Two years ago Dialogue issued a call for papers which asked interested persons to respond to the following question: “What relationship(s) do persons with disabilities negotiate with both the institutional Church and the Mormon folk?” Our decision to run a series of articles on this topic derived from the suggestion of a member of our board of directors who has an autistic son. As you can see from the following list of subsidiary questions which our call proposed, we hoped the consequent submissions would be wide ranging in their consideration:
Authors are particularly invited to submit articles and essays addressing aspects of these questions:
- Given that persons with disabilities and their caretakers are often sensitive, what terminology is appropriate?
- What differences are there in the problems facing the physically disabled and the mentally impaired?
- What are the theological implications of persons with disabilities? What are the moral implications?
- What programs and social services for persons with disabilities are provided by the Church? Which seem successful and which less so? What is missing?
- What attitudes do Mormon folk show toward persons with disabilities?
- What is being done to improve the lot of persons with disabilities among the Mormons? What more could be done?
Unfortunately, this appears to be a topic on which very few people wish to write. We have published a single essay, and we have another likely essay in the process of extensive editing–not an abundant harvest for a period of two years. My conversations with people lead me to believe that, except for those who know a person with disabilities closely, many Latter-day Saints would prefer to ignore the topic. Furthermore, as far as I am aware, the Church has no guidelines by which stakes and wards can provide special classes, lessons, and activities for persons with disabilities.
However, I am aware of local congregations where leaders and friends have rallied around the caretakers of seriously disabled persons and have given help and emotional support. That is what happened in the case of the young woman featured in the single essay on this topic that Dialogue has published (Francine Russell Bennion, “Religion and Natasha McDonald,” 38, no. 2 [Summer, 2005]: 109-22). You may read this essay in the Excerpts section of our website.
The faith of this severely disabled young woman is remarkable, both for its fervor and for the comfort she derives from it. It is remarkable, too, not only for the devotion it demonstrates on the part of Natasha’s close relatives but for the accommodating attitude of local Church leaders who have made it possible for Natasha to receive her endowment and to participate in the baptism of the dead.
I am personally aware of a ward where, by an unspoken agreement, the congregation makes it possible for an autistic child and his parents to participate in Sunday meetings. Friends allow the parents to fulfill their callings by tending the twelve-year-old boy as required. Sometimes he attends much of a sacrament meeting, lying on a bench with a ward member at either end. Sometimes he crawls over the back of the bench ahead and has to be brought back. Speakers and listeners accept these disturbances with admirable patience. If he becomes too noisy or restless, one of the caretakers takes him into the halls, where in any event he typically spends the periods devoted to Sunday School and Primary. Taking turns, a parent or friend follows him in the halls and into empty rooms. Sometimes he bolts outside, and the caretaker follows and brings him back. The net result is a more normal ward life for his parents and an additional safe place for the boy to go and be. Although the boy doesn’t speak, in the opinion of one of the caretakers, he absorbs the spirit of worship by being present in sacrament meeting.
I am sorry to say that, as I also know, there are congregations whose leaders and members appear unwilling to accommodate persons like Natasha and the autistic boy. There are those who insist on decorum and procedure as the essence of worship and will not tolerate any breach of those qualities. I regret their rigor. As far as I am concerned, the good people who do whatever is required to enrich the religious experience of persons with disabilities engage in worship in its finest form.