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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Some Questions About How to Treat Children With Disabilities

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: May 18th 2011

Some Questions About How to Treat  Disabled ChildrenA Short Story,...Would you do the Same Thing?

At a fund raising dinner for a private school that serves children with learning disabilities, the father of one of the students delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he offered this story:

"My son, Shaya, cannot learn things as other children do. He cannot understand things as other children do. Shaya was born mentally and physically disabled."

He went on to say, "I believe that a child like Shaya presents an opportunity for people to demonstrate their true humanity in the way they treat that child."

He then told the following story:

"Shaya and I had walked past a park where some boys Shaya knew from school were playing baseball. Shaya asked, 'Do you think they'll let me play?' I knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shaya on their team. Yet, as a father I also understood that if my son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps.

I approached one of the boys on the field and asked, not expecting much, if Shaya could play? The boy looked around for guidance and said, 'We're losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can
be on our team and we'll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning.'

Shaya struggled over to the team's bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. I watched with a small tear in my eye and warmth in my heart. The boys saw my joy at my son being accepted.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shaya's team scored a few runs but were still behind by three. In the top of the ninth inning, Shaya put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as I waved to him from the stands.

In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shaya's team scored again. Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shaya was scheduled to be next at bat. At this juncture, do they let Shaya bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shaya was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was impossible because Shaya didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball. However, as Shaya stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shaya's life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least make contact.

The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shaya. As the pitch came in, Shaya swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher. The game would now be over, but the pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shaya would have been out and that would have been the end of the game. Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman's head, out of reach of all team mates.

Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, 'Shaya, run to first! Run to first!' Never in his life had Shaya ever run that far, but he made it to first
base. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled. Everyone yelled, 'Run to second, run to second!'
Catching his breath, Shaya awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base. By the time Shaya rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball. He was the smallest guy on their team who now had his first chance to be the hero for his team. He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher's intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman's head.

Shaya ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home. All were screaming, 'Shaya, Shay, Shaya, all the Way Shaya.' Shaya reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, 'Run to third! Shay, run to third!'

As Shaya rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, 'Shay, run home! Run home!' Shaya ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team."

"That day," said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, "the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world."

The discussion that follows is not about the 18 boys on two baseball teams. They meant well and showed great compassion toward Shaya. In my mind, the story raises deeper questions about how we treat the disabled. In fact, it raises questions about the father and his attitude toward his son. Of course, the father was also being compassionate and loving to Shaya.

Doesn't this story provide us with an opportunity to think about those with disabilities and the effects of unintentionally "killing" them with kindness?

I am imagining my readers thinking something like, "Dr. Schwartz, what's the matter with you? How can you imply that there is anything wrong with kindness? After all, isn't it right to pity this 'damaged 'child?" A "damaged" child? In my opinion, that is an unfortunate word to use.

What I am proposing is that the last thing those with disabilities need, whether adult or child, is pity. What they really need is to learn to compensate for their particular disabilities, regardless of what they may be.

I am reminded of the story of Helen Keller who was born blind, deaf and dumb. Her family treated her with great kindness and pity from the moment they learned of her problems. The result was that she was well on the way to becoming a savage before the age of ten. Only when a teacher for the deaf entered the lives of this family did things start to change. She began by demanding of Helen that she behave in civilized ways and she demanded that the family stop the pity. It took years of hard work but Helen Keller was helped to realize her true potential. As it turned out, she was a brilliant woman who made major contributions to the world and the way the disabled are treated.

Several Psychiatric Day Programs I worked for, many years ago, used the same approach to clients with schizophrenia, and mental illness in general. In addition to medication and psychotherapy, they were provided vocational training so that, when ready, they would be able to work. These clients were helped to find jobs and, once hired, provided with a psychiatric aid who helped them to deal with daily stresses at the work site. While their illnesses may not have been "cured," they were able to use their newly acquired skills to make a living and enjoy the self esteem that comes with functioning even with a disability. They learned that, despite having a disability, they were not incapable.

What skills did this baseball experience help Shaya to learn? Wasn't the father repeating what Helen Keller's parents started out doing, pitying him?

During the 1960's and for many decades afterwards, poverty stricken minority kids in schools were promoted from grade to grade because teachers falsely believed they could not learn. They took pity on the kids. Community leaders became incensed when they realized these children were graduating high school without the ability to read a newspaper written on the 9th grade level. In effect, they were illiterate.

In effect, wasn't the same pitying dynamic at work for Shaya with the long range consequence that he could become an adult with no skills at all. Wasn't the wrong message being sent to him, "You poor thing, you can do nothing so I'll shower pity on you?"

I await your responses.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

always wanted to say that - saher naqvi - May 20th 2011

Dr. your artical is great! i just love it love it and love it!!! bieng a disabled girl i totally know what you mean and agrees with it a hundred times. thats how my parents brought me up, teaching me to compensate, demanding the normal behaviour frmo me ( and some times above average too believing that i am very intelligent). and GOD am i thankful to them for that! tons of thanks to mum and dad. and i always wanted to say to pepole what you said. thanks for saying it.

well wishes

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