Kids Get Farther When We Let Them Move on Their Own Two Feet
By Jo Chopra
I’m used to amazing stories, near-miracles and unlikely transformations. When you work with children with special needs, they’re commonplace, the stuff of everyday. Take a child everybody else has given up on, help him locate his strength, give him the support he needs – and then just step back and watch it happen.
It may take some time and it may not be Earth-shattering or dramatic, but every child has the potential to grow and develop. Sometimes a child is thwarted through neglect and abuse; sometimes, even with all the love and good intentions in the world, families can stunt their children’s development because they just don’t know any better.
Salman came to us at the age of six. He has cerebral palsy and, according to his parents, he could neither sit nor stand. A bright child, intellectually, he had difficulty speaking and making himself understood to anyone outside his family. When he arrived at our Child Development Centre, his parents carried him into the building and carefully laid him down on a mat they took everywhere for him. Indeed, he had spent all six years of his life thus far in a lying position.
Try to picture that. Try to imagine yourself lying down, flat on your back, for six years, unable to walk or crawl or even sit up. And then try to imagine his parents’ astonishment when Salman learned to do all those things. Astonishment and also a bit of guilt; they were devastated thinking about all the experiences lost during the years he was confined to immobility.
How did it change? First, we designed a special chair, which gave him the support he needed to maintain his balance while sitting upright. Suddenly, the whole world was transformed. Sitting up not only gave Salman a totally new perspective on what was happening around him, but it also made everyone who met him relate in a different way. We speak differently to an invalid lying on his bed than we do to an alert, attentive boy.
Regular therapy, strengthening exercises and a walker enabled him to get into a standing position; it was impossible then (even if we had wanted to) to prevent Salman from attempting a few steps one day, a few more the next. Before we knew it, he was walking, too.
Our orthotics team then designed a special device to allow him to hold a pencil and as far as Salman was concerned, that meant he was ready for school. His parents, amazed and overjoyed with his progress, enrolled him in a small neighbourhood school but within a few weeks, they were back. With a message. From Salman.
He had identified a few gaps in his new school and asked if someone from the centre could help him explain things to his new teacher.
Obediently, two of our staff went to see him at school. In front of his class teacher and the principal, he informed them that the chair he had been given wasn’t working for him.
“I have to spend all my energy just to stay on it,” he explained. “I can’t pay attention to what I’m supposed to be learning. I need a chair like the one I had at CDC.” (Our team relayed this back to Salman’s teacher and principal because they weren’t able to comprehend his speech.) Then he added: “And my teachers here don’t talk to me the way you do at CDC. I want them to talk to me.”
When his teachers heard this, both of them were overcome with embarrassment.
“We had no idea he could speak for himself,” the principal said. “We want to help him. We want him to learn. We just don’t know how.”
How much farther a kid can get by moving on his own two feet can be measured in Salman’s confidence and insight, his parents’ humility in seeking (even delayed) help, and the openness of his teachers to adapting. Just a few weeks later, Salman reported back: “Dear Didi. I have a new chair just like the one I had at CDC. My teacher is getting used to the way I talk. And I have a friend named Shaurya. He explains to the teacher when she can’t understand me.”
When we work together for our children, almost anything is possible. But when those children themselves participate, the sky is the limit.