056: Disabilities from a Mormon Perspective

10259206_1388394951445747_6181015056440179181_oNatasha Helfer Parker interviews Gail Nicolaysen-Shurtleff who has a clinical psychology degree from John F Kennedy University and currently lives in the Netherlands where she runs a private practice.  Gail is a lifelong member of the church who was born with a disability and shares with us some of her perspectives on some of the problematic rhetoric and discrimination we can find within Mormon culture regarding disabilities.  A rich and frank discussion ensues, involving everything from the “special” label to parenting, sexuality, polygamy, priesthood ordination, feminism, and healing blessings.

This is a sensitive topic with a wide spectrum of shared experience.  What is often healthy framing for some is not necessarily so for others.  It is not expected that all will agree with what is being shared, nor that this interview will necessarily apply or be helpful to everyone who is affected by a disability.  The hope is that an open dialogue can begin in an area not often addressed.  Please feel free to share experiences, agreement, disagreement, resources, education, ideas for future podcasts, etc. in the comment section below.

Carol Boyer on Disabilities and Domestic Violence

Survey Finds Disability Abuse Widespread

Disability Resources on LDS.org

Disability Employment Policy Resources

Americans with Disabilities Act

Gail writes at the following blog: A Gift of Being Heard

Many thanks to The Lower Lights for the beautiful bumper music and to Brian Dillman for audio production of this podcast.

10 comments for “056: Disabilities from a Mormon Perspective

  1. April
    February 18, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    Love this topic. I have been hungry to discuss this issue. I’m a mother of an autistic child and these issues are hugely concerning to me. I see the treatment and reaction of church members to my child and it drives me crazy especially the refusal of the church to embrace the resources available. The few church approved resources, including ensign articles, are lacking at best and usually incredibly problematic. Thanks for exploring this topic, I hope to hear more in the future!

    • February 19, 2015 at 5:43 am


      I”m not surprised to hear this at all. The church has an attitude that they have to take a good working wheel and reinvent it. Parents like you suffer because of this. I’d like to hear your story if you’d like to shar with me. Maybe together we can get a conversation going.

  2. April
    February 20, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    Happy to share. How can I contact you directly?

    • G
      February 23, 2015 at 4:37 am

      I got your mail. I didn’t check the site over the weekend.

  3. Kim
    February 20, 2015 at 9:59 pm

    This was a great interview. I have a 20-year-old daughter with an autism spectrum disorder (Asperger syndrome). When you discussed the rhetoric that the young women hear about marriage and children, I could really relate. My daughter has internalized a lot of those messages, and I don’t think it’s healthy for her. As always, she is on her own time schedule. Marriage and children may or may not happen for her – and that’s OK!! Also, it has been eye opening for me to witness the way she has been treated in all areas of life, but especially at church. Let’s just say it has not always been in the most Christ-like manner… Thanks for speaking up!

    • February 23, 2015 at 4:36 am


      I’m glad you shared and I hope that we can get a dialogue going that is both meaningful and powerful in a changing kind of way. Does your daughter express any type of frustration over the messages she has been taught? How would you change how women with disabilities get taught?

      I’m curious. I don’t have children but have worked with many. If you will share your 20 years of knowledge I would gladly learn from it.

  4. Ann
    March 10, 2015 at 3:46 am

    I have never posted on a site, and feel it is time for the church and the members to try to work together so there is really “Room for everyone” in the LDS church.
    I have three children. Two of my kids have a very rare genetic syndrome which affects them globally. They have cognitive impairments which are significant. My sweet daughter has no guile in her heart. She loves everyone. I thought she was being treated very well by the young women of the ward we were in. I went to primary and led the music, and was sure the YW were looking out for her, Well, I was so sadly mistaken. My daughter, who had loved church began crying when I was taking her to a YW activity. She sobbed so hard that I had to pull the car over. I asked her what was wrong. She finally told me that there were many YW in our ward who were calling her retard, and at school, while she was being allowed to walk a short distance to seminary, these YW would push her down and call her names.
    To say the least, I was heartbroken. I went to the YW president’s house and asked her to please handle this quietly. That did not happen! I had a parade of angry parents at my home, telling me my daughter was lying, that their daughter’s would never treat her bad. My daughter does not have the ability to lie. She never has. These people were nice to my face at the time. However, after that incident, it felt like my family had become the ones at fault. I really loved these families and trusted them before this. There are many more stories about the mistreatment of my wonderful children whom do not have any behavior problems, but have always been looked past, ignored, or not included because they are different. I no longer participate and they don’t either. I love the gospel but I will not participate in church again.

