Although researchers in the health and social care professions have suggested that spirituality is a fundamental human need and a human right that is a necessary component of both mental and physical health (e.g., George, Ellison, & Larson, 2000), spirituality is still a neglected area and underused resource in special education. Little work has focused directly on the significance of spirituality in the lives of students with disabilities, and there are few, if any, explicit references to the spiritual development in the students. In addition, teachers often have difficulties learning how best to understand and enable the spiritual development of students with disabilities (Foster, 2000). In this perspective, I address issues related to disability and spirituality, consider the impact of spirituality on children with disabilities, and suggest some practical strategies teachers can use to help foster the spiritual development of students with disabilities. I propose that spirituality has the power to foster the holistic development of children with disabilities and to give them a sense of identify and purpose in life.

Spirituality, What Does It Mean to People With Disabilities?

We live in an age in which the term spirituality causes much debate and demands constant reappraisal. Generally speaking, spirituality and religiousness are not considered synonymous. Spirituality is about the human quest for meaning, purpose, self-transcending knowledge, meaningful relationships, as well as connectedness with others, whether divine or human, whereas religiousness is associated with systems of worship, each system having a dogma that is shared within a group (Boswell, Knight, & Hamer, 2001). Although spirituality includes religion, it is not assumed to be a specifically religious concept. For many people, however, spirituality finds its expression in religion and with a focus on God.

Spirituality is also characterized as beliefs about the world that influence the meaning and acceptance of disability. Central aspects of spirituality include beliefs that shed light on the meaning of life and increase acceptance of people with disabilities as whole persons (e.g., Boswell, Knight, & Hamer, 2001). Although Helen Keller's accomplishments have amazed people throughout the world, few know that she credited her spiritual path as the secret behind her remarkable growth (Vash, 1994). Indeed, beliefs and values are crucial links to students' coping behaviors, as well as the family and teachers' commitment and involvement with special education.

Human beings are spiritual beings, and the role of spirituality should be recognized in both the education and interventions of students with disabilities. Blaise Pascal, the great 17th-century mathematician who established the groundwork for the development of mechanical calculations and modern hydraulic operations, once said that inside every human heart is a God-shaped vacuum that only can be filled by Jesus Christ. Therefore, children, especially those with disabilities, should be given a chance to develop their spirituality. Although difficult to measure, spiritual development provides opportunities to have deeper and sustainable learning experience in school. Therefore, it is essential for teachers to acknowledge the impact of spiritual development on educational gains. Including spiritual development enhances the school experiences of students with disabilities and promotes transformative learning. To the extent that educating the whole child is possible, incorporating spiritual development accentuates the potential to facilitate holistic development in children with special needs.

However, some people feel that spirituality is intimate and personal and should not be delved into by professionals; some are just ignorant of the spiritual aspects of disabilities, whereas some are fearful of imposing values on others. This being said, the question arises as to what educational strategies might be needed for special education professionals to recognize and deal sensitively with this dimension of human experience? Unfortunately, with the policy of the separation of church and state, it is clear that teachers and support personnel rarely want, or dare, to touch topics about the spiritual dimension of the lives of children with disabilities.

Spirituality as a Component of Interventions and Treatments of Disabilities

As indicated early, spirituality can play a role in the education, treatment, and coping of students with disabilities. According to James Gordon, chief of Washington's Center for Mind-Body Medicine, healthiness includes the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual bases (Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, 2002). The power and function of spirituality are important factors in the well being of humans. Therefore, understanding a child's spiritual life can help him/her cope with disabilities.

People with disabilities are often socially marginalized (e.g., Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities, 2002), and the opportunities for them to be supported in the process of finding meaning in their lives can be severely limited. Therefore, meeting people's spiritual needs is essential if person-centered care is to have real meaning (Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities). This view suggests that there is also value in offering opportunities to people with disabilities to receive spiritual support as an adjunct to support from health and social services.

Implications for Education of Children With Disabilities

What are the strategies teachers can use to help students with disabilities seek ways of connecting with self, the world, and others (whether divine or human) without violating the separation of church and state policy? The challenge for schools is thus to educate students holistically and provide activities that foster social–emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual development. In the following sections, I provide some practical strategies teachers can use to help foster the spiritual development of students with disabilities.

Outdoor Education

Education from the holistic perspective nurtures a sense of wonder. For many people, an appreciation of the beauty of the world around them enables them to make connections with important aspects of their lives. Encounters in nature with plants and animals foster spiritual sensitivities and help children to learn qualities such as empathy and compassion and to develop a sense a wonder. Although children often love to explore and inquire, for various reasons, students with disabilities often lack opportunities to explore and experience feelings such as awe, mystery, curiosity, and wonder in their contact with their environment. These responses form the basis of spiritual development.

Encourage a Sense of Values and the Search for Meaning and Purpose of Life

Teachers can encourage children to talk about important things and people in their life (Dowling, 2009). Children can be led to discuss what they hold most precious in life and why. This will also give adults useful insights into the children's developing values. For older students, teachers can design programs such as support groups and campus ministries that allow them to explore self-understanding, interests and personal calling. It is also essential to help students with disabilities to identify the purpose and meaning of life and to discuss their values, fears, and dreams. These students often need help to look at their disabilities with perspective and to find their own unique purpose. A spiritual perspective allows students with disabilities to see that their education and the work they choose later in life can be related to their directions and purposes.

