Often, the biggest barrier to progress children with disabilities face is not their disability.
It is not their increased or decreased muscle tone.
It is not their reduced ability to communicate.
It is not their learning difficulties.
Rather, it is the painfully low expectations of the people around them.
I’ve seen children learn more in a week than was predicted they would ever learn. I will always remember a mom of one of the kids I worked with at a camp one year. She came to me beaming and told me how excited she was that her son had learned to sit at the 4 week camp. He was 8 years old. His family was told he would never learn to sit- so he never had. His physiotherapists said he couldn’t, his doctors said he wouldn’t, yet he did! I watched it happen. But it only happened because someone finally had the expectation and the belief that it would. The lead conductor of that camp started working with him and saw his potential, recognized that there was no reason he could not learn to sit. It would be hard. It would take a while. He wouldn’t always enjoy it. It would take patience and persistence. But it would happen. And it did. He just needed to be given the chance to learn.
I will also never forget when my little brother’s speech therapist excitedly informed us that he had said hi “very clearly.” He had been doing so for 6 YEARS. So we were not excited. We did not give him a sticker and a high-five. Because We. Expect. More. In school they set his goal as being able to recognize 10 letters by the end of 2nd grade. He already know at least 8. He can independently use Skype, Snapchat, and Facetime on his iPod and we are setting him a goal of 10 letters? Image recognition and memory are obviously not issues! How about 26 letters. How about, teach him to read! He has the potential, but he has to be given the chance. If you expect him to learn 10 letters that is all he will learn. If you expect 26 he will learn 26.
Kids have an amazing ability to rise to the expectations put upon them. Unfortunately, they also have a tendency to be pulled down by low expectations. Just as anyone will work harder for a teacher who grades harshly and put less effort into work for a lenient teacher. Kids with disabilities still have abilities and there should be expectations put upon them to use those abilities.
What struck my family about the first conductor my family met was her refreshingly high expectations and relentless positivity. We thought “this is a special conductor.” Turns out, she wasn’t; because the second conductor we worked with had those same high expectations, and the third, and the fourth. The more we worked with conductors the more we raised our expectations for my brother. He would walk. He would read. He could learn! And this summer, at 10 years old, my brother began walking independently with a simple walker: no straps, no specialized contraptions. It took 10 YEARS. But we held onto that belief because we had seen his potential and we were not going to let him down by having low expectations for him.
We talk a lot in lectures about expectation, belief, trust, and potential. We believe every child can learn. But for learning to occur there must be expectation, and for a child to be willing to take a scary first step, a trusting relationship must be formed. When there is a relationship you can see the potential someone has and your high expectations, that look crazy to everyone else, are realistic and achievable. We are taught to see ability rather than disability. To look at a child and shoot high. To prove to that child and their family that they are capable of more.
This past summer I had the pleasure of working again as a PCA with a boy who has CP. One of my favourite moments was when, after 3 summers of hard work, he undressed and dressed himself independently. He excitedly told me, “I bet I could learn to do this fast enough to do it on school days too!” The first time he took his shirt off independently it took 15 minutes. By the third summer he could do it in 30 seconds. He didn’t learn to do this until he was 13 years old. Not because he didn’t have the ability to learn but because no one had expected him to do it. Everything he learned showed him the possibility of other things he could achieve. Encouraged him to set continually higher goals for himself. My expectations have rubbed off on him and his family. But I’m not special in that way, it’s just what conductors do.
I do not want this to come across as an angry rant against people who do not have the same expectations as I do. I don’t want people to walk away from this feeling defensive. It is not always easy to have high expectations. There are the questions concerning what is disability and what is behavioural. Worries that certain activities will hurt. Conflicting advice and expectation from medical professionals. Time restrictions that face every family. The overwhelming desire to make life a bit easier for kids who face countless difficulties do perform even the simplest daily activity.
So this is not finger-pointing. I have been on both sides of this. I know that it is not easy. But it is vital.
I just want to highlight an issue that is devastatingly present in my day-to-day work with people with disabilities. I just want to remind everyone to shoot a bit higher.
As always, grateful for any thoughts!