“I was labelled a slow learner — but here I am!”
— Gary Malkowski, MPP and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Education and Training, commenting on the experiences of children with disabilities who are served through the medical model
BY LISA BENDALL
Gary Malkowski’s welcoming remarks at the Ontario March of Dimes’ Discover Conductive Education conference, held May 28 and 29 in Toronto, intimated that the current system of treatment for people with disabilities is less than perfect. And his comment was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Speakers at the conference, advocates of Conductive Education, pointed out inadequacies in the schools and therapies currently available to North American children with disabilities, and presented a seemingly viable — and exciting — alternative.
The ideas presented here were not accepted passively. Other individuals in attendance spoke out as well, expressing disbelief or voicing fears. But many others responded with interest and enthusiasm. Discover Conductive Education became a forum for discussion and motivation for change.
Conductive Education is a process that allows individuals with motor disabilities to improve motor control by providing them with the opportunity to develop the best neural paths from the brain to the body. This is accomplished by degrees, encouraging the individual to attain a series of short-term, achievable goals which gradually culminate in autonomous actions that he or she was previously unable to perform.
Probably the most significant feature of Conductive Education is that it is considered an education of the whole person, viewing the individual as a complete social being. Rather than focusing on the disability as the problem, Conductive Education addresses the impact that a disability has on all aspects of the individual. Children who are accustomed to having everything done for them may have developed passive personalities and social maladjustments. And conventional treatments do not always confront this. As a representative from Hong Kong remarked, explaining the obstacles presented by traditional therapy, “the more therapists did, the less they [youths with cerebral palsy] did.” Udi Lion, director of the Conductive Education Rehabilitation Centre in Israel, commented, “When a child is not good for the system, maybe the system is not so good for the child.”
“Conductive Education holds vast opportunities for people with physical and motor impairments,” states Andria Spindel, Executive Director of the Ontario March of Dimes.
Through Conductive Education, people with disabilities are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning process, to develop independence and pride in themselves. “You can see it in the faces of the adults and the children involved in Conductive Education…They are at ease with their bodies and the world,” said Andrew Sutton, Director of the Foundation for Conductive Education in England, during his presentation. The transformation in the children’s faces was striking: Photographs we were shown taken early in the program showed distant, detached expressions. Later shots were of bright, alert, attractive and smiling children.
It truly sounds revolutionary. And how can anyone argue with results? Before our eyes, children with cerebral palsy underwent an incredible metamorphosis from total immobility to walking with canes. We were told how it works. We were told why it works. And, in the children we met through the photographs and videos, we saw it work. What more do we, as consumers, parents or service providers, need to know?
But it isn’t so simple. Conductive Education is more than a unique new form of treatment (and it is not all that new, either: Although it did not attain international recognition until recently, it was developed fifty years ago in Hungary by Dr. Andras Petö, who encouraged his patients to take a leadership role in their own care). What makes Conductive Education special becomes its own detriment: the fact that it presents somewhat of a contradiction to many current worldwide therapeutic methods, including those practised in North America. And there are some individuals, particularly those with a vested interest in traditional methods — such as service providers in comfortable careers — who may view this as a threat.
Some of the first questions from those in attendance at the conference sounded defensive and rather fretful. Many wanted to hear that there was still a place for a leadership or “teacher” role in the system. But Sutton asserted in his response that a problem starts when Conductive Education is tied to the existing formal education system. Conductive Education is in a particular teaching style that anyone can adapt. The child has the leadership role and draws from the conductor only as a facilitator, trained in a wide variety of interests such as psychology, education and physiology. Within this structure, there is not a need for “specialists.” As Udi Lion remarked: “Learning happens in real life, not in specialized settings.”
Andria Spindel says, “I don’t think that most professionals left there feeling as agitated as they might have coming in…We’ve had all kinds of fallout, really exciting stuff.” She points out that the initial response from professionals at the conference is often typical of “an uninformed reaction. Once people get a look at it up close, they feel quite differently.
“Many of the speakers talked about how Conductive Education is complementary to existing occupational therapy, physiotherapy, speech therapy programs, how it is part of existing special education or integrated schools. In some countries it is working very well with existing professionals.
