Empowerment or Helplessness

I sat in the chair looking at the piece of paper I had just dropped on the floor. I needed the paper for what I was doing so I had to pick it up. No big deal. Right? WRONG, it was going to be a problem. I couldn’t bend over to get it and I couldn’t get out of my chair and walk over to pick it up. You see the chair I was sitting in was a power wheelchair. Many of the simple reflex actions I used before my quadriplegia still came to me rapidly when I needed to solve a problem. Today was different and I knew it. My wife and my nurse were both gone at the time and so was the option that they could pick it up for me. I knew I had a major challenge before me the resolution of which would affect me the rest of my life.

As a teacher I had been working with students for over 34 years and was involved with some unique adventure based activities which tried to teach students to find alternative ways of problem solving. Mostly as a result of these experiences I truly believed there was a simple way to pick up that piece of paper. The real challenge I faced was to figure out how to do it. The solution finally came to me although it was not that day. Like most of my problem solving creations the answer was the result of hard work, frustration, failure, modifications and persistence. The ultimate success of my solution encouraged me to move on and find other simple methods of adapting ways l could solve other everyday challenges.




I have become convinced over the last twelve years that attitude is much more important than ability to individuals who are physically challenged. Looking at a new situation not as a problem but as a challenge needing to be met, may actually set one’s mind free of the mental restraints which prevent finding a solution. This initial attempt at finding a solution, I believe, is of critical importance because it will establish a lasting mindset. I can or I can’t; which will have greater significance for the future? If we give up or allow failure to deter us from continuing, the implications are obvious. Failure, if approached with the right attitude, provides opportunity for learning and hence for growth which eventually can lead to success. If a small child decided there is no reason to continually struggle to get up after falling down time after time, he or she would never learn to walk. I had a graduate student in a workshop sum up my supposition in an e-mail she sent me: ”I was particularly struck by your juxtaposition of self-created learned helplessness (I can’t do that, so how can I do this) with what I might call learned empowerment (I can do that, so why can’t I do this?)”

Some suggestions I would make in regards to finding alternative solutions:
1. Know there is a way.
2. Keep things simple.
3. Don’t get discouraged and give up.
Professor Randy Pausch in his book The Last Lecture wrote, “The
brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want
4. Think of failure as an opportunity for learning and growth.
5. Observe with an active mind.
After noticing hockey and lacrosse players had placed continuous
wrapping of tape on their sticks to prevent their hand from sliding past
a spot, I decided to do the same. The placement of these “stops”
allows tool manipulation without a strong grip.
6. Think outside the box.
7. When possible make tools multi-functional.
Try to create tools that can be used for different purposes.
8. Make tools interactional.
Any one of my tools can be used to pick up a different one if I should I
drop it.
9. Be willing to modify.
I am constantly revisiting the tools and ideas I have already come up
with to try and improve them or make them more functional.
10. Be open to the suggestions and ideas of others.
11. Remember success builds success.

One response to “Empowerment or Helplessness

  1. I’ve followed you for at least 5 years now because of the attitude you pose in this post. The first time I responded to you had to do with an inquiry about 3-D printing for some of your designs in 2013. Just last week I had a discussion with someone in my caregiver support group who had gotten her new dental inlays made by a 3-D printer and I had told her about your ideas and our discussions over 5 years ago, and then this article pops up. Enjoy. http://www.newmobility.com/2018/12/the-revolution-will-be-3d-printed/

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