How Inclusive Is the Church towards Disabled People?

By: Jake
August 16, 2012


Next week it is the start of the Paralympics. It is encouraging that the Olympic events for less-able bodied people is gaining appreciation and attention from society. In the UK it will be given full national coverage on TV. It is evidence that as a society we are starting to view people who may not have the perfect or fully functioning body as equals and valuable contributors.

As I thought of this I wondered how we as a church are in our treatment of disabled people?  Do we view them as equals to able bodied members?

In the Childrens song “I’ll Walk with You” it says:

If you don’t walk as most people do,
Some people walk away from you,
But I won’t! I won’t!

If you don’t talk as most people do,
Some people talk and laugh at you,
But I won’t! I won’t!

I’ll walk with you. I’ll talk with you.
That’s how I’ll show my love for you.

This is a lovely message about the need to include and walk with those that are different. It does seem to me that children are less discriminating than adults. Very young children often don’t take into consideration gender, racial and social differences between each other.  Jesus himself taught that we should love all equally. This Primary song clearly teaches this message that those who are different should be included, not just those that are like us. The church certainly preaches that we should not discriminate against those that are different. As Elder Jensen said regarding those that are different in an Ensign from August 2010:

Even when they are worthy, members whose lives don’t fit the ideal and thus are considered different often feel inferior and guilty. These feelings are heightened when we as their brothers and sisters fail to be as thoughtful and sensitive toward them as we ought to be. Consider, for instance, the unintended impact on a childless married couple when a member of the ward asks them when they are going to have children, not realizing that they have wanted to have children for a long time but have been unable to do so.

Looking through the church website it is clear that the church is making a more active effort to include those that are disabled. In a section for leaders it says the following on the matter:

  • Seek ways to help the individuals with disabilities feel loved, accepted, and included. Search for and consider their needs and the needs of their families
  • Seek to understand an individual’s needs with sensitivity and compassion before offering to help. Foster a relationship of trust.

In particular it says that in a FAQ section on disability the following:

Q: Under what conditions can a young woman with a disability attend Young Women camp? Under what conditions can a young man with a disability attend Scout camp?

A: Often youth can participate successfully in camp with minor program modifications. Individual needs and safety issues should be taken into account. A ward or stake may temporarily call an adult to be a companion to the youth during the camp.

It seems clear to me from this statements that the church does not endorse discrimination of the disabled.  However, the reality for many who are disabled sadly sometimes falls short of this.  Two recent experiences really highlighted the fact that despite having an official rhetoric of non-discrimination the less able members of the church are not treated as equals and often discriminated against.

Stopping the the girl with Downs Syndrome from attending camp.


My cousin has Downs Syndrome. Just over a year ago she turned twelve and became a young woman.  She has loved the experience of Young Women. Every Tuesday she gets dressed ready and sits at the window waiting for the Young Women’s leader who comes to pick her up.  Most weeks my cousin has a wonderful time at mutual. Last year she even went to the Young Women’s camp.  She didn’t want  to stay the night so her leaders at the time drove her home each night and picked her up the next morning so that she could attend.

This year it was different. My aunt sent the application for camp and my cousin was looking forward to attending, that was until the Stake Young Woman’s president phoned my aunt to say that my cousin could not attend because she was a health and safety hazard.  Eventually they agreed that she could go if she was accompanied.  Unfortunately the week of the camp, my cousin’s family were unable to attend camp with her because of work commitments, but her ward Young Women’s leader agreed that she would go with her. This was deemed not good enough by the Stake leaders; they responded that it had to be a member of the family who attended with her as they could not be accountable for her actions, and she presented a significant health and safety risk so they could not take her.

Despite the willingness of ward leaders who were exceptional in their inclusion of her, stake leaders refused to let her attend. The sadness is that the stake leaders changed their standards from simply being accompanied to being accompanied by a family member. To change these standards seems like discrimination intended so that they could have justification for not taking a Downs Syndrome girl to camp, even one who previously attended with no problem, who attends a normal school every day without a family member, one who goes to mutual every week with her leader.  She routinely spends most of her week with people who are not members of her family, so why should she be required to have a family member present at camp when a ward YW leader offered to be her companion?  Why could they not make the effort to include her?  Further, in labelling her “a health and safety risk,” they dehumanised her; she is not a dangerous object, but a girl.  These leaders not only failed to make her feel loved and included, but they did not handle it with any sensitivity or compassion for her parents. Whilst the attitude of her local leaders was wonderful, all their efforts were tragically undone by uncaring stake leaders.

Hiding the Epileptic

Of course my cousin is just one girl. It is just one anecdotal experience and could not be representative of institutional discrimination at all.  Except that I have seen it even closer with attitudes of members towards my Father who was diagnosed as epileptic twenty five years ago. For my entire life I have only known him as epileptic. For most of this time my dad has had a normal life. He was a very successful graphic designer working for a studio in London; during this period he very rarely had epileptic fits. He functioned as normally as anyone else. He even started his own business and helped to market a product from startup to making a multi-million pound profit product. My father was not only successful in his business but he also enjoyed several prominent church positions.  He served as a Branch President, a Bishop, Young Men’s President and a High Councillor.

