Traditional view challenged for teaching handicapped

The Carnegie Council on Children has completed its work with a final dynamic report regarding handicapped children. As its other reports have done, this one as well challenges some of the more traditional assumptions about children and calls for reformed thinking (and action) to redress the wrongs long done.

Perhaps the most startling discussion is over the medical view that somehow a handicap is an illness which requires constant treatment and hence the one with the handicap is a perpetual patient.

The report challenges this notion, spelling out how this view of those with special physical characteristics causes them to suffer a lifetime of prejudice, neglect, and incompleteness. Yet, as the report argues, most handicapped children have normal intelligence, and while their steps in development may be slightly different from children without physical handicaps, they are not, of themselves, "ill" and do not need to be "cured" before they can have a full and meaningful life.

The view of those with physical handicaps which the report recommends is the one personified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As the report explains, he is not thought of as a crippled President, but as a great man, as a great President, who happened to be crippled. Moshe Dayan of Israel also is accorded such respect. He is not thought of as visually impaired, but as a very capable leader who happens to have sight in but one eye. The report refers, too, to Milton who was blind when he wrote the great classic "Paradise Lost," and to Beethoven who was deaf before he wrote his magnificent Ninth Symphony.

The report explores three popular notions of social, intellectual, and personality development through which normal children are said to pass, and indicates that the states and stages of development for those with handicaps may be different, but equally successful and fulfilling.

But it is quite possible, the report states, that the development of handicapped children, if nurtured and rewarded correctly, would result in the same maturity, providing handicapped young adults with fully developed personalities, active social concerns, and mature intellectual abilities.

The report comes down very hard on the misguided approach of the many professionals who work with the handicapped -- educators and doctors. While the report does not neglect to praise the professional who is sensitive and intelligent, it nevertheless probes into the professionals who do more harm than good.

That is, the professional with technical expertise oversteps his bounds, feeling that because of his special clinical knowledge it is he who knows best what a handicapped child should or should not do, should or should not aspire to be, should or should not attempt.

But, the report calls for parents and the children themselves to be the ones to make the larger social, moral, and intellectual decisions, only calling on the technical expertise of the professionals.

I was reminded when reading this section of the report of a conversation with a vice-president of a prestigious "think tank" company. He was explaining that his youngest child was considered mentally handicapped and that the professionals had told him her development would lag behind that of normal children by several years.

He said: "Okay with me if she doesn't walk until she's 10. There are a great many things she can do -- and is doing -- without walking. She'll have the fullest, most wonderful life my wife and I and the other children can provide, and we'll work around her handicaps, not use them as excuses to ignore her."

Furthering this notion of parental care and concern, and of the fact that handicapped children can not only develop intellectually and socially, but can hold interesting jobs and become productive members of society, the report makes a definitive statement:

"We do not wish to idealize or romanticize the parents' strengths. But to put it bluntly, the professional exists to further the parents' vision of the handicapped child's future. Should the professional disagree with this vision, he has every right to try to persuade the parent to adopt a different view."

The report "The Unexpected Minority: Handicapped Children in America," is available in book form at local book stores and from the publisher, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. ($17.95).m

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