Stake or ward disability specialists are a resource for local leaders seeking to help all members enjoy the blessings of Church participation -- and a support for families and individuals with disabilities.
This is, in essence, what new instructions concerning disability specialists entail on the Church's website. It is also what Elder Christoffel Golden Jr. of the Seventy emphasized in relation to a growing segment of the population – including Latter-day Saints – who are living daily with disabilities.
"We should not be afraid or concerned, but we should embrace the opportunity to bless the lives of these people and they are likely to bless our lives," said Elder Golden, who is assistant executive director of the Priesthood Department and advisor to Church Disability Services.
The Church's Handbook 2 states that members "are encouraged to follow the Savior's example of offering help and understanding to those with loved ones with disabilities."
Referring to this admonition, Elder Golden said that every ward and stake has members and leaders "who desire to follow the example of the Savior but they may be unsure of what resources are available to support members with disabilities."
That, he said in a Church News interview, is where a stake or ward disability specialist plays an important role — assisting "a leader in identifying resources as they administer to individuals and families and teach them the gospel of Jesus Christ."
This week's Church News examines the calling of disability specialists, including the journey of one stake disability specialist who is an assistant Utah attorney general born with a neuromuscular disease. (Please see feature on Steve Mikita on page 5.)
This article also reviews the instructions released by the Church in 2012 on the role of "Disability Specialist" in the "Callings" section of lds.org. (Please see box on page 4.)
As related on the website, "The role of the disability specialist is to help facilitate increased participation and inclusion of Church members with disabilities."
A disability specialist, the site continues, can help ward and stake leaders:
Identify and get to know individuals with disabilities and their families within the ward or stake.
Include members with disabilities in Church meetings and activities.
Respond to disability-related questions and concerns from parents, leaders and other individuals.
Identify meaningful opportunities to serve for members with disabilities.
Identify specific needs of families (including care-giving needs) and, where appropriate, identify community, ward and stake resources available to assist with those needs.
The site also encourages the disability specialist to "help individuals with disabilities and their parents or families to share information about the disability with ward and stake members and leaders in a helpful way."
Varying capacities, talents and gifts
Elder Golden explained that a disability specialist can help "ensure the Church is a place for members to be welcome and included. We have found that there is great joy to have people with varying capacities and talents and gifts within a ward family, within the Church. All of this enriches us as we seek to live the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Every ward with members with disabilities ought to have a disability specialist, Elder Golden continued. "This ensures, in my mind, two things: There is particular attention paid to members who need our care and assistance and support [while reducing] the burden on the bishop. [This] simultaneously enables him to ensure there is proper care and support."
Likewise in the case of a stake disability specialist, he said, who is "well-versed with the issues of members with disabilities."
He emphasized it is not necessary for a ward specialist to be well-versed to begin with. "If you had a really strong stake disability specialist you could call [a ward specialist] with little experience and train them up at the ward level."
Christopher Phillips, manager of Disability Services, agrees. In most cases, he emphasized, a disability specialist does not need to be an expert. "You just need to be willing to introduce yourself, to serve and to love. That's more important than any [college] degree. Just someone who can facilitate and listen.
"The demands on a family caring for a child with a disability can be great and sometimes it can be hard for families to have the energy or explain their situation. That's where a disability specialist can help a family work with their ward and help a family communicate their needs."
Availability of resources
When Leah Gunter was first called as her stake's disability specialist, she quickly learned two things: First, gain understanding, and second, recognize the availability of resources inside and outside of the Church.
"I didn't realize there are so many resources about disabilities. The Church's website is amazing," she said.
A member of the Logan Utah YSA 6th Stake (Logan YSA 45th Ward), Sister Gunter, 28, has a bachelor's degree in psychology, a master's in human resources and another master's in business administration. And she knows a little about the issue herself. In 2005, while serving in the Argentina Salta Mission, she incurred a bacterial infection which caused nerve damage throughout her body. For two years, she suffered with complex regional pain syndrome.
"It left me unable to walk for a short period. I wasn't able to use my hands very much."