Things all changed about six years ago when through an unfortunate combination of events my Dad lost his business, and we had to move to a new area. Since moving, his health also declined, and he has had more frequent epileptic fits. This has been a real challenge for my dad, as the doctors declared him disabled and told him that he probably will never be able to work again. In a strange coincidence, since moving to this new area my dad has never held a visible leadership position; his most recent callings have been primary music conductor and janitor.  In England where members are more sparse, callings are more common. In my short lifespan I have been on Elders Quorum presidency twice, adult Sunday School teacher twice, youth Sunday School teacher twice and been in the Young Men’s presidency. It is very noticeable when you are not given a calling because there are always more opportunities to serve than people to fill callings.  Watching my dad, it has been apparent that perceptions of his ability to serve decreased in proportion to his disability, and the status of his callings has declined during that same time.  Although we all say there is no hierarchy of callings, we all know there really is one.

Now I don’t think that anyone consciously intends to discriminate against disabled people, at least I hope that they don’t. Yet, people often do it unwittingly.  I’m sure that many thought that they were helping my father by giving him less demanding callings and responsibilities, that they thought that it was an act of kindness.  As my father said to me, “I will never be considered for any visible role in the church, because they can not look past my condition. I can see it in their eyes when they talk to me that they don’t consider me their equal.”  I don’t think they realised the impact that this had on him.  Already struggling with feelings of failure because he can no longer work, he sees his diminished callings as a failure in church as well.

Disability and the problem of suffering

People everywhere struggle to handle disability. It does not fit easily into any of the prefigured narratives of the church. Some even assume that people are disabled or afflicted because they deserve it or are less faithful.  The righteous after all are blessed by God with good health, clean teeth and a pay check the size of Mitt Romney’s.  If you have ill health and you are not wealthy then it is an indication that perhaps you are less righteous. Of course there are statements to the contrary by the leaders such as President Boyd K. Packer who noted:

“There is little room for feelings of guilt in connection with handicaps. Some handicaps may result from carelessness or abuse, and some through addiction of parents. But most of them do not. Afflictions come to the innocent” (“The Moving of the Water,” Ensign, May 1991, 8).

And Elder Nelson who said that:

“For reasons usually unknown, some people are born with physical limitations. Specific parts of the body may be abnormal. Regulatory systems may be out of balance. And all of our bodies are subject to disease and death.” (Russell M. Nelson, “We Are Children of God,” Liahona, Jan. 1999, 103; Ensign, Nov. 1998, 85, 86)

Even when people are able to get past the link between poor bodily condition and righteousness they still refuse to accept disabled people as equals. This is manifest through well meaning statements such as “I hope your father gets better soon,” “We are praying for him to recover,” and “Is your cousin improving?” As well intentioned as these sentiments are they reveal that some people think that if only we had more faith and prayers they will be healed. I’m sorry to say that no amount of prayers, save a dramatic miracle, will make them better. They are disabled and will be for this entire mortal life.  That’s okay.  That is just the way life is.

The problem of evil and suffering is possibly the hardest theological issue to deal with. We want to proscribe meaning to the suffering – it must be a punishment from God, the result of sin from either the individual or the parent, or it is a planned test given to us from God.  Most suffering is the product of a natural world full of inequality and injustice.  Not all suffering is God giving us a test or a challenge; the idea that God intentionally made my cousin have Downs Syndrome in order to test her and family is repugnant to me. What kind of reward is it to be given Downs Syndrome for being a extra valiant spirit?

Although many of us struggle to deal with difference and difficulties, these experiences have taught me that we do not know how to respond to the challenges of life that are ugly and don’t have a neat  and tidy solution, and that despite a vocal anti-discriminatory policy by the church underneath this there still remains discrimination. Just as despite the fact that the church claims it is not racist and does not endorse racism, the Apostleship and Seventies still seem remarkably white to me.  Just as the Brethren keep claiming that women are treated as equals, yet it still pains me that I never hear women quoted in sacrament, or women in actual positions of leadership in the church.  Just as feminists, critics and anyone outside of the ideal narrative of the church are treated differently. It is sad that the truth is that if you don’t walk and talk like most members do some members will not walk and talk with you.


  • How do you make sense of disability?
  • How can we be more inclusive towards less able individuals?
  • Should disabled people be given less demanding callings?
  • How do you balance personal capability and a church calling without being condescending?

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28 Responses to How Inclusive Is the Church towards Disabled People?

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 16, 2012 at 4:08 PM

    Wow. She attends school and has already been to camp. Bless your heart.

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  2. Rigel Hawthorne on August 16, 2012 at 6:42 PM

    I just read the current Church News that had a story on the lines of this topic about a young men’s camping trip that was designed around including a young man with cerebral palsy. This article was inspiring and optimistic, but it is focused on the familial network possible with a ward family as opposed to the less intimate nature that comes with the duties of being a stake leader.

