Thursday, 26 March 2009


Where has it all gone ? How to get it back

Coincidence again, and selective attention too perhaps at work here, there seems to have been quite a a bit recently in Conductive World lamenting that Conductive Education is not featuring much on the professional/academic radar, at least as far as cerebral palsy and educational research are concerned anyway.

Meanwhile, on the Conductor blog (Mallett, 2009), an interesting line of personal experience is recounted, reflecting how Conductive Education has dropped out of the public view as well.

Why should this be? Why is there such low general ‘awareness’ of Conductive Education now, popular and professional? More to the point, what might be done to restore this situation?

Twenty years ago we were in the middle of a huge explosion of popular and professional interest in Conduction Education, a media feeding frenzy such as one doubted had ever hit anything in disability before, or ever would again. They just couldn’t get enough of it.

Quite a few readers of Conductive World will remember that period. Fewer, though, will remember the time before that, to be precise the time up until 1 April 1986 when Standing up for Joe was first broadcast by BBC TV.

‘If it’s so good then surely we’d already know about it’

During the mid-eighties Conductive Education was almost wholly unheard of, or what little people had heard tended to be less than helpful. Over the couple of years in which I was trying fruitlessly to raise financial support to establish a pilot project for this unknown approach in Birmingham, England, I heard this view voiced explicitly several times:

‘If it’s so good then surely we’d already know about it’

If I feel kindly towards people, then I regard this view a simply an expression of bemusement at the unprecedented attention that Conductive Educuation was getting from families, well in advance of professional awareness. Most of the time, however, I regard it still, as I did then, as expression of overweening self-satisfaction, smugness and complacency. Either way, it expressed a genuine feeling and presented an insuperable barrier to serious consideration.

Of course, one recognised at the time that there were all sorts of good reasons to explain why Conductive Education had till then been so unknown (here). These included:
  • it was from ‘behind the Iron Curtain’
  • it might be ‘communist’
  • it was in a (to us) funny language
  • it was represented by two rather awkward characters
  • there was ‘no literature’
  • there was ‘no research’

All these factors lie now in an increasingly distant past. Now, in the twenty-first century, stage has negated stage and, in a rather different context than before, it is again possible to say that Conductive Education is generally almost wholly unheard of, or that what little people have heard tends to be less than helpful. Now, if someonewere to say to me something like ‘If it’s that good then surely we’d have already know about it’, where do I even begin?

Recreating awareness

So, proposed here is a stage-wise progression in the public/professional awareness of Conductive Education in ‘the West’. You can include political awareness comfortably in this.

  • I. to 1986. Largely unknown
  • II. 1986 - early 1990s. Massive (global) awareness
  • III. Early 1990s to date. Global decline in awareness
  • IV. ??? Only if something is done to change matters

What to do?

If people want to break out of Stage III into anything like the awareness experienced at Stage II, then it might be helpful to try and work out how Stage II came about in the first place.

  • This ‘explosion’ was not spontaneous. It was consciously engineered, maintained and managed (at lest until it got so out of hand and created such a backlash that this was no longer possible)
  • This was not a story about Conductive Education , nor even about disability, except of course for that relatively tiny population of people with real, relevant personal concerns. Anyone who has tried to answer the inevitable question asked by journalists, politicians, Jo Public ‘Can you tell me, how does it work?’ will well know the glazed expression that sets in the moment that you begin to explain it!
  • Look at the extensive media records from Stage II to see that this was a story that (1) sprang from something outside Conductive Education itself and then (2) and took wings and was perhaps ultimately wiped out by something different still.

(1) ‘Brave Mom in the land of the Mullahs’

Well no, actually, the first big human interest appeal in the late eighties, as far as the mass media, were concerned was ‘Brave Mum off behind the Iron Curtain’.

Younger people today might have little idea and older people little recollection of what blockbuster news this was, even in the declining years of Soviet power, and perhaps what an important factor it was for politicians and diplomats that an era was drawing to a close.

