The English Language Center recently established the Ito Brothers Scholarship in memory and honor of Tatsu and Dan Ito, two Japanese brothers who cheerfully and gratefully face their challenges.
PROVO, Utah (September 1, 2015)—Life parked a few hefty obstacles between the Ito brothers and their lifelong dream of studying abroad in the United States: both had spinal muscular atrophy and weren’t able to live on their own, their family had no money for travel, and they didn’t speak any English.
But, the Ito brothers take obstacles in their stride, transforming them gracefully into markers of faith. In time and in spite of hurdles, Dan and Tatsu left Japan for the Rocky Mountains where they enrolled at BYU’s English Language Center, which operates under the direction of the Department of Linguistics and English Language with support from the Division of Continuing Education. Today, the English Language Center offers a half-tuition scholarship in honor of the Ito brothers, awarded each semester to one student who demonstrates similar optimistic and diligent qualities.
Paving a Path to the United States
Dan and Tatsu Ito were the third and fourth children born to Hidetoshi and Ikuko Ito—and the third and fourth to suffer from spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that weakens and damages muscles and worsens over time. The disease, which has no cure and is eventually fatal, left both brothers without the use of their arms and legs. Their oldest sister passed away before Dan was born, leaving Dan, Tatsu and their older brother, Hidenori, to grow up together. “We were always together,” said Dan, the youngest Ito and the only surviving child. “There were three of us in the house, and we always sat next to each other and talked with each other, and we always shared one room.”
Of their older brother Hidenori, Dan remarked that he was in a much weaker physical condition than Dan or Tatsu. He couldn’t sit up on his own and was always lying down. “His body was really small, like a baby,” Dan said. But, Hidenori was smart and excellent at math. Despite his physical handicaps, he tried multiple times to be admitted into a university to develop his intellectual abilities. However, time after time, universities rejected him because of his disabilities.
“But he never gave up and never said anything negative about his life,” Dan said. “I respect him so much; even though he was physically very weak, his mind was strong.” According to Dan, Hidenori’s dream was to study in Japan, not to study abroad. However, he knew that his brothers dreamed of being able to study in the United States.
When Hidenori realized that he wouldn’t be able to pursue higher education, he chose to work instead. Unable to work on anything requiring even menial physical effort, Hidenori’s job search was a bit more complex than most, but he eventually found a job that permitted him to work from home via the Internet. Dan said. “I still think that it was a miracle that he was hired by one company,” and, according to Dan, he earned relatively good money.
At this time, Hidenori taught seminary in the morning to LDS Japanese youth who gathered in the Ito home for lessons. One day, after teaching in the morning, Hidenori unexpectedly passed away. “That morning he taught seminary just like he always did, and nobody thought anything was wrong,” Dan said. “He never complained or said that he was getting weak.”
Though the majority of people with spinal muscular atrophy die in infancy, the surviving Ito brothers had never been confronted with death so vividly. “We were always blessed with health,” Dan said. “Suddenly, when he died, we began to realize: oh, wow, we can die.” Dan said they were comforted by the understanding that “he was called to serve in heaven” and that “he really understood his own disability and his own purpose in life.”
When Dan and Tatsu’s parents looked into Hidenori’s bank account after his death, they were surprised to find that he had saved considerable money. “We had no idea how much he was paid because he never told us,” Dan said. Knowing their lifelong dreams of studying in America, Hidenori had enough money to buy tickets for Dan, Tatsu and their mother to travel to the United States and to pay their rent for several months. “That was a very surprising moment, and we started to understand that he had been working for us,” Dan said.
Setting Out for the U.S.
Knowing very little English, Dan and Tatsu initially applied to study at BYU’s English Language Center, which provides high-quality English instruction for English language learners.
James Hartshorn, the associate coordinator of the ELC, recalled receiving the Ito brothers’ applications: “We had never worked with anyone quite like them before.” But Hartshorn said that with help from the Accessibility Office on campus, they were able to accept and accommodate the Ito brothers. Dan and Tatsu enrolled in 2010.
Their father remained in Japan to give financial support, and their mother traveled with them. “In the beginning, she was their helper,” Hartshorn said. They rented a small one-bedroom apartment, and she cared for them. “It was an overwhelming task for her to try to meet the needs of her two sons who were in wheelchairs – and not just in wheelchairs, but who had very limited use of their hands.”
Reflecting on their beginnings in Utah, Dan said that it was quite scary at first. The cultural differences, even within the LDS community, were overwhelming.
Their first week in Provo, they attended a family ward. Dan recalls walking in and hearing the prelude hymns. “I heard that it was the same song that we sing in Japan,” Dan said, “I think it was I Know that My Redeemer Lives, which was one of my favorite songs. I heard that song, and I really started feeling warm for the first time. I felt: we are in a very different place, but we believe in the same things.”