    • March 15, 2015 at 9:01 am


      You are the reason I did the podcast. I understand fully why you feel the way you do. There are never the words for this type of mistreatment. It is bullying.

      I went through this in my own life. I pulled away from the church and did my own thing. It has been a process and I now speak out in hopes that those like yourself will find a place to express the hurt and pain.

      I don’t know you but I understand your daughters hurt all too well.

  5. Greg
    September 25, 2017 at 6:32 pm

    I haven’t cried this much since I was in the icu for months several years ago. How wonderfully freeing and horrific it has been listening to your story of disability.
    I grew up in the church, went on a foreign mission, married in the temple, and I am the father of 3 beautiful children. My oldest daughter was born 13 years ago and not only was born two months early but was. born with severe cerebral palsy. She has never been blessed with ability to walk talk or even feed herself beyond holding a baby bottle. For years I have felt blessed and my wife has to that we have the heavy burden and amazing opportunity to raise this beautiful girl and amazing spirit. We were then blessed with a girl and a boy that have no disability and they not only are wonderful with their sister but are beautiful people as well that have taught me a lot about how to be as a person.
    This was my life for 32 years. My wife and i both grew and grew in the church even with the stares and purposeful ignoring glances. We both served faithfully in church callings and at home, work or where ever we were needed and wanted.
    32 years, 32 years of growing, changing, and if needed rebuilding my life. Come July and a family movie come out and we all see it as a family. It is an animated film with lots of bright colors so it is perfect for everyone in the family. We got home and I had the rest of the day so I took a much needed nap on the couch and I never got up off that couchagain that year.
    I had had a major and massive stroke and after spending 4-1/2 months in hospital care I was reluctantly able to come home only to struggle through 8 months of intensive physical therapy I was in a place to return to church like I wanted.
    To be honest I was never really welcome. I mean I guy who left town on vacation for 3 weeks got more of a welcome then I did. I mentioned this to my wife and she informed me that when I first went into hospital care the bishop came to inform her that the ward could not help and we needed to get our finances in order. This didn’t shock me at all our ward (having been exec. sec for several months) was comfy but not well off at besides I was never raised that way anyway. We had family and my parents had the finances so that was ok. But what got me is apparently that statement wasn’t ment only about money. We never got a visit from anyone, my wife went to school full time and took over all the house hold duties to boot. A much needed visit was never given.
    Although, at this point I’d like to separate “The Church” from the membership. The Church isn’t perfect by any means regarding disability but The Church is rapidly improving and has made great strides to help those with disabilities. Now saying that, the membership (bishops and stake presidents included) are human and make human mistakes. Though, as member of The Church members are given opportunities most people in the world don’t have. The opportunity to learn and grow is abundant and with what The Church teaches us about giving help we as members have a more clear vision of the world around but this is not always the case. As I e stated the members are human this is not an excuse at all but a reason they are imperfect. The sisuation you described at Ricks made me cry, pound my fist, and shake my head. The ability to do that to anyone is deplorable.
    I am not disappointed in The Church or our ward about finances at all. I would have refused financial help any way since we are blessed to have a large financially stable family. I am however, extremely disappointed and upset my wife or my kids never received any type of visit other The the occasional glance of pity we received at our meetings on Sunday. I doubt we even crossed theirs minds other than when we right in front of them.
    Members in the Church have many “traditions” that thrive with in the Church and it it unfortunate.
    Over the past few years I’ve strived to be strong for my kids and my wife though because of me and my daughter we are largely ignored. For me personally it’s ok but my daughter is truly innocent and EVERYONE everyone that spends time with her comes away lobbing and cherishing the experience, even when she sucks on her fingers and wipes them down your face.
    I get the uneasy feeling the the membership has no idea how to treat either of us so we are ignored. When someone happens to grab a door from us I can point out the moment pity enters their expression. We don’t want or need pity. But a helping hand with out pity.
    At first I heard a lot of anger in your voice concerning the Church when I suddenly realized it wasn’t “The Church” it was more the membership from that point on I cried like a newborn the whole time. What a delicious release of emotional I didn’t even know I was carrying around. I wish even bishop, bishopric, stake presidency, and leaders in wards listened to your story.

  6. Travis
    January 3, 2019 at 11:59 am

    Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is such a very difficult thing to live with. I am a person of many talents and I’m slowly losing my abilities one by one. It’s hard to understand why God would allow this to happen to the human body. My muscles are degrading and there is nothing that can reverse it. It’s especially difficult seeing so many people my age getting married. I can only really dream of finding love. I still talk to girls with some confidence, I just can’t imagine how I could ever be more than just a friend with women. Even though this life feels like an eternity it is only temporary.

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