“I think we’ve shed some light on something that only bits were known about,” Spindel continues. “There’s been speculation, and there’s been paranoia; there’s been controversy, and there’s also been a complete dismissal by the medical establishment of this. So we’ve brought some of this to light for people to give it more thorough consideration. That’s been our goal.”
“Canada has a lot of experience in the treatment aspect,” says Mark Hutchins, whose daughter Emily has cerebral palsy. He believes that there is a lot to be gained by getting these professionals interested and involved in Conductive Education.
Hutchins, who is an engineer by trade, says that “Conductive Education has a strong logical appeal to me. Basically it’s a system which uses the inherent abilities of a child.” Hutchins notes that there is a major philosophical difference between this and the conventional North American system, “which says, this is a disabled child so let’s throw all these high-tech solutions at her and see what happens.”
The ideology Hutchins refers to is so well-ingrained in North America that it seems to have permeated even a New York cerebral palsy preschool treatment program where Conductive Education is being incorporated. A representative from this school explained that their students are encouraged to locomote using whatever means or adaptive aids possible; she maintained that doing it is more important than how it is done. The photographs presented to us at the conference could well have been taken in any standard North American occupational or physiotherapy class. They did not display anything remarkably revolutionary, and the philosophy seemed a far cry from the Conductive Education program developed in Hong Kong, where wheelchairs and other adaptive aids never enter the classroom, or Israel, where walking aids are not introduced until the child has developed maxiumum use of his or her arms and legs. In these programs, children with disabilities are provided with the opportunity to learn to do what other children do. In New York, they are simply children with disabilities learning to use adaptations.
Hutchins is “very much of the mind that a child who can do something of her own volition gains so much compared to a child who sits there and presses a button.” Emily, who is a bright eight-and-a-half-year-old, is “very well-versed in high-tech solutions — but, having said that, she is terribly motivated to do things on her own, and her biggest frustration is to have to rely on others.” Hutchins has already committed to a role in bringing Conductive Education to Canada.
“Conductive Eduaction is absolutely not about segregation,” says Spindel. “It is a special education approach to increasing the opportunity for kids to be entirely integrated. If you can increase your independent skills, take more responsibilities in life, participate equally, you’ll just be better integrated. For many people, Conductive Education will enhance their own personal esteem and independence. They will live, therefore, in a more integrated fashion.”
In an interview with ABILITIES, Andrew Sutton described barriers to the development of Conductive Education in North America, and mentioned “conflict of interest” as posing a significant obstacle. Professionals, of course, may fear the decline of a need for their specialized services. Politicians may not wish to support a project that does not have an impact on most taxpayers. A self-maintained Conductive Education program, without imported conductors, takes five years to get established (conductors require extensive training). This means even if we embarked on it now it would not have much bearing on present-day preschoolers with disabilities — and we have no way of amassing parental support by predicting whose children it one day would affect. So it is much more tempting, said Sutton, for government and consumer organizations to implement a program that “costs 500 quid and can be installed by Monday.”
Our best hope for putting Conductive Education in place, believes Sutton, is people who are truly knowledgeable about the program and are interested in acting for the good of society as a whole.
Fortunately for Canadians, there seems to be no shortage of this resource. According to Mark Hutchins, “The conference generated tremendous energy and enthusiasm…The Ontario March of Dimes has been quite splendid, overwhelming with their support.” This support has spread to many other interested organizations.
Sutton also pointed out another advantage that Canada has: Its geographical sprawl means Conductive Education can sprout up in many different places independently of each other, increasing the likelihood that somewhere, somehow, the program will happen in the true sense.
And perhaps it will. Plans are already in place for a demonstration summer camp project which will involve importing conductors from Hungary and Israel, with a view to convincing Canadian government and organizations that it is worthwhile to implement a self-sufficient Canadian program.
Provincial government representative Gary Malkowski, whose portfolio includes responsibility for disability issues in education, left us with an assurance: “What I can promise is that we will be ready to listen and to talk.”
(Lisa Bendall is an ABILITIES staff writer.)