At BYU, we have the unique opportunity to mix secular and spiritual learning within the same class. In my special education classes, one way that we do this is to talk about disabilities in the church.
Katie Steed, one of my professors in the Counseling Psychology and Special Education Department, is a specialist about individuals with disabilities in the church. Recently, she worked together with BYU film students to create a video called “Special Challenges.” In the video, three different families, who have children with disabilities, talk about their experiences in the church and some of the unique challenges they’ve faced.
Here’s the video: (Note-this video is almost 15-minutes long, but it is worth every minute.)
Besides being a special education major, I have a very personal connection to this video. My oldest brother James was diagnosed with autism when he was three-years old. Like these families, my family had some special challenges because of this.
My brother had some behavior problems related to his autism. I remember several ward parties where he threw a temper tantrum because something different and unexpected happened. My family tried to calm him down, and we’d often have to take him out to the foyer. When he eventually did calm down, he felt so embarrassed and was nervous to go back to the party afterwards.
James loved answering questions and making comments in church. He memorized hundreds of scriptures and other quotes. However, he would raise his hand and make a comment approximately every two minutes. Sometimes these comments pertained to the lesson, and sometimes they didn’t.
He also loved to introduce himself to people and greet them as they came into church. James would go straight up to anyone he didn’t know, give them a slightly floppy handshake, tell them his name, ask theirs, and what their address is very loudly and all in one breath. James was being friendly, but it could be socially awkward, especially if you didn’t know him well.
From these three examples of some of my brother’s special challenges, you can see that church could have been extremely difficult for my family. And we did have some difficult days.
However, we were so blessed to have a ward that was loving and supportive. They took the time to get to know my brother.
When my brother threw a temper tantrum, some close family friends in our ward would sometimes help calm him down. The rest of the ward didn’t treat him any differently after he threw a fit.
He had some very caring Sunday School teachers who placed limits on the number of comments he could make during a lesson. When he made a good comment, they sincerely praised him for it.
If a new person felt a bit uncomfortable after my brother had introduced himself, one of the ward members would just quietly explain a little about my brother to them. Many ward members went out of their way to greet James before taking their seat.
Through these loving actions, and many others, our ward supported James towards some of his proudest moments. If you asked him what his three proudest accomplishments are, he would tell you that it was earning his Eagle Scout award, fulfilling his priesthood duties, and serving a service mission for three years in the San Jose California mission. These were made possible through years of dedicated love and support from leaders and members of our ward and stake.
So, the question is, why does this matter, and how does it relate to education at BYU?
As 97% of the population of BYU are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talking about members of the church with disabilities is not only applicable, it is also important. Additionally, all education majors at BYU are required to take at least one class about teaching people with disabilities. So, it is of additional importance for education majors.
One of BYU’s slogans is “Enter to learn, go forth to serve.” With the knowledge learned in these classes and possibly other experiences (such as clubs like Adaptive Aquatics/Gym Kids and Special Olympics), we have the obligation to serve in all capacities that we can, both within and outside of the classroom, including within the Church.
I often think how lucky my family is to have such a supportive ward who honestly cared about my brother. I cannot imagine how terrible it would have been to be dealing with my brother’s special challenges and not have their support. Unfortunately, this is sometimes the case. Not every member with a disability enjoys the same support and love that my brother experienced.
So, what can we do?
Go forth to serve.
Get to know the individual, not just the disability. Learn how to love them. Ask what you can do to serve them and their family.