The Forest and the Trees: Where are PWDs Really Failing and Succeeding?

Hello readers,

I returned from an uplifting and educational writer’s conference about 90 minutes from my home on Wednesday night. I was blessed to have my fiction critiqued by two respected authors and meet others who encouraged me. In particular, the keynote speakers in our morning and evening group sessions had plenty of positive and thought-provoking insights into the writer’s life. Insights like, writers are individuals and have specific purposes but are also interdependent. When one writes a bestselling book, we should all rejoice, and when one gets rejected for the two hundredth time, we should all hurt. Things like, out of your brokenness can come some of your best stories, and what you consider a failure in a specific realm may actually lead to a success in life.

In other words, not every writer will pen a bestseller. We can’t all win the big contest, get the coveted agent, and pull in money the likes of which would make Stephen King jealous. But if we reach even a small number of people, if we listen and learn, if we mentor others, we have succeeded as writers.

It occurred to me (of course) that the same might be said for persons with disabilities. I didn’t make this connection until I was on my way home, but here it is. I stopped in at this little thrift shop to look around (and bought a pair of ceramic cats; the poor things looked like they’d been waiting for a home forever. Please excuse my personifying writer’s brain). At the checkout counter, I happened to see a local family magazine and flipped through it. One article was about counseling, and how the goal of counseling is to get the client out of therapy so he or she can function more effectively and live a better life.

I thought, what a contrast that is. Let me repeat: in psychological or psychiatric counseling, the idea is to get the patient out of therapy. As in, there is a specific goal to be worked toward and ideally, specific strategies to accomplish it. Contrast that with other therapies that PWDs often undergo–physical, occupational, speech, and so on. Is the goal ever to stop therapy or to get the person to reach his or her goals and lead a productive life?

Ideally, yes, absolutely. Having been in OT and PT from age two to about fourteen, I can attest to the good intentions of some compassionate therapists who did see me as a whole person. Too often though, therapy is seen as a permanent fixture in the life of the PWD. Therapists and experts may say the goal is permanent discharge–but how often does that happen? How often do children with disabilities grow up to be teens and adults with disabilities–still working on the same goals, still being told their progress is not adequate, and still spending much of their time in therapy settings? It gets to the point where some PWDs accept therapy–treatment, being “worked on,”–as normal and expected, as acceptable for them because their bodies and minds are “different,” and because they are somehow “failing” to meet others’ standards. Standards of how their hands and feet should work. How they should speak and eat and use the bathroom. How many times they should be able to catch a ball in 60 seconds.

Seriously, guys? What are we doing to our fellow humans, here? Again, therapy can be beneficial, and therapists are often well-trained and compassionate people. But what are the real motivations here, and in what ways are we measuring failure and success?

You see, failure keeps you stuck. It keeps you pressed down–that’s where we get the word “oppressed.” In 1 and 2 Thessalonians, St. Paul used words that refer to oppression as being crowded in, pushed into a metaphorical box, like a helpless little sardine. Even though many people who interact with PWDs don’t mean to do this, they certainly send a message of failure. “You didn’t meet this goal–or didn’t meet it to our satisfaction–so you must stay at this stage in the game.” If that was your life, why would you even play the game? Everyone fails sometimes because that’s life. Yet nobody wants to stay in a situation where they perpetually fail and lose.

By contrast, success means you win. It helps you lift up–physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. It affirms that your life has value, and I think we need to stop using therapy and goals as our only measures of success for PWDs. Instead of saying, “Rana needs to keep working to tie her shoes because she’s eight and she can’t do it,” why don’t we focus on the fact that Rana loves school and has friends? Will tying her own shoes really help her get a job someday? Maintain a social network?

Instead of saying, “Bryce has failed to meet his reading goals again this year,” why don’t we reexamine those goals? How about asking Bryce what kind of books he likes, and focusing on his successes in understanding and appreciating those stories? (No, understanding and appreciation aren’t measurable IEP goals and shouldn’t be used as such, but they are intangible measures of success and self-esteem). How about focusing on the fact that Bryce succeeded because he played a key role in a school carpentry project?

Instead of saying, “Michaela continues to exhibit severe autistic behaviors and continues to have sensory-related meltdowns,” how about trying to understand and fix her sensory discomforts? How about applauding her because she was able to tolerate itchy clothes–not for a whole day like you wanted, but maybe just for thirty minutes? How about applauding her because she created beautiful artwork today?

I think in the lives of PWDs, we’re too busy looking at the trees to see the forest. If we stepped back and looked at the forest instead, I think we might see the chance to nurture some beautiful, strong plants.

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