(Maybe A Little Positive Reinforcement Could Go A Long Way)
School kids are heading back to classrooms this week and many will encounter the iconic assignment to write an essay entitled “How I Spent my Summer Vacation.” Consider this my version of that paper.
I spent at least a small portion of my summer vacation meeting and working with the dedicated professionals and “customers” of The Arc of Delaware County, New York. As many know, Arcs around the country exist to serve the needs of people with mental and physical disabilities. In bucolic upstateNew York, Delarc, as it is known, does just that, but in unique ways that produce uncommon results.
My experience was both enriching and instructive. As I reflected on my time at Delarc, I came to the conclusion that the lessons I learned could be valuable for politicians in Washington who act, speak and decide exclusively from – what appears to me and many other Americans – a decidedly negative perspective. Ladies and Gentlemen of the Congress, Delarc can teach you a thing or two.
At Delarc, I participated in Vantage Point, a unique opportunity to experience first-hand the daily life of a person with disabilities. I learned how to navigate the Delarc building without the benefit of sight. I was taught how to mobilize and feed myself without the use of all of my limbs. I was placed in a real employment setting, designed for those with disabilities. Had I been an actual Delarc customer, I would have been paid for this work, thus enhancing my self-esteem.
If that were all there was to it, it would have been worthwhile. How often, after all, does one truly come to understand the adage “Walk a mile in my shoes?” In my case, I rolled a mile in their wheelchair and developed a new appreciation for the challenges and determination an individual with a disability – or several – must confront and commit to every minute of every day. It was truly compelling.
But there was more. Every minute of every day, I was encouraged, supported and praised for all my accomplishments, even some I didn’t recognize as achievements. My incredibly patient teacher Lindsey was ever supportive. “Great effort, Peter.” ”I like your concentration, Peter.” “You’re making good progress, Peter.” In my work program, my enthusiastic supervisor, Sarah, was like a chess master playing ten boards simultaneously as she moved from worker to worker and made sure each of us felt important and good for even the simplest of tasks. “I like how you put that box together, Peter.” “I see you have a system going there. Very good for creating that, Peter.” “That’s six good boxes, Peter. Let’s see if you can get to ten.” And Linda, my self-advocacy coach, not only encouraged me herself, she got all of my “colleagues” involved. New friends around the table had ready words of support. “You got it, Peter.” “Way to go, Peter.”
Such positive reinforcement throughout a full day can be a bit overwhelming, but it works extraordinarily well for Delarc. Through its uniquely positive approach, Delarc has been tremendously successful in providing exceptional care and bringing meaning and fulfillment to the lives of those with disabilities without ever needing to resort to punishment or physical intervention . In fact, Delarc has never in its history used physical intervention to coerce good behavior or punish the bad. In a quiet and concentrated way, this small program in upstateNew Yorkis proving that encouragement and positive reinforcement can achieve far better outcomes than negativity.
So in the interest of proving the point, and to help get things off on the right foot as they prepare to return to work, I would like to say, “Good effort on the debt deal, Congress.” “I like how you stayed focused on the challenge, Congress.” “Good talking to one another, Congress. Can we use better language next time?”
I know it’s a lot to ask, but let’s be fair. Congress did actually do something, right? Maybe not what everyone wanted, expected or felt was needed, maybe not what the rest of us believed they were capable of perhaps because we do not live with the same constraints. But still, it was something. If we tell them “Good job” maybe they will try harder the next time. Maybe we could even get them to try a little bit of positive reinforcement among themselves? Perhaps a “Nice Work, Mr. Speaker” or “Well done, Mr. Minority Leader” could help establish some common ground.
It’s worth a shot, don’t you think. And by the way, it worked for me. “Thanks, Delarc. Good experiential learning, Delarc.”