The only way in which I have been able to convey the awe of this to young adults today is to have them imagine the Mum (British) as a Mom (American) and have her take her disabled child to Teheran not Budapest for something that she cannot get at home. I am sure that, if this were to happen now, in 2009, then the State Department, the Iranian Government and the TV networks would be more than delighted to oblige. And whatever intervention the family had gone to find in Iran would then piggy-back in on a tidal wave of public fascination.

(2) The backlash

Almost as soon as Standing up for Joe was aired, in 1986, then the backlash began. One can hardly be surprised at the reaction of special educators, therapists, ‘experts' at all levels, public officials and the existing disability establishments, if they took the enormous wave of public interest in something completely new as a kind of criticism of what they themselves did and stood for.

And you can’t blame the media for loving a row. Especially a row between such archetypes as Brave Mum and Man in Suit. It was always the former who came out on top in the awkward public debates that followed, and the media smelled a cover-up.

In the end of course the Establishment had the big guns and the resources for the long, wide-ranging fight back that won the media battle. By the mid-nineties CE’s explosive awareness period was well and truly over: Conductive Education was no longer news in the ways that it had been.

Boy, just imagine the backlash from existing disability services that would muddy the picture if the Brave-Mom-in-the-land-of-the-Mullahs scenario were to be enacted today. They had never heard of it before, so it could hardly be any good. It comes from the ’Axis of Evil’, it might be Muslim, who can understands Farsi anyway, there’s no literature and no research, and Heaven knows what sort of people might be behind it all. In the end, the backlash would wear the interloper down, and the media battle would probably go again to the way that things already are.

A new awareness

There is no question about it, Conductive Education in the West was ‘spoilt’ by the glory days of the amazing awareness that it basked in during the first part of Stage II. Sue Reilly, parent/carer and journalist is not the only one from these days to have yearned for ‘another Standing up for Joe’, though she is the only one to have examined this in print.

She too recognises that there is going to be no similar situation but she also points out the ‘real miracle’ of Conductive Education is that it is still here at all in the face of persisting professional indifference/opposition (the resounding echo of the backlash). Perhaps, she speculates, this could offer the peg upon which to hang a major and persisting CE story: ‘Against all the odds, CE survives’.

Not as sexy as Brave Mums and Moms (and Mamans and Mutis...) off to somewhere unthinkable, but more relevant to the everyday lives of children and adults with disabilities, and their families. It is also closer to difficult and embarassing questions (in media terms, controversies or just plain rows) about the relevance and efficacy of existing ways of providing, the nature of modern professionalism, professional training and government policy. These are stories that could run and run, with real cute kids, real human-interest stories of decent and articulate families struggling against Kafkaesque bureaucracies, more cute kids, and barmy boffins… even perhaps, joy of joys, the whiff of cover-up and wasteful use of public money.

In normal times, in the long run the world would probababy self-right, one way or another. We do not, however, live in normal time and cost will soon demand major revew of all sorts of public priorities. Inevitably the values and beliefs that justify present priorities will also come under review. So, no need for Conductive Education to be squeamish about the fate of others. Rather it is time to grasp the initiative and step forward boldly with its own alternative narrative.

Conductive Education, it is sometimes remarked, is a huge global soap opera. It is never short of great stories, love and pain, triumph and disaster, nobility and skullduggery. Conductive Education’s awareness problem has been its failure to capitalise on this amazing resource. What better time to remedy this situation?

Change, however, won’t just happen by itsedlf. People are going to have to act.


Mallett, S. (2009) What happened? Who now has heard of Conductive Education? Conductor, 22 March

Reilly, S. (2004) Still standing: Conductive Education and the media, G. Maguire and R. Nanton (eds.) Looking back and looking forwards: developments in Conductive Education, Birmingham, Foundation for Conductive Education, pp. 59-66
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1 comment:

  1. As you say Conductive Education became known about because the publicity was engineered and interest kept alive. Now there doesn't appear to be anyone in Conductive Education who considers this role necessary and is willing to do it. Perhaps this is part of the general lack of attention to writing, publishing and developing CE by those involved in it.
    Most items in the media now consist of reports of fundraising needs/efforts/difficulties, full of brave mums and intrepid adventurers raising money for individual children or centres. This isn't likely to change until more substantial stories/information about CE and its system are fed to the media in an enticing way.

    How you do that, I don't know.