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Thursday, January 2, 2014

An Interview with Sheryl Holt, Ph.D.

Sheryl Holt, Ph.D., is a career physical therapist who is currently completing her PhD in rehabilitation science while working as an assistant professor in the doctor of physical therapy program at Wheeling Jesuit University. She has lived with hemiplegic cerebral palsy while serving children with disability for over 30 years. Her manuscript, “What the medical model can learn from the case of the colorblind painter: A disability perspective" is featured in Volume 9, Issue 4 of the Review of Disability Studies. She gives us a chance to understand the journey of a painter, called Mr. I, and how his journey resulted in a transformation in his work and in his life. The following interview with Dr. Holt gives her the opportunity to expound on some of the ideas in her manuscript.    
What role does passion play in Mr. I’s decision to continue to paint and in his ability to move past the difficulty of his condition?

Mr. I’s former passions in life had long ebbed before his new passions emerged. That suggests that there may have been an empty desert time in which other attributes of mind, heart, and soul paved the way for the return of passion. I cannot help but wonder if the absence of passion was not critical for its rebirth. I have heard some of my physical therapy patient’s make reference to experiences like this: because they had known deep sorrow, they believed they were able to find even deeper joys; because of their losses, they appreciated more dimensionally all that remained. After Mr. I did his post-stroke research, he began to meticulously integrate his findings into practice. In trial and error fashion, step by step, Mr. I’s outlook, dreams, and reasons for living began to find their shore, to display signs of celebration, hope, and pure delight. Passion for his art and his world view was reborn.

Done 4 weeks after the accident
Done just before the accident

 How does the story of Mr. I, the color blind painter, inspire you personally?

Mr. I's "leaden" world
Mr. I inspires me as a living narrative of resilience, perseverance, and mustard seed faith. I am drawn to him both with great curiosity and resonating admiration. I followed his series of insights as if I were color blind myself. His choices shook my expectations with a jolt of surprise, and the journey that followed was too compelling not to walk along.  The new sightedness of one fits with the emergent graces that self-impose upon one who does not know of easy balance and coordination; with the strengths that are borne in weakness, with the eternal streams found in things that fade quickly, the ephemeral. I am inspired by the way Mr. I doggedly set the stage for his own changes. He got to know himself better than any doctor, family member, or therapist could. Mr. I refused to let loss or emptiness define his status quo. He refused to let his impairments dominate him. He is every patient with whom I have worked as a physical therapist. He is me. Also, I deeply respect his calculated work of discovering shades of grey. Now when my ink jet runs low in color or black ink, I treasure the grayscales like never before. I may even study them. Mr. I inspires me to rethink my investment in the NOW, my depths of perception in what I see, and my willingness to continue to learn in ways both old and new. His story enables me to look beyond the apparent, not just in bonafide hues, but in life’s meanings.
What lesson can be taken from the story of Mr. I? 

Done 2 months after the accident
There are countless lessons that come to mind, but the lessons that I believe are most germane to the human spirit are those in which he teaches us about informed, empowered, self-respecting adaptation. His life changes the moment he considers his   “differences” not as deficits (about which he is ashamed or embarrassed) but a means to new assets. He connives and schemes ways to understand his color-blindness not only within his person, but also in his occupations, hobbies and the environments in which he works. He challenges himself to master his impairments, to know his limits, to cope with his losses, to dream. With his ever-growing self-knowledge and pragmatic awareness, he comes out of hiding and begins to live again, one grey-shade at a time. He takes the chance and begins to share his new gifts. In doing so, it is apparent that his motivation is not for the receipt of affirmation from others. It is a risk, a vulnerability. Those elements are parts of his new and curious strength. He follows his hunches, he believes in himself, he does not entrust his choices to other’s perceptions of normal for him. He considers his options. He rejects being fixed, in favor of embracing all he is, as is, no turning back.
He seeks truth within his own understandings; he is resourceful in building his evidence. He is patient on his path. 

Your study examines common assumptions of the medical model and challenges the   presumption of the normal curve. What is the most important finding or interpretation that excites you the most?

Done two years after the accident
In a nutshell, I reject a human normal curve that fails to accommodate all human experience beneath it. We humans are not numbers or statistics and where we fall in a statistical model is irrelevant to our value and our purposes in life. Getting to an understanding of the expanses of human experience as an international society has potential to change our language, our outlook, and our capacity to accept and appreciate others, different from ourselves. There is nothing normal about a normal curve. It is a fiction. I suppose that without the social mechanisms of norming, certain aspects of life would feel unmanageable, especially at the level of organizations, institutions, and cultures. Norms serve these structures with prediction and expectation, sometimes with seemingly necessary dictates to ensure what is needed for survival of the many. However, the onus is on humans everywhere to recognize when the normal curve does not serve outliers. This does not speak to validity or valuation. It is important to discern that especially within the medical model. Meeting people where they are will often be far from the canopy of the normal curve. The courage to scatter those held hostage by the curve would enlarge creativity, perceptions, and potentials. If you ask Mr. I, I am guessing he’d say that the risk is worth calculating. Like him, when you are ready to start pushing the bounds of normal, the journey will be your own. I agree with Mr. I, that any other journey becomes meaningless, repugnant, and distant to what makes you who you are. It doesn’t have to make life better, just truer to the sojourner.