Ministering to Latter-day Saints with Physical Disabilities

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With this second article in this series, we hope to provide another resource to help ward members better serve individuals with special needs. Individuals with disabilities and disorders can be vital, contributing members. And remember that by ministering to “the One,” we serve all.

This article will address the following questions on how to minister to these individuals:

  • Who in the ward needs to know the details about a member’s disability?
  • How can we put members with physical disabilities in positions where they can grow spiritually?
  • How should we meet the problems associated with a member’s condition?
  • How can we make ward members comfortable as they encounter a variety of disabilities? 

The Basics

Whether or not you live a clean and healthy lifestyle, no one totally exempt from physical trials. Physical disabilities come in every form, from hearing loss and blindness to chronic pain and seizure disorders. Disabilities may be short in duration or they may be life-long. In any case, physical disabilities can bring the individual as well as those around them emotional, financial, spiritual, and relationship problems. The most important qualities we can manifest toward anyone in these circumstances are compassion, understanding, patience, and a desire to see the individual of great worth behind the disability.

President Spencer W. Kimball once said,

If we looked at mortality as the whole of existence, then pain, sorrow, failure, and short life would be calamity. But if we look upon life as an eternal thing stretching far into the premortal past and on into the eternal post-death future, then all happenings may be put in proper perspective.

By identifying members who have special needs, church leaders can help them to participate more fully in all ward activities. Bishoprics, ward council members, and auxiliary leaders and teachers can be trained in the planning process of member inclusion. Home and visiting teachers can play a similar role.

Christ set the example for us in 3 Nephi 17:7, which reads,

“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 and I will healthem, for I have compassion upon you.” As we seek out an individual’s needs, develop a plan of action, and follow through with that plan on a day-to-day basis, if needed, we become the compassionate disciples Christ has asked us to be.

Questions to Ask and Address

As you read through these questions, remember that, no matter the situation, the dignity and self-worth of the individual should always remain a priority.

  • Which age group, quorum, or auxiliary does the individual fit into? Who are his or her peers? Friends? Likes and interests?
  • Which ward members know the individual may be able to help? What tools do they need to do so?
  • What knowledge do family members have that would enable others to understand and serve the individual better? What needs to they have?
  • How is the individual likely to respond to offers of friendship or visiting members? Which approach is most likely to be accepted by the individual?

Welcoming Members into the Ward

  1. Don’t Be Afraid to Offer Help

Too many people are afraid of offering these individuals assistance. However, asking someone if they need help is never wrong, especially when done with the intent to show that you care. Offering help shows that you’re concerned about what they are experiencing, even if you don’t know exactly what to say in their particular circumstance. Don’t be afraid to get involved.

“Asking and acknowledging an issue actually shows you care,” says Dr. Bruce Johns, PhD. “We don’t like feeling helpless or acknowledging that uncomfortable notion that ‘it could be me.’ Especially when there are no fixes—and no band aids. For example, when someone has chronic pain issues or a terminal illness, asking shows the afflicted person, ‘I care enough to try to understand, if only for a moment.’ It shows a willingness to face uncomfortable details. It brings a reassurance that someone else joins in the pain.”

That being said, always, always ask the individual if they would like help first. Many are perfectly capable of functioning independently. By assuming control, you could diminish their sense of self-worth.

  1. Develop a Plan of Action

As you assess the individual’s needs, here are some issues that may need to be addressed:

  • Physical barriers that limit participation
  • A lack of special equipment to facilitate learning and participation
  • Access to activities and church functions
  • Opportunities for the individual to serve according to their capabilities
  • Safety issues

Seeking out ways to make use of the individual’s talents may require creativity. For example, you can find ways for them to enjoy interaction with other ward members at ward activities. Interaction between all members, with or without disabilities, opens honest communication. Where there is honest communication, there is understanding, faith, hope, and true charity.

However, the many challenges individuals with physical disabilities face may require more than just physical help. Bishops and ward council members can help determine financial, relationship, emotional, and other needs using church established guidelines.

  1. Provide Opportunities for Spiritual Growth

Only when a person’s basic physical needs are met can they begin to grow spiritually. Individuals with physical disabilities need to be lifted, just as Christ helped the mother of Simon’s wife in Mark 1:29-31. After He “came and took her by the hand, and lifted her up,” she regained her health and in turn began to minister to Him and his disciples.

Examples of the healing touch may be priesthood blessings, an acknowledging hand on someone’s shoulder, a gentle hug, or a hand given in service. Members won’t likely be able to physically heal someone of their illness, but healing can always come to someone’s heart and spirit. As members minister, not only will those with disabilities be lifted up but those who serve as well.

Ways that all members can serve include:

  • Staying in touch, regularly and beyond Sunday meeting, weekly activities, or as home and visiting teachers.
  • Helping someone get to church meetings, or visiting them if they can’t attend.
  • Encouraging all progress and activity, in whatever capacity it is given.
  • Applying forgiveness and patience when misunderstandings occur, or when communication attempts fail.
  • Showing friendship, understanding, patience, and compassion (not pity) by listening to and responding without judgment, criticism, or fear.
  • Sharing of testimonies, prayer, and service which invites the Holy Spirit’s presence.
  1. Find Ways for All to Serve

Be sure to assess the abilities of the individual to care for themselves. No one should be denied the opportunity to be self-reliant, as independence, self-esteem, and spiritual growth go hand in hand. Everyone needs to feel useful and wanted, and the gospel, with all of its possibilities, provides opportunities for everyone to get involved.