    On the other hand, I have also seen very loving and outgoing members that have gone beyond the extra mile in providing inclusive service to disabled members and there families only to get burned by accusations of one type or another. And most of the time these members turned the other cheek and acknowledged that living with a disability or a disabled family member is bound to cause stressful moments and reactions. There are two sides to every story, so I’m not saying these member did things perfectly, but they gave it their very best honest effort.

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  3. ji on August 16, 2012 at 6:53 PM

    There isn’t any Church problem here, just maybe a human problem.

    I want to be sympathetic somewhat to Young Women camp organizers. They assume a personal liability when they serve and magnify their callings, and they can be sued as individuals if problems arise. We cannot force anyone to accept this liability, and it is okay with me if a YW camp director or a Scoutmaster or someone else declines to assume the liability that comes with acting in loco parentis, so to speak, to someone else’s child. I hope they will stretch as far as they can, but I have no right to DEMAND that my ward’s Scoutmaster take responsibility for my son on a campout — rather, I have to work with him at his comfort level maybe with some hope that he will be more accommodating as time goes by. With the example in the original posting, we only know what is written there but I hope there was some rationale basis for the YW camp director’s decision.

    These things happen outside the Church, too. This isn’t a Church problem.

    Unlike your father, I’m not disabled, but like your father, I also know that I’ll never be considered for any high office. He has had a great church career! We’re human, in the Church and outside, too, and we are judged by appearances. This isn’t a Church problem.

    The Church is a wonderful place, filled with humans who are trying, albeit sometimes slowly and certainly imperfectly, to do better. Maybe some Church members won’t walk with you, but others will. And those who won’t today, might tomorrow. In the meantime, you can walk with your father.

    How do you make sense of disability?
    I don’t try to pretend that I know the reasons that some are ___ and others are ___. All I know, and most firmly believe, is that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient for all of us and the all things work together for good for those who love the Lord.

    How can we be more inclusive towards less able individuals?
    By learning and seeking and asking and helping.

    Should disabled people be given less demanding callings?
    Sometimes, yes. A person should not run faster than he or she is able.

    How do you balance personal capability and a church calling without being condescending?
    There is no real relationship between personal capability and church calling. Many men and women in the church serve FAR below their capabilities. Unfortunately, while God is not a respecter of persons, sometimes Church members appear so to be. Your father is sad that he no longer holds a meaningful calling, but many men who never hold a meaningful calling will yet be saved in the celestial kingdom of our God.

    May God continue to bless your father and your cousin, and all the Saints in your area.

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  4. Bonnie on August 16, 2012 at 10:50 PM

    This is a critically important piece, Jake. I really enjoyed reading it. Kristine Haglund wrote a piece a few months ago that profoundly resonated with me along these lines. It is difficult and ugly for us to deal with the discomfort we feel with one another, even more minor discomforts like your father’s epilepsy. My heart is big for people who suffer and who love those who suffer, and I still find myself being overly aware of the differences between myself and someone else, and that comes out as diminishing as well. I want to kick myself sometimes for not just being normal about tough situations.

    One of the most important things we do with one another is to ask things of each other – to lean on those who might seem they need help and to treat them as someone to give. I can’t find a reason for the stake YW leader to have excluded your cousin from camp, but I’m kind of hard on leaders, I think, expecting them to self-sacrifice and dig deep to serve in probably unfair ways. Thank heavens we can ask our disabled members to forgive too. And maybe we can all become more aware of our own sensitivities.

    My nephew deals with autism, and just learning about the condition helps me be more sensitive to his not cluing in to facial and voice cues, helping him find structure, and treating him differently in ways that make his life more structured and manageable. It’s a learning experience I expect to continue to have. Thanks for the eye-opening look into your family’s life.

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  5. forgetting.son on August 16, 2012 at 10:52 PM

    I am, from how I understand it, a lurker.  I think this time around, rather than watching my brothers and sisters action and reactions to each other (the main reason I read lds blogs, consider it part of my education and an informal study all rolled into one), I will add my thoughts on this post. It struck a deep chord with me, and I hope that what is floating around inside my head can help others be more understanding. 

    I had to re-write this a few times.  I wanted to make sure that I was fair and did not provoke anyone.  I respectfully have to disagree.  I do see it as a problem for the Church.  I think any behavior that is less inclusive, or even exclusive, of our sisters and brothers is a problem for the Church.  It has become more and more obvious that the Brethren are concerned about retention/activity rates; “no” before anyone tries to pin on me meaning I am not stating, I do not believe that this issue is the only reason we are struggling as a Church family right now, but I see this behavior as symptomatic of deeper problems we have been asked to tackle.  I am speaking of empathy, compassionate understanding, agape, or “that which never faileth”  - charity.  It has been my experience that [We] as sisters and brothers, and members of the Body of Christ are very good at expressing sympathy, and very poor at expressing empathy.  We however often think they are interchangeable, and this is not true.  Sympathy, when used in situations that require empathy, can be harmful, and even give a “false” projection of a “perception of falsehood.”  Meaning, that we really are being honest and sincere, we really do care, but we are using the wrong tool.  

