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Working With Disabled Children and Adults-It’s Easier Than You Think

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Rose Mary has been an Occupational Therapist since 1987. She has treated children and adults with a wide array of conditions.

I spent over half of my career as an occupational therapist working in pediatrics.  I first did school-based therapy for the Department of Defense Dependant Schools overseas.  I worked with kids with learning disabilities, autism, and some with mild physical disabilities.  After graduate school, courtesy of the Air Force, I was assigned to Wilford Hall, our largest hospital, which is in Texas.  There I worked with children with varying degrees of physical and cognitive disabilities, including severely impaired children. 

When people found out that I was a pediatric specialist, they would say “I could never do that!  It would be too hard working with handicapped kids.”  For the most part, those people were wrong.  Working with disabled children is pretty easy, because kids don’t feel sorry for themselves. 

Kids with disabilities playing sports

Kids with disabilities playing sports

Information from the Division of Services for Children with Special Health Care Needs, Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Rockville, MD, estimates 18% of children in the United States under 18 years old have some type of chronic developmental, physical, behavioral or emotional problem that requires health or related services. Other statistics project as many as 150 to 250 million children with disabilities world-wide.

But does a condition considered by experts to be “disabling” make a child “disabled”? Sure a child may have a condition that puts them at a disadvantage, but does it prevent them from participating in, and being successful at normal childhood activities? Does the condition prevent them from growing up to be an independent, self sufficient, productive adult? For many the answer is yes, it does prevent them from having a “normal” life. But other children with “disabilities” are very able, and are happy with their version of a normal life.

Wheelchair athlete

Wheelchair athlete

Of the 43 million disabled people in the United States, only 15% were born with their disability. 

My dad was born with a disability.  He is completely deaf in his right ear.  We’re talking “flat line” on testing.  No one knew until he was five years old.  He had teenaged sisters who were dating.  The boyfriend of his oldest sister was playing with him, and was whispering in his ear.  My dad said “No, that’s the one I can’t hear out of.”  My grandmother about had a heart attack.  “What do you mean that’s the one you can’t hear out of?!”  Dad thought everyone had one ear that they couldn’t hear out of, because that was normal for him. 

My dad’s “disability” was so normal to him, it didn’t even occur to him that he would get deferred from military service.  So he didn’t serve in the peace-time Army.  He usually chooses his seat strategically when dining out with a group.  And don’t talk to him if he’s driving, because he has to turn his head to hear.  So I wouldn’t say my dad’s hearing impairment had no impact on his life, but he’s lived a happy productive life that is normal for him.  If you casually mentioned his disability, I’m certain he would look puzzled, and ask what the heck you were talking about. 

Amputee rock climbing

Amputee rock climbing

I recall early in my career working with a young lady, about nine years old, who had Erb’s palsy.  This is a birth trauma that causes nerve damage, usually to just one arm.  The arm will have a characteristic appearance, with internal rotation at the shoulder, and some amount of flexion at the elbow.  With the arm down at the side, the wrist will usually be flexed and the hand turned outward.  The degree of “disability” will depend on how severe the initial injury was. 

This young lady had the classic appearance of Erb’s Palsy in her left arm.  Her mother and grandmother wanted me to do serial (a series of) splinting to the wrist to achieve a more normal position.  When I talked to my patient, she was precocious and wise beyond her years.  She said the only thing she could think of that she absolutely could not do was cartwheels.  She stated she was perfectly okay with her inability to do cartwheels, and she was okay with how her arm looked.  In conclusion, she really had no interest in serial splinting. 

Life without Limits by Nick Vijicic

Bethany Hamilton Surfing- before & after losing her left arm

Some children are born with severe birth defects. Most of us would consider being born without arms or without legs to be a severe disability. But it doesn’t have to be.

Have you seen shows on The Discovery Channel of children who were born without arm? They learn to do amazing things with their feet. Actually, they learn to do everything with their feet. It’s hard to imagine, but they do.

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Other children and adults overcome terrible injuries, what most of us would consider horrible, disabling injuries. Obviously not everyone does well. Some never truly re-engage in their lives. But some inspire us all. They don’t just re-engage, they excel.

Abigail Branson- Living with Spina Bifida. Comments from her parents and siblings.

What makes the difference?  Why do these children grow up to be independent, happy, productive adults?  Why do some people, children or adults bounce back after overwhelming odds and devastating injuries or illnesses? 

Many of them say their families did not treat them differently, meaning their families projected a “can do” expectation.  They never saw themselves as disabled, and set out to discover how they could be differently able.  For some people, maybe “disabled” is a state of mind.  One they have no concept of.  These brave, magnificent people don’t feel sorry for themselves.  They have a very able state of mind. 

Obviously some children and adults truly have insurmountable disabilities.  I don’t mean to minimize these conditions by any means.  That’s another topic. 



