Monday, 27 July 2015


A necessary challenge

For the second time I have taken one of Ralph Strzałkowski's blog postings and posted it here re-edited to suit the style of Conductive World –

A little girl in a wheelchair 
On Wednesdays I usually catch the later screening of a movie at the Hippodrome Theatre. 
The usher rolls out the seats in the front row for me that double as the wheelchair area, but that day I was running late. As I entered the dark cinema I noticed that something was different. There was a wheelchair parked next to the screen. Whoever used it obviously preferred to transfer to a regular seat. I used to do that until it was a hassle. 
The back suggested it was a TiLite – a high-end wheelchair brand popular in America. I wondered who it belonged to. I couldn't quite make it out in the dark, but the frame looked small. We were watching a Japanese cartoon, so I assumed it was a child. 
As I was leaving I was proved right. It was a little girl, most likely not older than 12, out to catch a flick with her parents. As they were walking she led the way. She was fast, smooth, determined and elegant in her moves. At times she turned around and circled round the adults as if to get them to hurry, like she played tag with them. If she wanted to, she could have easily left them behind, but she would stop, turn around, go back or let them catch up if she got too far ahead. She had one of those things on her front wheels that lit up as she rolled. She was being playful. 
They left the theatre as I observed. They forgot something and they went back. The daughter was leading again. She was first on the ramp and they followed her across the street. She was animated, they were talking, they were walking, they were rolling, she was having fun. 
It may have seemed strange that I – a grown man – decided to stay behind and watch this scene with people I didn't know, but at the same time I guess they didn't think much of it. I was just another person in a wheelchair. It was amazing to see how natural a person this young girl was in her wheelchair. It was just a tool for her. Something that enabled her mobility and allowed to express her personality. And she had a pretty good hang of it and exercised control. To her it wasn't scary or intimidating. It just was. She didn't seem to have any hang-ups about the wheelchair or her circumstance like many adults would. 
Welcome to the new generation: wheelchairs can be fast and light and fun and light up like a Christmas tree. And here's my hope: that the disability perception that I try to educate people about through my non-profit is something the adults of tomorrow will accept as a fact of life needing no explanation. I was brought up with the sense that wheelchairs are bulky, scary and final, and meant loneliness, abandonment and despair, and I always felt I that I had wasted a lot of years before I embarked on my journey to independence. But she wasn't. And kids like her are not like that. 
And to me that's amazing.  
A couple of years ago I edited Ralph's collection of autobiographical sketches Never, Never Quit, extracted from his blog Lawyer on Wheels. A particular aspect of this book is the window that it opens on to his upbringing as a child, including his three years as a weekly resident at the then Pető Institute in Budapest. The book carries over naturally to Ralph's adaptation to living in the United States (Florida) and to his life and reflections as an adult there.
His continuing blog takes the story forward. Just how does the world look to someone whose parents wanted and worked and sacrificed so much for him to achieve the goal of motor independence, and who has observed conductive upbringing at 'the Pető' from the inside? His is so far the only such account of its kind that I know and provides some unique and sometimes discomforting insights.
These may not always be reassuring but the questions that they raise need to be articulated and resolved if it is wished to develop understanding of the long-term purposes and effects of Conductive Education, and some proponents' very values and priorities.


Strzałkowski, R. (2013) Never, Never Quit, Birmingham, Conductive Education Press

Strzałkowski, R. (2015) A little girl in a wheelchair, Conductive World, 27 July

Sutton, A. (2015) Stairs, the final frontier, Conductive World, 14 June

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Blogger NormanP said...

It may be necessary to be a bit personal. I hope you do not mind. A senior member of our family is of the opinion that conductive education was a waste of time and money for our daughter Sarah. Why would they think that? "Well, she can't walk, can she? She still has to use a wheelchair", as if walking or not walking, "motor independence" if you like, is what it's all about.

No-one who knows me will be surprised that I do not share that view. Yes, of course, when we went to Budapest, the first question we had for the Conductor who assessed her was "Will she walk?" We quickly realised there was more to it than that. In more ways than one, it was not about how her limbs functioned, but who she already was, who she was becoming, who she might become - importantly, how she saw herself and, increasingly, who she wants to become.

Ralph's 12-year old in the wheelchair, seems to me to have a wealth of personal skills. Ralph is impressed by her manipulation of her wheelchair. I am impressed (in Ralph's sensitive observation of it) by her sense of self-hood and her relationship with her parents. It is not the wheelchair that makes her "playful" after all. We do not know this young girl so it is hard to say but we can wonder how orthofunctional a personality she already is at 12. More so than Sarah was at the same age, I suspect.

Her Mum and I are immensely proud of what Sarah has achieved. I'm sure Ralph's parents are of him too. Living independently with two friends; attending Paces' adult conductive group Monday to Friday; managing relationships, making plans, coping with her Mum's illness - one could go on about someone who has become a loving, caring, determined young woman with a great sense of humour.

In Sarah's case, I personally have no doubt that conductive education - to me more, much more, than "motor independence" - has helped us help Sarah and helped Sarah herself become the independent-minded person she is. A bit like Ralph, in fact.

Monday, 27 July 2015 at 16:21:00 BST  

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