Though the prevalence of Americans with disabilities has actually gone down in the last five years, from about 20% in 2010 to 12.6% in 2015, it may sometimes seem like more and more people suffer from physical impairments. A similar perception may exist regarding the prevalence of mental illness, when in fact the percentage of our population afflicted by it—twenty—has not changed much in the past few years, according to a report released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Nevertheless, both of those numbers represent many real people, possibly even yourself or someone you know. It’s important to know how to support children and families affected by these disabilities, not only because of the scriptural directive we have to “love one another” as Jesus loved us, but also because that knowledge might, at any time, help us endure the onset of a physical or mental disability. Professors Tina Taylor Dyches and Karen W. Hahne provide some useful definitions and tips in Helping and Healing our Families, a 2005 book published by BYU’s School of Family Life.
What is a disability?
There is no single accepted definition of disability, according to the American Census Survey. Nevertheless, the Americans with Disabilities Act defines it as: “… a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability.” We as Latter Day Saints know that disabilities are not punishments. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states: “ALL HUMAN BEINGS—male and female—are created in the image of God.” Dyches and Hahne state: “Many of these earthly challenges are not accidental, but are a part of God’s divine plan. God does not punish his children by giving them disabilities.” Parents of children with disabilities can, in fact, receive special blessings:
- greater spiritual insight: Families with a disabled person can gain an enhanced spiritual understanding regarding the Plan of Salvation. “Such families are blessed by knowing that children who are not accountable will inherit eternal glory…there, we believe, to have their faculties or other deficiencies restored according to the Father’s mercy and justice.”
- greater ability to accept others who are different: families of a disabled child can become community role-models via their treatment of those who may not be typically valued in popular culture
- greater character development: siblings can gain increased self-control and become better at cooperating.
What can you Do?
That being said, the daily struggles of dealing with a disability can be difficult to bear, or to help another bear. It may be hard to know what to do to help someone you know affected by one. First of all, say Dyches and Hahne, recognize that all children need to have their physical and spiritual needs met, to be taught to love and serve others, to keep the commandments and to be good citizens. How do we do that? Elder Boyd K. Packer said, “Now, in all of this there must be balance, for the handicapped have responsibility to work out their own salvation. The nearer the normal patterns of conduct and discipline apply to the handicapped, the happier they will be. Every quarter of an inch of physical and mental improvement is worth striving for.” Joseph Smith’s words enhance that statement: “…all the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement.”
With the goal in mind, then, of helping those who are disabled to reach their fullest potential, the authors suggest:
- Ask parents, “What can we do to support you and your child?”
- Offer respite care to families who are unable to attend church.
- Provide transportation to church, activities, or other functions.
- Invite people with disabilities to all ward and stake activities alongside their peers
- Ask parents of children with disabilities and service providers to give in-service training to auxiliary and priesthood leaders
- Set high, rather than low, expectations for children with disabilities.
- Express your love for the family, even though you cannot empathize fully.
- Listen to parents’ concerns without judging their parenting skills.
Elder Russell M. Nelson said, “A perfect body is not required to achieve a divine destiny. In fact, some of the sweetest spirits are housed in frail frames. Great spiritual strength is often developed by those with physical challenges precisely because they are challenged. Such individuals are entitled to all the blessings that God has in store for His faithful and obedient children.”
What will YOU do to help families with disabled children?