Learned Empowerment or Learned Helplessness Your Choice

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 believe the key lies in one’s attitude. It is human nature to rely on methods and solutions which have been successful in the past. This often encourages us to use only limited means to accomplish a given task. When speaking to a group I like to use the example of catching a fish. If I choose ten people in the audience and ask them to catch a fish for me, chances are great the majority would grab a fishing pole and head to nearby body of water. When initially dealing with the challenges placed on those of us living with a disability, I think we often try to solve problems using the same skills we used before our impairment. This approach can create extreme frustration and an acute awareness of the limitations placed on us by our condition. Now suppose I presented this same challenge to an audience of people from the United Nations. It is a real probability we would see a variety of methods which could include nets (both casting and stationary), wiers, noodling, spears, spear guns, bow and arrow, or use of other animals, such as cormorants and many additional ways. So in reality, if we

think about it, there are usually many ways to solve a particular problem. The first attitudinal change must be the understanding that more than likely there is a solution for what you are trying to do. Begin by freeing ourselves of cultural restraints. At times such limitations are really in our own minds. Learn to think outside the box and experiment with different approaches. I have become convinced over the last twelve years that attitude is much more important t 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.


How did I pick the paper up?  Check Here

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Comment by Cathy Stephenson on March 21, 2012 at 21:15

Thank you for sharing this inspirational account with us - people must be tired of hearing me say "such and such is a challenge to us achieving our outcome - but you know that challenges provide opportunities!"  

In my role with Telecare people get very fixated on the Telecare equipment rather a series of iterative solutions so it supports their outcomes.  I will be dropping into your blog now and again for refreshed inspiration.

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