    It is nearly impossible for someone who drives everywhere and relies on independent vehicular transportation to accomplish their daily tasks and duties to understand, and I mean truly understand, that for me, my own two feet are good enough.  I will use this one statement to frame my experiences in the Church.  It is overly simple, but it will be more effective this way.  It is difficult to convey concisely the huge struggle I have had for the last decade and a half, because it really isn’t as simple as just not driving, and it never is.  There are thousands of other factors at play, and always will be, so you can fill in the gaps.  It is a good exercise in empathy.

    Like the author’s father, I have seizures.  It is not true epilepsy, in fact, the doctors still have not been able to identify their original causes, and I have had more tests and procedures than I even like to remember.  They started on my mission, and back then they were not able to completely understand what was going on.  In fact, I was not originally identified as having seizures.  Later, as they progressed in seriousness and frequency, the doctors were able to semi-diagnose my situation, and work out a somewhat effective treatment plan.  They can be, and have been in the past, life threatening.  It took time, but a wonderfully patient and loving wife and I have learned ways to have functioning, happy, and productive lives.  I think this is what most people with disabilities really struggle with: finding ways to live functioning, happy, productive lives.  What I saw in support groups were not people bemoaning their changed lives, although that is a stage many experience, but brothers and sisters working out the best ways to just live.  Before I had my life turned upside down I am not sure I could have empathized really with some of the deeply personal struggles we as humans have.  There are only two things I find I “can’t” really do (nor would I now, even if I had a choice): I can’t drive and ride a bike.  There is something about big, heavy, fast moving objects that does not mix well with seizures.  Everything else in my life I can do.  Sure there have been changes to the structure of our lives, because it does affect my wife; as for the rest, we Live.  We live Happy.  Happy, and very willing to serve.

    It was asked should disabled people be given less demanding callings.  I would ask in response, “Who are you to say our life is less?” and that is what is being asked if true empathy is not present when this is even being discussed.  Like I said, it is nearly impossible for someone who drives everywhere to understand that there is a whole segment of the population that walk, or use public transportation, and we are fully functioning members of society.  Mine is only one of an infinite list of examples.   A disability does not mean we are less and by our nature will do less.  That is not for you to decide.  Ask us.  Ask us if we can do this calling, if we genuinely can’t, we will say no.  Ask us though.  We want the challenges that service offers.  I can’t think of any calling I could not, or would not do, if I was asked.  It might be more of a sacrifice, it really does take me longer to get about town doing tasks, but let me choose what in my life I will give up in order to make more time to serve the Lord.  I really feel in my heart that the Lord makes us all Supermen (cough, and Superwomen) when we serve.  Our weaknesses are there to make us strong, so let us be strong too.

    It is hard, because as I write this I have had many years of people deciding that I just couldn’t do what the Lord would ask me to do, because I can’t drive (remember the oversimplification).  Before I was labeled disabled I was called to some of my dream callings.  I was able to serve as ward mission leader, (best job ever, right next to being a home teacher), seminary teacher (the other best job), EQ instructor, member of the EQ presidency a couple of times.  All of this in a handful of years and a couple of wards.  After the label, there have been times I have been calling-less, even without a home teaching assignment.  It was not from lack of showing (and telling) my willingness.  It took some little time, but I just started showing up for anything that the Church needed help with.  Chapel cleaning, service at a cannery, nursery for RS functions.  Anything that was asked and anything I could sniff out.  I even call the Elders all the time, begging yes begging) to be put to work.  I didn’t care if it was teaching appointments or tracting.  It was my way of trying to tell the ward/world I can do anything that is asked.  It used to really hurt.  I really love serving, and I have so much gratitude to the Lord for His mercy, how could I not want to serve, but someone decided I was less, so I did “less.”  I was even told once that despite my willingness to help at a scout camp, and despite their desperate need for adults, I could not help.  I could not drive, still not sure how that effects my ability to sleep in a tent and make sure we didn’t start a forest fire.  I was also told they were not certain I would not pose a safety risk in the event of an emergency (not sure what that really translates into…)  The next week they asked again for help in priesthood opening.  So much for feeling needed.  

    It is a problem in the/for the Church, because of there will always be a “one” and there will always be the “ninety-and nine.”  There are infinite reasons why there are “ones” but it is most important to remember that we are all “ones” and we are all part of the fold.  I find it somewhat concerning that we are so sure of our hard earned knowledge of good and evil that we will put our trust in it rather than in the Lord.   I think it is important to remember that both the knowledges of good and evil came from a corrupt tree, and unlike charity, will fail.  This is why it is a problem for the Church, we should rise above societies’ level, and yet I have experienced more Empathy outside of the Church, more compassion, and more being treated as an equal.  All outside of the Church.  Lots of sympathy inside.  Lots and lots of misplaced sympathy and pity.  Lots of prayers that I would be healed (I am fine how I am, even with my weaknesses thank you very much, since I know He will make them Strong) Yes, I even have been made aware by my own ear, and that of gossip, that I must have some huge guilt and sins to be burdening my should down enough to affect my health.   As Christians, more is expected of us and yet we often fail where we are needed most: in compassion.  It is because we have all partaken of this corrupt fruit.  We make judgements, and feel they are good and true and just, and yet, without compassion we often are hurting those that need agape the most.  