But Sister Gunter didn't want to quit or stay home. She was called as a Sunday School teacher soon after her mission and relied on her faith. An understanding roommate helped.
"She carried [a tall stool] to Church for me to sit on. I was excited because I could teach the gospel and share my testimony even though I couldn't stand."
Through her new calling, she has been able to help others with disabilities serve in the Church. "We've had the opportunity to help two individuals in our stake who are not able to serve traditional missions serve as service missionaries. ... The one young man is in a wheelchair. He's so excited to have his missionary badge. I just love it."
Sister Gunter reminds other specialists not to give professional advice or to diagnose disabilities. "You are not trained in the medical field. It's a Church calling and an opportunity to serve."
It's a help knowing they're not alone
Since AJ Hough was called as a stake disability specialist she has witnessed greater unity among members and leaders. "It's a way of bringing parents together who have similar challenges and trials. For leaders, it helps to give them understanding behind the needs of some of the people and to give them strategies and practical advice."
A member of the Kettering Ward, Northampton England Stake, Sister Hough has a background in disabilities, not only professionally but within her family. As a school teacher, she works with children with special needs. And she and her husband, Richard, have seven adopted children and one foster child, several of whom have special needs.
One of her best tools – at home, work and school – is her "Mary Poppins bag." Within this bag are games and "fidget toys" – the latter being hand-held toys with movable parts that help a child with disabilities such as attention deficit disorder or autism "fidget" quietly during Church services or meetings, while not distracting other children.
Sister Hough related the account of one little boy who was unable to stay in sharing time until she introduced the ward Primary leaders and his teachers to fidget toys. "Using interactive toys, he was able to remain in Primary and be attentive while his hands were active and busy."
As she conducts stake training, she helps teachers create their own "Mary Poppins bags."
A broad spectrum of needs, issues and concerns
Val Meredith is familiar with issues relating to aging. The member of the Armadale Ward, Perth Australia Southern River Stake, she is a former regional manager for Alzheimer's Australia WA, a government-funded charitable organization.
She sees her new role as a stake disability specialist as crucial in supporting priesthood and auxiliary leaders and teachers as they work with members with disabilities. "Priesthood leadership deals with such a broad spectrum of needs, issues and concerns for their members. They need people on the ground to inform and update so that decisions and support can be appropriately and lovingly given."
Sister Meredith emphasized the need for disability specialists to be familiar with both Church and community resources. She then passes on this information to leaders and individuals.
Recently, she related, an older, single sister approached her with concerns about aging. "These concerns were practical and financial, but nevertheless deeply personal, and I felt privileged that she felt comfortable sharing with me."
Sister Meredith passed on those concerns directly to the woman's bishop, while ensuring the confidentiality of those discussions.
She wants to be a contributing member
Natasha Bartel was 6 years old when she and her twin brother, Nick, were adopted in 1997 by Bob and Kathy Bartel of the Willow Hills Ward, Sandy Utah Granite Stake. Originally born in Russia, they have developmental disabilities. But don't expect that to define these two black-haired 21-year-olds with dark eyes and quick smiles. Both graduated from high school, have held jobs and are active in their ward.
And they love to serve. Tasha, as her friends and family call her, is a visiting teacher with her mother and recently served in the nursery. "She loves kids, and they know it," Tasha's mother related. "They run to her."
When visiting teaching, Tasha takes her turn giving the lesson from the Ensign. "She's a good listener," Sister Bartel said of her daughter. "She carries the Spirit with her so when she gives a message or a talk her spirit comes through."
Sister Bartel said such participation comes from members being educated about disabilities and says that is an important part of the role of a stake or ward disability specialist.
"It's not my fault Nick and I are special needs," Tasha told the Church News. "I just want to say I'm so grateful that I'm a part of this Church. My Heavenly Father is my one half and my family is my other half."
Perhaps a testimony like Tasha's was what Elder Golden referred to when he spoke of the varying gifts and talents of members of a worldwide Church.
Below are the Church website links to resources on disabilities:
Each of these sites has links to other Church and community resources.