“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Power of Professional Opinion

I was told of yet another situation where a human service professional made a pronouncement about what a person who is disabled would never do. We have all heard those pronouncements...
"He will never walk"
"He will never read"
"He will never have a normal life"
and the worst of all
"He will always be a vegatable"

Each of these statements are offensive and cruel in their own right, but they are particularly hurtful as they come from people who are perceived to be "in the know" about something. They are the professionals, the experts. However, I would contend that they are definitely not either professional or expert because someone with the life experience to go along with professional training would never say such things. When I hear of such statements, my response is not that the person making the statement is a professional. My response is that the person making such statements is a mess. He is a person using a position of power to destroy the hope of desperate people; be they the individual about whom the pronouncement is made or that persons loved ones and family. How can one respond to such pronouncements with other than grief?

But we probably all have known people who were told they would never walk, or never speak, or never whatever who are now walking or speaking or doing the thing they would never do. Because we believe the professionals, we call the fact that the people can do what they were not supposed to do miracles and I don't doubt that many people do experience miracles in their lives. I would be the last one to tell you that if you have been healed of something or are now able to do something that no one thought you would be able to do that you have experienced something miraculous in your life. But I would be the first to say that the pronouncement made by supposed professionals which may have led you to believe that your natural healing (which in itself is a miracle of sorts) have a good chance of being flawed.

I personally know, for example, a person who a doctor said was in a "persistant vegetative state" (I hate that phrase...calling someone a vegegable only provides an excuse for that person to be treated as something other than a human being) and was supposed to remain in such a state for the remainder of the person's life. Well, that person is a very active individual right now. Sure there are remaining evidences of the original disability, but if that person is in a vegetative state, than he is the first green bean that I have ever met who can communicate, respond to God, lead others to understand God and disability through emails and personal discussions, take care of their needs, and do a myriad of other things.

I could write all day on the whole idea of professionals, particularly medical professionals and down's syndrome. Man, is there a lot of misinformation being given about people with down's syndrome by medical and other professionals. Particularly those linked to the abortion industry. As one of my professors, Dr. Bob Henderson, used to state about ill informed people, "unencumbered by knowledge, he speaks with great authority." But I may have never known a person with down's syndrome personally, yet I can make all kinds of prounouncements about who people with down's syndrome are.

I will also tell you that there have been a couple of times in my life when I have been in the presence of someone making a pronouncement about what someone will never do. The last time was when I was discussing how a teacher could help a young man with severe cognitive disabilities develop some basic speech. As the child stood before us, the teacher said, "He will never be able to communicate through speech." I went off on the teacher. In a nut shell, I said "How dare you say such a thing! How do you know what Johnny (not his name) will or won't do! I suspect as well if he does not develop the ability to speak while you are his teacher it is probably your fault, not his!..." Anyway, the teacher apologized to me and to Johnny and I think that was a teachable moment. How much easier if the teacher has responded, "I would love to help Johnny to communicate through speech. How can we make that happen?" How hard would that have been?

But it is true with all of the "he will never..." pronouncements. Why not say, "Here are some ideas of what you might do to help him so that he might be able to walk again, or speak again or whatever again." "Here are some ideas of things you might do stimulate or potentially engage your family member who is in a comatose state." In none of the statements did I say that the person would get better. All I did was present the possibility of improvement and gave both the individual with disability and the family some hope. If the were to ask me, "Will Johnny ever walk again?" My response would be, "I really don't know. There are some people who have been able to recover, but they are very rare. Here are some ideas of things you might want to try to help him."

The other side of professional opinion, is the incredible good which can come from what a professional may say to people to encourage or praise them. I have experienced many occasions where I will have made some comment to someone that literally impacted their lives. Perhaps I said to an instructional assistant in a special education classroom that she has a knack for working with children with autism and ought to consider becoming a teacher. Five years later that person approaches me to say that that small comment was the spark that caused her to go back to school to get a credential. Or perhaps something is said to a person with a disability, or even a simple act of kindness, something that you don't give a second thought about, that impacts someone for the good.

Those of you who are professionals who might be reading this must remember the impact you have on people by the things you say. Now obviously you shouldn't tell people things that are not the truth. But you must also temper what you say with the fact that you do not absolutely know what will happen in the future for a person, so if you must err, err on the side of being hopeful.


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