    It isn’t just about not being able to driving anymore.  About two years ago, I was directed by the Lord, through answers to prayers, to stop the treatment course outlined by my doctors.  I was to do it the way the Lord knew would be best for me.  I stopped everything else and started medical cannabis. There are pages and pages I could write about that path and the struggle it has been.  Most hurtful though has been the reactions of my sisters and brothers inside the Church.  Very enlightening.  In general my priesthood leaders are supportive.  I know I will never have a calling now, but then again I wasn’t having them before, so at least that hasn’t changed.  What hurts in my heart is the reaction of the 99.  It can make you lonely.  One Bishop even told me not tell anyone in the ward.  Well I wasn’t going to anyways, I learned that early on, but it still hurts to hear that you sisters and brothers just wouldn’t be able to have empathy.  In juxtaposition to their reactions, is my own changes and growth.  It worked exactly as He told me it would.  I have lost 100 pounds (yes even guys that rely on their own legs for locomotion can gain weight), I am more active than I have ever been, I don’t walk around feeling like my head is wrapped in gauze, I have a strong desire to be even more active in my communities.  I have not had a seizure since, not even a hint or an echo.  Above all else, I can feel the Spirit again.  a decade and a half of struggling to feel the Spirit, to hear the Voice of the Lord, and it came back as soon as i stopped the patent medicine.  Still no children, but that doesn’t hurt as much, it will always be ok in the end.  Isn’t that what the Atonement is for?

    So, the next time you think in you heart, even without meaning to, or with the best intentions in mind, using what you think is solid judgement based on your knowledge of good and evil, that someone with a disability is less, stop.  Stop right there and think.  We are all choice children of Heavenly Parents.  Within each of us burns a fire and spirit so amazing it is infinite and eternal.  It is Divine.  We are not less, we are not more.  We Are.  

    I feel awkward, since I can only speak to my own experiences, but I do want to close to addressing the issue of camp and our young sister with Downs.  My heart was sadden, and I hope it will turn out otherwise and she will get to experience to joy of camping with sisters and bonding and growing.  All of the “ones” are cared for by the Shepard.  Should we be doing less?  After all:  She Is.

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  6. hawkgrrrl on August 17, 2012 at 12:33 AM

    This is a very important problem to highlight. People are often very ignorant of disability, both in and outside the church.

    On the TV show Glee, they made a groundbreaking choice in how the character Becky (Downs Syndrome) was portrayed. In the show she is hand-picked by the nefarious Sue Sylvester (whose beloved sister also had Downs) to join the cheer squad because Sue wants to treat her the same as everyone else. Becky quickly learns how to handle things Sue’s way, and she rises all the way to head cheerleader. What was great about this was that Becky wasn’t portrayed as “nice” all the time, as someone to be protected, or as a child. She wasn’t a victim. She wasn’t treated any differently because of her disability. In fact, when the Glee teacher tells Sue she should go easy on Becky, Sue says that’s the last thing Becky would want – to be treated differently – and that Will was stereotyping disabled people.

    When people know more people with disabilities and know how capable they are, they learn to give them more responsibility, not less. Sympathy may be well-intentioned, but it’s also superficial and really only makes US feel better, not the other person.

    When I first read the story about Jake’s father I thought maybe the lack of callings was due to being in a new ward (which often happens too – people trust the ones they know, not the newcomers). Maybe that is so. Of course, many members feel that they are eventually “put out to pasture” when they reach a certain age. It’s unfortunate.

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  7. Jake on August 17, 2012 at 5:34 AM

    Rigel Hawthorn,

    I read that article in Church News as well after I wrote this. It is a wonderful story, but surely stories like that should be so common that they are not newsworthy? Surely we should be doing things like that all the time and we shouldn’t need a church PR department to advertise times when we express basic human decentness to others.


    I like to assume that people are doing their best. In this instance I think the problem was that they automatically looked at the label ‘Downs Syndrome’ and made a whole series of ill informed judgements on that and did not look at her as an individual. It was misunderstanding that came from not actually considering her and her needs and relationship with local leaders. This is a too common problem that less-able bodied people are defined almost entirely by their disability. Perhaps, if people took the time to get to know them they would realise there is more to them then their disability.

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  8. Jake on August 17, 2012 at 5:45 AM


    Thank you ever so much for commenting. It is a valuable contribution. I think you raise some very important points on this issue.

    The distinction between empathy and sympathy is a crucial one. Sympathy will always have an element of condescension to it, even if it is expressed with the utmost sincerity. Empathy as you say is what is needed, for people to actually try and imagine what it is like to be in their situation. They don’t need you to feel sorry for them, but simply to consider them as equals and with different challenges to us. As Hawkgrrl said sympathy is more about making us feel better then the other.