RitsE on December 16, 2019:

touches the soul

alexisjones321 on January 16, 2013:

I'm in school now and i want to want to work with disabled children.. what classes do i take? how do i enter this awsome world? i have so many questions with no one to talk to if anyone can be of help please let me know please and thank you

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on August 16, 2012:

What a wonderful and insightful article this is. I have shared it:)

Kathryn L Hill from LA on January 26, 2012:

I believe they are typical people trapped inside. The nervous system just did not form correctly during the process of birth. Was it a conscious choice to come into the world disabled? Or a tragic mistake caused by SOMETHING in the environment! If so, I wish we could detect what that something is. Sounds so easy, but It is very hard to track the human population.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on January 20, 2012:

Kathryn I work with a lot of autistic children in home health. I love getting that occasional glimse into how their mind works, or what way they have chose to interact with the toys/materials.

Kathryn L Hill from LA on January 16, 2012:

I am impressed with everyone! I worked with autistic clients teaching them swimming. They taught me how to be happy for no reason at all. Changed me too.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on June 27, 2011:

Thanks for reading and commenting Susan. Much luck with your organization.

syoungb from San Felipe, Baja/Newport WA? on June 09, 2011:

Thank for this article. Since retiring, my husband and I have become involved with an organization in San Felipe that provides therapy sessions for children with disabilities. As I have no experience in this field, it is good to find a resource like yours. Thank you for sharing your experience.

Susan Young

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on March 27, 2011:

wheelinallover thanks for sharing your inspiring story!

Dennis Thorgesen from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on March 04, 2011:

I too have worked with Developmentally Disabled children and adults. I am honestly afraid I would be a different person today if I hadn't. Through my years of work at some point I probably worked with every age group and every disability imaginable. Never met one who had a give up or give in attitude.

When I could no longer use my legs and the room spent more time spinning than it did where it belonged. I never gave up either. It took a year to get from a bed to a wheelchair and years longer before I had any use of my legs again. Right in the middle of all this I lost my memory for nine years. I was told I am looked at as a role model by a few people because even without my memory I never gave up. Now I mentor college students, run a business, write for hub pages and other online magazines, take care of three young children on a daily basis, and live a full life.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on August 21, 2010:

Thanks neecytou. My brother and I are both occupational therapists. I have passed this along.

neecytou on August 19, 2010:

Many people who have disabilities can do some pretty amazing things. Sometimes though we all need a helping hand. There is a new therapeutic visual aid that was invented as a poster that sticks on the shower wall. It's called The Buddy Shower System. It's a poster that sticks to the underside of the shower head. It features a friendly character named Buddy. There are 20 cells that show Buddy going through the showering process. Washing the face, hair, and body. It's an excellent tool for the developmentally disabled, Alzheimers, Stroke and Head Injury Patients. It's a great aid, because we all need a helping hand at times. Please check out the website:

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on June 27, 2010:

Thanks for visiting bellis!

bellis24 from wolverhampton on June 27, 2010:

Great hub, I too work with children with various ranges of diasability and it brings so much joy.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on June 11, 2010:

Thanks for visiting and commenting quildon.

Angela Joseph from Florida on June 09, 2010:

Great hub! I am an OT who has worked with developmentally delayed children in the school system. I also work with adults and their attiude is way different. I think this is why OT is so important for the little ones because we can channel their abilities before they get to the age when they begin to feel sorry for themselves.

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on May 17, 2010:

Thanks for reading and commenting raisingme.

raisingme from Fraser Valley, British Columbia on May 17, 2010:

This is an incredibly informative and valuable hub - very impressed both with the children and with your means of delivering their stories. Thank You!

rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on May 11, 2010:

Thanks so much for your supportive comment jj. I have put your hub on my reading list.

jj200 from My Bedroom on May 09, 2010:

First off, great work on this topic, you've obviously got a lot of experience and a lot to say about it. I really liked when you mentioned a disabled person's version of a normal life. That's very well put. People often pity those with disabilities simply because they are prevented from doing certain things that others can do. It's a common misconception that disability must necessarily be a bad thing. You really emphasized what I was trying to say on my hub about this topic: that your condition doesn't have to dictate your mindset. Much praise for your insight on this issue.


rmcrayne (author) from San Antonio Texas on May 09, 2010:

Thanks for the high praise wordscribe. And hat's off to you too.

Thanks for your comment ramkkasturi. I agree, most do not want pity.

Yes ethel, wouldn't it be great if we retained our child's ability to not judge?

Ethel Smith from Kingston-Upon-Hull on May 09, 2010:

Yes kids usually don't feel sorry for them selves. I wonder if adults do because we have high expectations and resent our flaws, shall we say. Interesting Hub Rose Mary.

ramkkasturi from India on May 09, 2010:

I had some experience with epileptics and some with curved legs. We feel helpless when they go through the attacks or when i see the struggling to go up the stairs. But I think they would not want to be sympathized? Working with them is a great experience.It is nice and reassuring to hear it.May be this will encourage more volunteers. Thanks for the hub


wordscribe41 on May 09, 2010:

So true that kids don't feel sorry for themselves... I used to work at a pediatric hospital and had to jump around from unit to unit. At first I thought I was not going to be able to see disabled kids or kids with cancer without going into a depression tailspin. Then I saw how remarkable their attitudes were, in fact, they helped me put my own life into perspective. Suddenly my little "problems of luxury" didn't seem so important. Anyway, fabulous hub. I do maintain it takes a special person to do this kind of work. My hat's off to you.

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