Dan chuckled imagining what a sight they must have been to the ward members when they came into church for the first time. “It was a weird situation, I’m sure, when two Asian people came in in their wheelchairs with only one Asian mom, and we all didn’t speak English. But people just came up to us and talked to us. [Members] learned quickly that we weren’t able to communicate well, but people really tried to welcome us and show that they were happy to have us. Even though we couldn’t communicate with them, I just remember that very warm feeling.”
The Ito Brothers at the ELC
They started immediately at the ELC. “I did terribly on the placement test – I left most of the parts blank,” Dan said. “I was put in the lowest class, in the lowest level, starting with ‘hello’ and ‘good morning.’ I was taught very, very fundamental English, and I now think that that was very helpful.”
Hartshorn said that it didn’t take long before the entire ELC got to know the Ito brothers personally and loved them.
According to Hartshorn, for people who haven’t interacted with someone who is severely disabled, it can be an unknown. “They’re not sure what to do or what to say. They don’t want to say something offensive. They don’t want to make some sort of social mistake. But it’s also a little concerning: you see someone that obviously can’t do what you can do, and you feel sorry for them.”
Dan remarked that at times in their lives, they have been overlooked. “People with disabilities sometimes tend to be ignored by society,” he said. “But people have been so caring. We made a lot of friends, who have really great hearts. They didn’t care whether we were disabled or not, and they were kind to us and tried to be good friends to us. They don’t make us feel like we are disabled; they make us feel like normal people, like we are children of God.”
Hartshorn characterized the brothers as always smiling, asking how people were doing and, most of all, being thankful. “They need help, in a lot of cases, and they were thankful. It wasn’t a sense of entitlement; it was a sense of profound gratitude for anyone who was willing to help. They were always very grateful and they expressed that gratitude to their teachers, to their classmates, to everybody. It was just a refreshing thing to see and be a part of.”
Dan and Tatsu attended the ELC for one year before Dan enrolled at LDS Business College (LDSBC) in Salt Lake City. Tatsu did not go on to study at LDSBC, and in 2013, Tatsu passed away. Dan is now the last remaining of his siblings. After graduating from LDSBC in 2014, Dan enrolled as a full-time student at BYU studying English language and now speaks English proficiently.
Watching Dan Ito maneuver himself through the hallway – he is barely able to operate his motorized wheelchair with his right hand – it might be easy to brand him as disabled and dismiss him. But in relationship to his disease, Dan said, “When I [understood] that Heavenly Father gave me this disability because he loves me, I no longer had limitation in my life.”
The New Ito Brothers Scholarship
In 2015, the English Language Center established the Ito Scholarship, a half-tuition scholarship awarded to one student each semester who demonstrates similar qualities as the Ito brothers. “Everything that we do at the ELC is focused on excellence,” said Hartshorn. “We want the teachers to be excellent. We want the students to be excellent. We want all who participate at the ELC in any way to do their very best. We want that ideal to be reflected, and we want to reward students who are embracing that. One of the things that we thought of was a scholarship.”
As ELC administrators and leaders discussed the potential new scholarship, Hartshorn said they sat in a meeting, and everyone unanimously agreed: ‘We’ll name this the Ito Scholarship.’
With their friendly optimism and sincere gratitude, the Ito brothers inspired everyone around them wherever they went. “It’s so easy to think ‘Oh, I’ve got this problem in life or that problem. I’m having a hard time getting my homework done or my jobs is challenging,’” Hartshorn said. “Yet here were these two people who had so much that wasn’t going well for them, but they were so grateful, and they worked really hard.”
Dan’s goal is to be able to assist others in learning English. “He’s really motivated to help other people, and that’s what’s driving him,” Hartshorn said. “It’s an inspiration to recognize that those of us who don’t have such disabilities could probably do a little better in our own gratitude, in our own optimism, in our selflessness.”
The ELC remembers and honors the Ito brothers, and hopes to spread their goodwill through the Ito Scholarship. Hartshorn said: “They made a huge impact on us. Here are people that have so much less than we have, in a lot of ways, and yet are selfless and focused on helping others. Interacting with Dan and Tatsu can dramatically change someone’s perspective.”
When asked how he remains so cheerful, Dan said that he is motivated by a love for God and a desire to serve Him. “Heavenly Father has such a great purpose in my life. Knowing this, I can remain very positive and optimistic.”
—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ’15)
Danielle covers the Department of Linguistics and English Language for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursing a degree in Russian with a minor in women’s studies.
“Dan Ito poses with his parents, Hidetoshi and Ikuko, after graduation April 11.” Photo by Laura Seitz, Deseret News.