Working with difficulty.

I gave lessons over a period of several months to someone who was seriously disabled. This is an account of our progress.


Some years ago, I was asked by a mother if I would give lessons to her 19 year old son who had been severely handicapped as the result of a road accident.

I went along to see the family.They appeared very well off; possibly they had won an award of compensation following the accident; because their son lived in a purpose built annexe to their house, complete with swimming pool and live in help. In addition, numerous therapists of every persuasion visited daily.

I had mixed feelings about working with handicapped people; and when I was introduced to Simon, I felt these were justified; but the money was good, and the mother insistent, so I agreed.

Physically, Simon was whole, if grossly lopsided; but he appeared to have absolutely no control over any part of his body. His various helpers toiled to built muscle, improve co-ordination, maintain brain activity, etc; but I was left with the impression nobody was making much connection with whatever Simon himself thought – if, indeed, he thought at all – largely because he couldn’t speak and gave no appearance of understanding anything that was said.

Conversation was limited to the sort of cheery greetings and unanswerable questions I would have found myself in other circumstances addressing to animals or babies. Everybody did this – including Simon’s mother, sister and father – and I found until I got used to it that I was often reduced to tears before I had even arrived at the house at the mere prospect of having to converse in idiot fashion with someone who months earlier had presumably been a strapping teenager in full command of his faculties.

I gave my lessons in a conventional fashion. Simon would be ‘sat’ in a chair by his helper; then I would set to work, with the helper at arms distance to lend support if a crisis occurred. Putting my hands on I remember thinking how crucial it was for me to stay ‘in my back’. The trouble was, try as I might, I couldn’t rid my mind of teeming thoughts concerning Simon: the nightmare of his downfall, the stench from his colostomy bag, his blistering halitosis, his wild, staring eyes, the state of his neck, head and back, which seemed made of unyielding lead panels riveted together that every so often, with no warning, buckled alarmingly.

Sometimes, his arms or legs would take on a life of their own, waving or kicking violently. My hands, like fragile leaves, would be blown away; so I would have to compose myself and start again.

I talked as I worked, saying more or less what I would have said to any other student, but less of it. It seemed utterly fruitless to expect Simon to have any understanding of what I was saying concerning inhibition or direction. He couldn’t ask me questions; there was no certainty he heard me; he never once in all the lessons I gave him offered the slightest indication with his eyes or any other part of his face that he even recognised I was there.

We worked in a version of semi-supine, too. This was carried out on the floor. I laboured away, initially just getting Simon into an approximation of what I considered reasonable alignment. This was physically fairly demanding; and it left me wondering if I should just be ignoring his evident out-of-synchness and putting my hands on and simply directing instead. However, whenever I did do that, the lack of response I got, the lack of the remotest sort of feedback, made me believe I might as usefully have been working on a tree. Something could have been happening, but it was at a depth I had no comprehension of; and basing my ‘lesson’ on that sort of hope seemed an unnecessary form of wishful thinking.

Having rearranged the bulk of Simon, I would take a leg and try and move it. Sometimes, I felt the hip joint ‘give’ ever so slightly. More often than not it was like trying to encourage the raising or lowering of the socket of a bike saddle that had rusted fast. I didn’t want to force anything; but if I didn’t make a modicum of effort, absolutely nothing happened. The same went for the arms, and, sadly, the head. Taking Simon’s head when he was lying in semi supine was like taking hold of one end of a concrete object. His head, neck and back seemed all of a piece – a solid, unyielding piece.

Compared to his ‘helpers’, I was gentleness personified; but compared to what I was used to doing, I felt grotesquely heavy handed. Turning his head – trying to encourage Simon to ‘let’ his head be turned – was next to impossible. Once or twice I got a sense that there was the suspicion of a potential movement at one or other of the topmost vertebra deep inside his skull. Other times, I was convinced this was an illusion. Whatever movement took place in Simon’s neck, it was mostly spasmodic, and I had the impression it was initiated somewhere in the shoulder region.

As I struggled with Simon’s physical form, I tried to adhere to the conviction that the less I did and the more I thought, the greater the effect would be. I never had much evidence of that; and gradually my faith diminished. We worked at getting in and out of a chair, too. I would have my hands around Simon’s neck, not gripping him so much as trying to provide a cradle of support around which his head might have the possibility of not trampolining backwards and down as soon as it (he?) sensed something different was required. The helper would position himself on Simon’s other side, holding his trunk upright. We would then encourage Simon forward from the hips; but in all honesty I don’t know that I ever located Simon’s hips at all. He seemed to have an extraordinarily convoluted lower back, linked to a curiously misplaced pelvis; and given that his legs were different lengths and shapes with vastly opposing muscle mass, coming forward in order to rise from the chair was a haphazard business.

But we did it! Part way, at least. Simon would rise into a sort of truncated monkey, with us holding him from either side like guy ropes to prevent swaying. Finally, he stood, in tottering fashion. Then he would descend, falteringly. By the time he was back in the chair, his head had usually gone into a species of spasm that I then spent the next ten minutes trying to calm.

I gave Simon lessons twice weekly for a few months, then stopped as I was going abroad. On my return, I met and discussed him with the friend who had originally introduced me to the family. Simon’s mother, it seemed, was thrilled with the changes in her son. The friend produced a snapshot she had been given of Simon looking very dignified and composed in a dinner jacket in a wheelchair at some smart occasion. I was pleased; but I felt no inclination to return.

Looking back on the lessons I had given, my primary feeling was one of horror. I don’t think this had much to do with the nature of the lessons so much as the concern I felt at what I imagined it must have been like to be Simon, encased as he was in a muscular system that appeared to me to hold him in an indescribably fierce grasp. Teaching the Technique, I had got to feel how ‘tight’ an average body was; and there usually seemed to be a direct correlation between that and the degree of difficulty or stuckness or pain experienced.

Making a comparison between the worst case I had come across of seemingly unnecessary muscular tightness and Simon’s situation was meaningless. Simon was in another league altogether. My fear was that he was living within an unyielding knot of torment that he had no way of conveying to anyone around him, nor necessarily even being able to consider any alternative to himself; yet I had no evidence he was in pain. What degree of discomfort he suffered, I have no idea. I don’t know if he enjoyed or endured his days; or even if he had any viable means of knowing one way or the other.

What brought the memory of these lessons I gave Simon to mind again was when I recalled the ‘lesson’ I had had when supine where Noam Renen simply held my outstretched hands for thirty minutes while neither of us moved or spoke. Someone suggested that whatever the teacher’s state, something of it will have affected me, though their hands. Whatever I did with, or to, or for, Simon, it evidently had an effect; but I’ve always wondered whether, if I had done less, by putting my hands on with an absolute minimum of overt movement or even intention, the outcome might have been different.

The trouble was, I felt I had to ‘do’ something. At the very least, I had to encourage Simon to move. He did enough lying around, as it was. Besides, I didn’t have the nerve to pass myself off as an Alexander teacher who took no apparent interest in movement of any sort!

All this happened a long time ago. If I was asked now to do the same again, I don’t know what I would say. I’d like to think I might be able to take a leaf out of Noam’s book; but then I’ve no idea what was going on in his mind and body that made such an apparent impression on me at the time. Knowing what went on in my mind during the lessons I gave Simon, and assuming it would have been reflected in my body, I sometimes wonder that he benefited at all.

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