    The other thought that made me think is that there seems to be a need for a car for callings. It is interesting that any form of leadership is dependant upon driving and financial ability. There are bishops, stake presidents and mission presidents who are not wealthy and can’t drive. But they are very small minority. If you can’t drive then automatically you are not considered for callings because you can’t drive. If like epilepsy sufferers, or people who have seizures such as yourself, are not considered for callings on this basis then it is discrimination. We should be doing all we can to make every calling as exclusive for others. I wonder does anyone know of a bishop or stake president who was disabled? I can’t think of any.

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  9. Jake on August 17, 2012 at 5:53 AM


    Kudos for bringing in Glee. I love that story though as they should not be treated differently to others. Positive discrimination is still a form of discrimination.

    The lack of callings due to moving I do think was a factor in this. Because upon moving they did not know about his past capabilities, his ecclesiastical service and business success was not part of their memory, as they did in the previous ward. As a result they focused on his disability as the defining characteristic of him – without getting to know him and his past successes they did not know his capabilities so they assumed he was less capable on the basis of the label.

    The solution is simply to actually get to know people with disability and to not be blinded by the labels and associations that they have. As Bonnie said learning about the condition is far more useful then offering sympathy to them.

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  10. Paul on August 17, 2012 at 7:58 AM

    Jake in your comment #9, I think you hit the nail on the head. When our understanding of disabilities is distant, intellectual and sterile, then our response to the disabled is likely also to be the same, and is likely to be overshadowed by the disability and our perception of it (however wrong it may be). When our understanding of the disabled is based on a personal connection, so that we know the person who is disabled instead of the disability, we’re better able to act with charity.

    My father was serving as branch president when he had a massive stroke that resulted in several months of rehabilitation and a fair good, but not full recovery. About three or four weeks into the process, the stake president visited him in the rehab facility to discuss a possible release. It was clear the SP did not want my father to feel he was being released simply because of the stroke; the SP wanted my father also to understand the value of his prior service.

    Knowing where the SP was headed, my father told him to pray, and if the Lord determined it was time to release him, then release him, and not to worry about doing the Lord’s will. A great attitude from my dad, I think.

    I don’t mean to suggest that the disabled are the ones who need to adjust their attitude in order to make their relationships better, but rather that it’s the conversation and the individual relationships that make the difference, in and out of the church. That’s perhaps a reason why the stake leaders in the case of your neice behaved so differently from her ward members who had a personal relationship.

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  11. NewlyHousewife on August 17, 2012 at 8:32 AM

    I think a part of it also is that we don’t elaborate on the disabilities of our prophets. When we notice someone wasn’t able to walk to the podium during GC it seems there is a universal “oh how sad” moment. No one stands up there and says “it’s a fact of life” and moves on. For some reason the words of a person sitting in a chair with two microphones carries this uttermost feeling of sympathy, and if you don’t agree then you’re not only disagreeing with an apostle you’re also mean.

    I think for a lot of people having someone who’s in a wheelchair, or publicly uses a prosthetic, speak during GC will go a long way. We do a bad job of walking the walk, and a great job of pretending to talk the talk.

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  12. Rigel Hawthorne on August 17, 2012 at 9:14 AM

    “surely stories like that should be so common that they are not newsworthy?”

    No argument there.

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  13. Cynthia M on August 17, 2012 at 10:22 AM

    The church is not inclusive of those with disabilities although some wards may try harder than others. A few years ago I was in a ward with an older woman who was confined to an electric wheelchair. They assigned RS to meet in the chapel. The RSP was concerned that the sisters would just sit wherever and not be a cohesive group. Instead of addressing this with the sisters they determined that everyone would sit in the choir seats. Everyone cheerfully followed along except for myself who sat on the front pew with this other sister whose wheelchair could not navigate the stairs to the choir seat. I was spoken to many times for not “sustaining” the RSP. It infuriated me.

    I have two sons on the Autism spectrum. When trying to explain my oldest son’s needs to the PP upon moving into a new ward I was told that if there were any special needs it was up to me to deal with it. The Primary was simply there for normal children and I would have to be in charge of any adaptations.

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  14. CatherineWO on August 17, 2012 at 10:31 AM

    This has been hard for me to read. I am a person with disability and, except fot the exact disability, my experience in the Church has been identical to that described above by forgetting.son. This type of treatment from church members is emotionally traumatizing, to say the least. Of course, there are many good people in the church who truly love and are able to look beyond the disability to the real person inside. However, it takes only a few of the opposite kind of people to make it impossible for a person with disability to participate in a ward or branch. Five years ago my stake president paid me a personal visit to opologize for the way I had been treated by members of my ward. He gave me official permission to attend any ward in the stake in which I could feel comfortable. For several years, I did attend another ward, one in which my daughter and family were members. About eight months ago, when my husband was released from his stake calling, I decided to come back to our home ward so that I could attend Sacrament Meeting with him. After all these years, it still amazes me what insensitive things some people say and do. I recognize that most of them say and do these things out of ignorance, and for the most part, I am able to deal with them without feeling angry. But it still hurts that they see only the disability, that they feel sorry for me, and that they are so unable to see what an “able” person I am. I have a full and happy life. Yes, it is not like theirs. I have to make adaptations, and my husband, children and grandchildren have to make adaptations for me. But I try very hard to not let my disability define me. Often I actually forget that it is even there. I just wish others would not define me by it either.

