Dangerous assumptions

In search of angelsWhen I was a journalist, I was taught “never to assume” anything. Always check things out, my editors admonished, even if they seem preposterous. It was a lesson that served me well and landed me at least one big scoop during the years I was a reporter.

I was reminded of this axiom when I read J. David Smith’s In Search of Better Angels: Stories of Disabilities in the Human Family. Dr. Smith is Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He has devoted much of his career to research and writing and advocating for people with disabilities and he has been generous enough to review my own book, My Father’s Eyes, which is being released in January.

In his book, Dr. Smith talks of a young man named Bill, who had cerebral palsy and who had lived most of his life in an institution. Bill was in a wheelchair and couldn’t control his legs. He had limited control of his upper body and could not speak. He was believed to have an intellectual disability.

Bill’s lucky day

Lucky for Bill, a special education major at a nearby college decided to do her student teaching at his residential facility. This student teacher Amy challenged the assumptions that had been made about Bill. She noticed there was something about Bill that made her think there was more about him than had been recognized.

Other staff members told her he liked being read to, but he probably didn’t understand what was being read. Amy noticed that when she opened a book and started reading to him, Bill’s eyes lit up.

Eventually, she created a communication board with pictures of objects like a glass of orange juice, a book, a tree and other things. She thought she might be able to teach him to use the board to communicate his desires. To her amazement, he learned the symbols immediately.

Liberated from a disabled body

Then she created a second communication board with the letters of the alphabet on it. She started spelling out words like B-O-O-K – by pointing to the letters — and then pointing to a book. When she gave Bill a chance to spell out something, he pointed to letters that spelled T-H-A-N-K Y-O-U. It soon became evident that by listening to others read, Bill had taught himself to read.

It took some doing, but Amy finally convinced the institution’s psychologist to give Bill an IQ test and to let him respond using the communication board. The test showed that Bill had a superior level of intelligence. He had been locked inside his body for 35 years, unable to communicate his inner thoughts and being treated as if he were intellectually disabled.

After this discovery, Bill moved to a group home and learned to use an electric typewriter (this was in the days before computers.) He developed friendships, joined a church and a civic organization. In short, he became a contributing member of his community.

The moral of the story

Dr. Smith reminds that “We all need to be very careful with the assumptions we make about people, and extremely careful about the assumptions we make about people who have trouble communicating…

“I hope that in sharing this story we are all reminded that the most disabling handicaps are created when our misperceptions and misunderstandings place stereotypes where insights on our shared humanity are most needed.”

Amen, brother.