ward, I called the bishop to see if there was a class for Adam. I called back several times, but no one ever contacted me. My visiting teachers and home teachers began to ask why we weren’t attending. Again we asked if someone could help us with our problem. But as time went on and no one responded, we began to drift away from the Church. My husband and I were divorced, and I began to go to another 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,” General Conference, October 1984.)

Misconception 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.

These good people 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 girls who has severe multiple handicaps. “Teaching a child like Helen has been one of the most challenging and reward callings in my life,” 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.”

Misconception 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 ever asking me about my son’s condition and how I am handling this situation in my life,” says a father. “This is especially 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 or uncaring, 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 by the roadside, why did they cross over to the other side? Perhaps rather than being evil or bad people, 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 give 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.

Misconception 5:

It is difficult to involve people with special needs because there really aren’t that many things they can do.

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 individual for the Church. 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, and 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 more than 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 for people to learn to understand.”

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.

Misconception 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 a Latter-day Saint Scout Training Camp. Our older children joined in the activities and were having a wonderful time. However, our nine-year-old autistic son, Brian, was having a difficult time. 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 at the camp I took a few moments to explain Brian’s disability and share some of the challenges we were facing in rearing him. After that, the sisters began explaining the situation to their families. Within an hour the entire camp had learned about Brian.

Never have I seen such a complete reversal in attitude, nor felt such an outpouring of love and acceptance. It 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 syndrome Scout who also has coordination problems,” says a priesthood leader. “He went with our Scout troop on a hike of about thirty kilometers. After sixteen kilometers, 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, 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 thing I’m good!’ Everyone had tears in their eyes. 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 weaknesses. May we walk in his footsteps and follow his example. May our desire to serve his special children increase. 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 they are leading us to Him!

[illustration] Illustrated by Ondre Pettingill

[photos] Photography by Phil Shurtleff

Carmen Pingree, a member of the Yale Second Ward, Salt Lake Bonneville Stake, and a past member of the Primary General Board, is a member of the Church’s Coordinating Council for Members with Special Needs. For a previous article on Brian Pingree and autistic children, see “So Near and Yet So Far,” Tambuli, March 1984.