Dealing With Disappointments and Disabilities

At times, children face disappointments, whether be it a loss of a family member or friend or issues such as having a disability or severe disease. On these occasions, teachers need to find ways to support our students in asking fundamental questions like, “What do I have a disability and my brother doesn't?”, and “Does my life have a meaning?” (Ruth, 1999). It is often helpful to try to point out the potential benefits and positive aspects of pain. Students may already have some beliefs from which to draw. These may include religious belief, notions of deity, or values about how to treat people and how they look at themselves as someone with disability. This is best done in small groups where a good rapport has been established among the teachers and children.

Creative and Expressive Arts

Arts are essential to the spiritual development of children (e.g., Wolf, 2000). Although not all students have artistic talents, through art, each student can express his or her own inner world and join in the celebration of life, developing a sense of reverence for creation. Arts reflect children's perception on themselves, others, and the world as they experience it. Drama, dancing, drawing, and painting can be used to engage children's spirit and senses. At times, even children with severe intellectual disabilities are able to create their own musical expressions by singing, humming, or chanting, using toys or instruments.

Bibliotherapy

Bibliotherapy, as the term signifies, is the use of books to help people solve problems. Another more precise definition is that bibliotherapy is the use of books in healing. The right book can be a powerful tool to build interest, enhance self-esteem, improve reading comprehension, and promote emotional and spiritual development. Students with disabilities or other personal problems (e.g., children who are overweight, short, or unpopular) identify with book characters who have similar problems and are helped to realize that they are not alone. Learning about the experience of others can foster release and insight as well as hope and encouragement. For example, Sarah, a seventh-grade student with Asperger syndrome and physical impairments, identified with Joni Eareckson Tada, an inspirational speaker, artist, and founder of the Joni and Friends International Disability Center. She read all the books she could find on Tada in the school and community libraries. During this period, Sarah's teachers observed personality and attitude changes as well as tremendous improvement in her reading.

Service Learning (SL)

The foundation of SL is the integration of community service with academic skills and structured classroom reflection activities (Muscott, 2001). SL not only offers opportunities to transfer learning into real-world activities, it also can be used to foster the development of a sense of caring and connectedness with the community. As a result, SL often reframes others' pessimistic views of the worth of children with disabilities and their ability to contribute to society. SL activities are beneficial to all students, but children with disabilities are in greater need of the experience that SL provides. SL is also intended to foster the participants' learning about social issues that are larger than the individuals' personal or immediate needs (Muscott). For example, a group of secondary school students with autism who teach music to third graders may come to question school policies that require full inclusion but provide no extracurricular activities for students with intellectual disabilities. Like bibliotherapeutic interventions, SL may be undertaken for many reasons, but with careful planning and preparation, SL programs can be used as a powerful tool to foster students' spiritual development.

Allowing Students to Explore the Role of Faith in Their Lives

People with disabilities should have their spiritual and religious needs met in the way that works best for them. One may wonder how matters of faith can be included in public schools without violating the separation of church and state mandate. Here are some practical steps for teachers working with children with disabilities: First, recognize and respect the fact that spirituality is a basic need for human beings. Discussions and other group activities (e.g., goal setting) that engage students in identifying the values and principles that govern their behaviors and lifestyles may be helpful. Second, see if the students want to have the opportunity to study different faith traditions and attend worship and/or to participate in a certain faith community. Arrangements should also be made for children to observe their faith traditions in school when needed. Third, schools should organize activities for the staff that help them to recognize the spiritual dimension of their work with children with disabilities and discuss their convictions about spirituality.

Discussions and Conclusions

In summary, spiritual development involves creating a greater connectedness between self, others, and the world through relationships and union with community. The role of spiritual development in special education is essential because of the commitment to provide appropriate education that meets every student's needs. As teachers and educators, we should bear in mind that education is not about accumulating information or only about the gaining of knowledge and the acquiring of skills but about personal development in its fullest sense. For students with disabilities, education is a mélange of appropriate educational services, rehabilitation–medical practices, and interventions. The recognition of the spiritual dimension has important implications for education and intervention. In many cases, faith can bring a message of hope, healing, and growth. Therefore, when working with children with special needs, teachers and other professionals should strive to help each child achieve wholeness within the characteristics of that particular state of special need and see beyond the physical and emotional aspects of disability. As John Calhoun (2004) expressed so well, “We should keep searching for ways we can help prevent crime (or teen pregnancy or falling literacy rates or homelessness) and build caring communities, as individuals, in the neighborhood and at the policy level. But, under it all, we should not be afraid to say that it is passion, commitment, risk—and quite often, faith—that make our efforts succeed” (p. 4).

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Author notes

Kaili C. Zhang, PhD (E-mail: kaili.c.zhang@gmail.com), Assistant Professor, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong.