How therapy redirects a child's life [Guest post]

This post was written by Caley Sharratt, an occupational therapist who has joined Priyam's team to launch a therapy volunteering and information exchange program between the U.S. and India. Caley has had the privilege of volunteering with children affected by disability in India, Haiti, and Vietnam for 3 months in each country. She was able to help facilitate some incredible, life-changing progress for children—from immobility to walking and climbing; from self-harm habits to peace and calm—and she tells two of those stories here.

As an occupational therapist I believe that a child’s level of disability is dependent on the extent to which the disability impacts the child’s life. If a child needs a wheelchair, but is provided with one that supports their body and is sturdy, the disability is lessened. If the child can reach everything they need and go wherever they want, the disability lessens even more. If the child has friends and is accepted into the community as an equal participant, the disability continues to diminish. This idea is mirrored in nearly every case of a person with a disability regardless of whether the disability is physical, cognitive or psychosocial. If the environment, resources and people who support the child meet the needs that are present, then the disability becomes less of a focus.

Instead, the child’s self is allowed to shine.

How therapy redirects a child's life and hope:

Karthi*, Age 7, Cerebral Palsy

My first trip to India was to a rural residential school for children with developmental disabilities. There were no therapy services available in the area. There were two very young teachers for 45 students. Karthi was incredibly bright but limited from schooling by his physical disability. He could not go from a sitting position on the ground to standing. He was often willingly carried from building to building. He couldn’t go out on the playground so instead he would sit on the cement sidewalk next to it watching others.

Over 3 months, we worked together on balance, strengthening, and more importantly confidence. Within a couple weeks Karthi was refusing offers to be carried. Within a month he was walking out on the playground with friends. A couple months in, he climbed the rungs of the slide for the first time in his life. He was ecstatic! I don’t know what happened to Karthi after I left. There was talk that he might be able to go to a public school. Regardless of where his schooling went, Karthi became so empowered that I have no doubt he is still walking and learning and playing with his characteristic tenacity.

Siva*, Age 10, Diagnosis unknown

Siva didn’t speak. He was 10 but blended in with the 5 year olds in size. Most notably, he engaged in routine self-abusive behavior. When I first walked into the building, he ran to the entrance and started banging his head against the cement floor until he bled. Later he closed the wooden door on his fingers.  For the most part the staff ignored his behavior.  It wasn’t out of indifference.  They were very caring people, but they didn’t know what to do. Every day they had to watch him beat himself up and nothing they tried to calm him seemed to work.

The problem was Siva’s self abuse was coming from a physical need, an inability to deal with the input coming from his environment and his body.  I worked with the staff to find alternatives that would help the Siva calm himself when he was getting overwhelmed.  A rocking chair, drinks of water, a weighted blanket…; all of these helped him have more “good” days then “bad”. Once some of these needs were addressed he began to show more talents and affection. He would even go so far as to providing light kisses on the nose of staff when he was very happy. By supporting him to regulate his body, he could engage with the world in a new way.

For both of these children, me being there was not the key to change. Any person with the knowledge I had could have helped create these changes. But that knowledge had to come from someone, and that’s why clinician supports are so important.

India is young in its disability movement. The level of infrastructure to support the ideals of the disabilities work is still lacking. It will come with time, but in the meantime assistance is needed. The more empowerment that is encouraged in these children now, the quicker changes will come. Empowerment comes from opportunities, education, independence, and respect for each person’s spirit.

The Goals of Therapy:

  • Increase independence and confidence through physical, environmental, psychosocial and behavioral supports.
  • Reduce environmental barriers
  • Support health and well being
  • Decrease social stigma through inclusion
  • Promote self-advocacy and self direction
  • Direct treatment to address the person as a whole


*names changed

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