Most people with physical disabilities can serve as any other member would in church organizations, quorums, or auxiliaries—even and especially in leadership positions. The Lord knows an individual’s abilities as well as their willingness to serve.

That said, for some members with disabilities like chronic fatigue syndrome or chronic pain, holding a normal church calling may be too taxing, physically. If a person is unable to attend meetings on a regular basis, filling a teaching or co-chair assignment may not be appropriate. However, the Lord may know otherwise. If a leader is inspired to assign a certain calling, ward member should be open to finding a way to make it work.

For those who are home bound, hospitalized, or simply cannot attend on a regular basis, there are still many possible ways to serve. Possible service may include genealogy research and temple name preparation, compassionate service contacts by phone or email, ward news, or assistance with lesson preparation for teachers.

“And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.  For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Luke 11:9-10).

General List of Disabilities and Conditions

This provides a general overview of some common physical disabilities. There are many, many more, of course—this list is by no means complete. One thing all leaders, teachers, and general members should remember is this: no matter what the disability or disease is, or what state it may progress tom the loss of an individual’s physical abilities does not mean the loss of an individual’s worth!

Blindness and Deafness 

Both blindness and deafness can be partial or complete. However, note that to the Deaf, referring to their deafness as a disability is almost always highly offensive.

There are many sources of information available both nationally and locally. For example, the Church offers both Braille and audio versions of the scriptures for the blind. For the Deaf, many times there are people in your community who can communicate in American Sign Language (ASL). Primary music leaders frequently use signing as part of the techniques to teach the words to primary songs. Encouraging members to learn ASL and/or providing an interpreter will also make communication smoother.

One of the most touching experiences I ever witnessed happened while I was attending an endowment session. Deaf attendees were provided with ASL interpreters, allowing them to participate fully. The spirit was strongly felt by all.

Asthma, Allergies, and Disorders of the Immune System

Each of these conditions have the potential to be life threatening. For example, with diseases of the immune system, a person may be hospitalized at any given time. Visits may be extremely important to those who are hospitalized or home-bound due to physical impairments. Personal experience made this truth a reality for me when I was home-bound for almost two years.

Providing a safe environment for those with allergies and asthma may need to include fragrance free classrooms, emergency medications available, or alternative foods (unobtrusively) served at social functions. When a person must remain isolated from the general public, members should make phone calls to keep in frequent contact, and recordings of meetings be made available. No one should ever feel excluded from participating fully in gospel ordinances due to a limiting health condition.

Epilepsy and Other Seizure Disorders

Seizures experienced by these individuals may be mild or severe, and multiple varieties of seizures can happen up to a dozen times a day. In some cases, the individual cannot be left alone for safety reasons, as the injuries that may be sustained can be life threatening—especially head injuries. Even the simple act of eating can quickly turn into a choking hazard.

I know from personal experience the toll that this type of condition can have on family members as they make necessary adjustments to their daily lives. Watching my elderly father deal with seizures, an after effect of the stroke he had, in addition to a toddler-aged grandson who has developed a seizure disorder, has been an ongoing struggle. Yet it has brought family members closer in faith, prayer, support, and love.

Medicine may or may not be effective in controlling seizures. One current debate within both the medical community and the political arena centers around the use of ‘cannabis oil’ as a treatment for seizure disorders. While illegal in many places, and controlled in others as a medicinal drug, members should not hold another in condemnation or judgment if they should choose to use the drug. It is a matter of personal and prayerful decision between the individual, or caretaker of a child, and the Lord that no one else can make.

Auto-Immune, Nerve, and Musculature Diseases

This category of disabilities includes rheumatoid and osteoarthritis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and cystic fibrosis, among others. Quite a few of them are life-long conditions, although some can strike at any age. Many of these disorders bring chronic or severe pain and mobility issues. Treatments can help with control and management of pain and symptoms. Very few of these conditions are curable, and ward members may be asked to give long-term service for both afflicted members and their families.

Genetic, degenerative, and terminal diseases can be equally trying for the caregivers, although in different ways. From the moment if diagnosis, daily routines, finances, personal time, relationships, and family dynamics can all change. In these circumstances, show that you care—don’t ignore the situation. Face it with compassion and love, not fear.

Following the Savior’s Example

Any physical impairment can create emotional challenges like depression. A listening ear, an empathetic heart, or a simple hug can serve as the healing touch a person needs. Every member should seek out opportunities to serve. Blessings will inevitably follow.

Remember, too, that the physical challenges, no matter what type or form, may bring with them hidden blessings; they can inspire the faith to be healed, the faith to endure, the faith to find a way to help heal or succor another, the faith to move beyond the affliction in spite of pain, discomfort, or limitations. Trust that these conditions are for this life only.

In 3 Nephi 17:5-10 we read about Christ’s visit to the American continent. These verses contain perfect examples of His healing touch to each and every individual.

And they did all, both they who had been healed and they who were whole, bow down at his feet, and did worship him; and as many as could come for the multitude did kiss his feet, insomuch that they did bathe his feet with their tears.

We are all tasked with overcoming trials. Spiritual growth comes from learning to serve one another, and serving those with physical challenges is a simple way we can all do this.

Click here to read “Ministering to Latter-day Saints with Emotional Behavioral Disorders.”

Athena now works and lives on an old family farm homestead in northern Utah, after working in the public school system, for non-profit organizations, and in the fashion industry. She enjoys western living after having lived and moved 25 times around the Inter-mountain West. She loves writing, art, gardening and thrift shopping. She adores all her kids-the 'Grands' and four-legged variety.