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  15. Janie on August 17, 2012 at 10:33 AM

    Bless her heart – for something she looked forward to so much to be taken away.

    Its not a disability but I just wrote about this happening to my sister:

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  16. ji on August 17, 2012 at 1:09 PM

    In my mother’s stake in the U.S., her stake president has one arm and a counselor in the stake presidency has an eye patch. I’m not sure if my mother has noticed. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a wonderful place!

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  17. MD on August 17, 2012 at 9:46 PM

    #15 Unfortunately this seems to be a common problem (I know of two young men in my stake who cannot serve missions currently due to weight).

    #13 Cynthia, I am trying to understand your frustration but I would like to point out that most people who have callings in primary do not have any special training/education in teaching children, let alone children with special needs. It is not uncommon in some wards for teachers to send unruly children to their parents for discipline. Some primary teachers can quite successfully handle unruly or special needs children. However, most of them cannot and/or do not have the desire to do so. I know many moms serving in primary teachers who spend all week caring for small children and are unhappy about caring for other children on Sundays. They are burned out and don’t want to deal with any child who can’t sit quietly with a minimal amount of wiggling.

    There is a boy in my primary who has autism. The primary president has made it clear that if he can’t behave he will be removed or his mother will have to come sit with him. His teacher is very young, no kids, and has no desire to even be a primary teacher. She is continually ushering him out to his mother because he can’t/won’t sit still. The little boy gets out of his sit and turns the light on and off. Opens and closes the blinds. Cries and makes noise. He won’t stop when he is asked to so the teacher or primary president removes him.

    The only way for the church to adequately deal with children who have special needs during primary is to call someone who has special training/education in this area or someone who is interested, and has the patience/compassion, in serving a special needs child.

    I think Cynthia it is a little unfair, and definitely unrealistic, to expect the primary to be equipped to serve autistic children. Our primary is missing, on average, 3-4 teachers a week who most likely did not get a sub. It’s simply hard to get bodies into the primary so the president can’t be exactly choosy. The teachers are the ones who say yes and sometimes show up and most of them aren’t happy to be there :/

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  18. Bonnie on August 17, 2012 at 9:59 PM

    MH – you make a really good point. Often primary teachers are fairly new in the gospel as well, and this is challenging. Still, a child with autism is a child of God and a member of the ward, and the issue should be brought up in ward council. In our ward a boy with autism has someone with him (it’s a calling) all the time in Primary. I realize that’s a luxury for a ward with lots of people who will and can serve in callings. Even 20 years ago when I served several times as Primary President, the trainings and handbooks had sections on better serving those with handicaps (they were called that at the time.) We need to do all we can to help everyone, the stressed teachers, the mothers and fathers, and the children. It is good for us to figure out how to do it.

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  19. ji on August 17, 2012 at 11:13 PM

    A Primary teacher is a friend, a neighbor, a fellow Saint — she isn’t an employee of a child-care business, and the parent isn’t a paying customer. It is okay for a Primary teacher to decline to accept responsibility for a child she is unprepared to handle. We might hope she will stretch, but she is a volunteer. A parent cannot DEMAND that her friend and neighbor take that responsibility.

    Everything that happens at Church is a gift. If a gift is given, that’s wonderful. If a gift isn’t given, there is no offense or cause of action.

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  20. hawkgrrrl on August 17, 2012 at 11:21 PM

    When I was called to the nursery, we had a girl who was YW age and severely disabled, requiring constant 1×1 attention. I had no experience working with the severely disabled, and initially, there were a LOT of kids in that nursery (up to 16) with nursery workers who often didn’t show up or get a substitute. When this happened, I would go home exhausted from the stress, often holing up in my room with no interruptions for the entire afternoon. It was a huge strain on our family, and on me personally.

    Eventually, the ward split and I got more reliable help, including some specific help for our disabled student. Although I asked for help, I never complained about us helping with this girl. For us, it was just two hours a week, and it is a blessing to help the disabled. Her devoted parents care for her full time, and having this help enabled them to fill important roles in the ward and contribute. This is also important for those with disabled children. They too need to be viewed for all they can do, not just as a full time caregiver.

    I’m actually very surprised about the Downs Syndrome girl who is fully mainstreamed being turned away given my own experiences in the church. I’ve found most of the wards I’ve been in to be very supportive at least when the disabled person is someone’s child.

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  21. Bonnie on August 17, 2012 at 11:26 PM

    I understand your position, ji, but we do agree to bear one another’s burdens. We can’t force anyone to bear the burden the way we want them to, or expect them to bear all the burdens at once, but it is at least the ideal we’ve covenanted to take upon ourselves. There must be a middle ground between saying we have no responsibility and therefore no expectation and we demand. It’s true that our service must be a gift, but we did accept the calling, and caring for the disabled is a part of that calling, spelled out clearly in the CHI. We can’t pick and choose whom we serve and still call it service in the church.

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  22. ji on August 17, 2012 at 11:51 PM

    Bonnie (no. 21) — I have a duty to our God to be kind to me neighbor and to help carry his burdens — but my duty is to God, not to my neighbor — my neighbor cannot DEMAND any particular service from me — he can ask, and he still loves me as a neighbor whether I say yes or no.

    A parent of a difficult child cannot DEMAND that my wife take responsibility for her child in Primary or at Young Women’s camp. If my wife can handle it and offer the gift, that’s wonderful. But if she can’t, that’s okay, too, and the parent of the difficult still loves my wife and me as her neighbors and fellow Saints.

    I believe in giving service. My problem is when members DEMAND service. There is no right to DEMAND service. We don’t require anyone to run faster than he or she is able, and we must see our ward as a community of friends rather than as a organization with employees. A Primary teacher is a friend and neighbor offering a gift, not an employee of a organization from which we have bought a service.

    Primary is a gift, not an entitlement or a purchased service. Everything in the Church is a gift. We hope all our members will be considerate to others, and that everyone will gratefully accept whatever gifts are offered and will still rejoice in the gospel even if no particular gifts are offered.

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  23. MD on August 18, 2012 at 10:07 AM

    #18 Bonnie, in my ward I suggested that a man sit with the autistic boy during sharing time (I even had a volunteer). The boy’s father was super offended. Insisted his own wife with a new baby do it ( I have no idea why he was unwilling to do so). After a few months a husband and wife couple were called to teach this child’s class and he blossomed under this brother’s care. Unfortunately they were released (I have no idea why) and this young newly married sister who hates primary is now his unwilling teacher. Her husband is a tool so it’s a blessing he doesn’t attend primary with her.

    I personally believe that if there is a special needs child a willing and capable adult needs to be called to be assigned as this child’s companion. However, many wards don’t have enough people to fulfill callings. And also the people able to do this are often in other “high priority” callings. There is a brother in our ward who would be perfect for this little boy but he has a calling that is high profile and supposedly more important.

    There is also a lot of turnover in our primary as people move, have babies, or are called to other supposedly more important callings. I imagine it’s similar in other wards.

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  24. BMC on August 18, 2012 at 11:11 AM

    Caring for a disable person is hard. It requires a bit of training and preparation and the church provides nothing along those lines for dealing with these situations. In that regard they are certainly failing. If you find someone in your ward willing and able to provide that support you are lucky. It is a hit and miss scenario at best.

    We stopped bringing our disabled daughter to church because we were tired of dealing with these issues. It is just not worth the stress and tensions it causes.

    That is just a few hours a week. A family must deal with this disability 24-7 every day of the year. Does the church provide any support there?


    Should they? The church is responsible for ‘spiritual well-being’ is the general response I heard. My daughter is ‘ok’ in their eyes. She will be saved no questions asked. What’s the problem? We have the dead to save and the able-bodied with disposable income to provide for.

    Fortunately there are government programs that help. They are perpetually under funded and under staffed but they do provide some lifting of the burden of these ‘moochers’ as they are often referred to. They have done much more for my daughter then the church ever has. But, as I came to learn, she is not the church’s problem.

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  25. Hedgehog on August 20, 2012 at 11:14 PM

    I think it is probably very hit and miss, depending on the skill sets and circumstances in the ward. In a smallish primary, such as we have, it is much easier to handle difficult children than it would be in a very large primary I guess. The current youth leaders bend over backwards to be inclusive.
    MD (#23) There are just so many people with Stake callings in our ward we’d love to have in primary – they’d be ideal.

    It was very touching, recently, to observe temple workers assisting an elderly sister who is becoming increasingly confused, through every stage enabling her to participate in a proxy endowment.

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  26. Taryn Fox on August 23, 2012 at 2:36 AM

    The difference between the elderly sister in #25 and the autistic children elsewhere is that people are socialized to know how to deal with the elderly on their own terms, and to expect autistic people to conform (even if they can’t) or be punished.

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  27. Willieam Crisp on October 12, 2012 at 5:32 AM

    This is all very interesting reading about the opinions of people, both those with impairments who have been treated poorly and those without impairments who think that looking after children with “special needs” is all too hard. I have cerebral palsy and no longer attend church because of the attitude of the members. I believe the church sets standards and those who can’t conform or are different are shunned. Church members discriminate against people who they perceive as different, yet people with disabilities are not different, the term “special needs” is highly offensive. We are supposedly all children of our Heavenly Father and all need to be loved and accepted, yet this often does not happen in the church due to the ignorance of the members. What is different for people with a disability is how their needs are met. The reality is that if people are not accepted they will not remain active in the church and like me they will leave and not return.

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  28. Christopher on December 12, 2012 at 8:52 AM

    Great discussion about an important issue that is often overlooked.

    Another resource for families, wards and stakes is a calling in Handbook 2 that has only recently been promoted- that of a ward or stake disability specialist:

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