Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Awesome and awful

Implications of the 60 Minutes report

News from CBS

It is nearly five years now since the last major news coverage of Conductive Education on nation-wide US television, the twelve-and-a-half-minute ‘Mind and Muscle’ item on CBS’s 60 Minutes.

Over that time there has been plenty happening in Conductive Education, including in the US. Now it appears that associate producer Catherine Herrick has been following at least some of this. Writing a few days ago on 60 Minutes’ Facebook page (2009) she reports:

Since our story aired, Conductive Education has continued to spread to cities and towns all over the US due to extremely determined parents.

For example, this year Prince George's County in Maryland launched a pilot program in one of its public schools. This was made possible by a parent, Robert Kurz through his 'Sixten's Foundation,' named after his son. He was the force behind getting the program in place. Another parent in Pennsylvania, Alexis Powers, is in the process of building and eventually running her own conductive education program.

Alexis partnered with Erica Nagy who is a conductor from New Jersey and also the director of advocacy for the Association for Conductive Education in North America or
http://www.acena.org. More information on Alexis and Erika’s association can be found at http://www.acersi.org.

Thanks to the website-blog of Sixten’s Foundation for alerting us to this, and for notification that 60 Minutes has no immediate intention of reporting further on Conductive Education.

What media want

Perhaps as far as Conductive Education goes, what they really, really want is that old media formula, well established in the United Kingdom (and a few other countries too) some twenty years ago now, when variants upon: ‘Brave mum off behind Iron Curtain’ used to be a great headline.

Far less sexy (in the journalistic sense) would be headlines along the lines of:

  • ‘A developmental disorder, not a physical condition: new paradigm for cerebral palsy’


  • ‘Already burdened parents struggle to establish their own services’

When the tide drew back and the emphasis shifted from foreign exotica to difficult questions about the nature of disability and to long hard grind at home, then the media circus moved on. Don’t blame the media. They know what their market wants to read, see and hear.

Just possibly, though, the media and their customers might have gone for a good row, a cover-up, a whitewash. Imagine:

  • ‘Medical, therapy and charity establishments stonewall major break-through for disabled children and their families’

This one, though, would be much harder to stand up (i.e. find the evidence and especially people willing to speak out for it, at the risk of alienating their local services or even attracting litigation). There are terrific stories here but hardly for the mass media.

CE is still looking for the formula for getting its domestic development on to the national agenda. In default of that it is just another disability story…

‘Mind and muscle’

This is the title of the 60 Minutes news item, broadcast in 2004.

The actual video film report had long vanished from the Internet but its transcript has remained on line (Leung (2004). CBS has now republished the video ‘Mind and muscle’ appended to Catherine Herrick’s recent posting on Facebook.

Back in 2004 ‘Mind and muscle’ gave an important boost to the development of CE in the US, in at least that it brought it to much wider attention (particularly the attention of parents). For that alone it is worth seeing: it is a historical document in its own right. Five years is a long time, and there will be a lot of people now following CE through the Internet who would have not have seen ‘Mind and muscle’ at the time of its broadcast. If you haven’t, then you should, wherever you are. Even if you did see it at the time, you might find a reprise salutary…

  • NB Usual warning about video material on the Internet: I do not know how long this will stay on line as opposed to text, that tends to have a longer Internet shelf-life, the transcript of this news item having remained on CBS’s site all this time.

This is another important reason to look at this report from five years ago, both the video version and the transcript. And to speculate upon its implications.

Do so because it was so truly awful.

What is there not to like?

Surely, all publicity is good publicity? The TV transmission did the CE movement in the US by bringing the power of parental enthusiasm and determination for CE so vividly home to more parents? Before answering this with a cheerful affirmative contemplate some of the things that the TV report says, and think what has happened since it was made.

Rebecca Leung’s published script makes it easy to examine what was said at leisure. Indeed, this commentary would make a marvellous teaching aid for what not to say under any circumstances when trying to explain Conductive Education, especially when trying to win the understanding and encouragement of existing services.

On children with cerebral palsy

  • Their brains are damaged at birth, usually because of a temporary lack of oxygen.
  • Cerebral palsy breaks the connection between mind and muscle.
  • Most often, children with cerebral palsy… settle into wheelchairs for the rest of their lives.
  • Half of all kids with cerebral palsy have a normal intellect, so they can learn like any other child.
  • It’s only the muscles that fail them.

In summary:

  • Conductive Education has an erroneous understanding of cerebral palsy as a peripheral rather that central condition, of its causation, of its relationship to intellectual disability, of its prognosis for walking.

No wonder Dr Carolyn Green, the sympathetic paediatrician interviewed towards the close to the report looked and sounded so embarrassed. She saw something good, but how could she even discuss this in such a context? She would speak of data, but we heard only the dodgy, criteria-free ‘statistics’ of the sort that I first met in the early eighties already hoary even then. The gulf in communication was unbridgeable.

On Conductive Education

  • The teachers (called conductors) show the children how to move…
  • …and for eight hours a day, five days a week, they repeat the routines to near exhaustion.
  • The idea is this: if the brain is forced to try, it will find a way to connect mind and muscle.
  • It’s the intensity of the Peto approach that makes it different from other therapies.
  • The idea [of a plinth] is to force a child… to feel the movement, a controlled and constructive use of pain.

In summary:

  • Conductive Education is a painful, continuous and arduous grind, in which children are ‘shown how to’, ‘forced to try’ through ‘the constructive use of pain’.

A lot of conductors if they had been interviewed, would have been as least as embarrassed as Carolyn Green, and angry too at the misrepresentation of their craft. What was conductive about this, where was the pedagogy? Where was Mária Hári’s ‘human principle’?

And oh, that notion of ‘mind and muscle’. Wherever did it come from? The first that I had heard of it was on this 60 Minutes item. Where did 60 Minutes dredge it up? What does it actually mean and imply? Whatever its origins or implication, however, the phrase has gained some currency in the US, being now offered as part of the explanation of CE on several centers’ websites.

No one at 60 Minutes is to blame for this at CBS, not Scott Pelley the reporter, not co-producer Catherine Herrick, not Rebecca Leung who prepared the transcript. This is a technical area: where did they get their information and advice? Who briefed them?

No American source is cited in the report. Presumably then 60 Minutes was informed by the then administration of the Pető Institute. (If so this raises the question of whether other foreign, and domestic, visitors were so informed over the years.) In a report upon Conductive Education at the Pető Institute this must have seemed the obvious source of autoritative advice.

And what has happened over the last four to five years?
  • In Hungary the former administration of the Pető Institute has tumbled and conductor-training is being raised to graduate level. Given time no doubt new formulations will emerge from that quarter.
  • In the West, including the United States, conductors (not just from the Pető Institute) continue to extend their practice, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and continue to make little contribution to public understanding of their craft.
  • And if anything professional awareness and understanding of Conductive Education is even less now then it was when ‘Mind and muscle’ was first aired.

What do families want?

‘Mind and muscle’ is a smart, informative and powerful news report. No need to repeat the story here, you can watch and read it via the links below, only to acknowledge yet again that the most powerful advocates of Conductive Education as an approach for children with cerebral palsy are the children’s parents, articulate, positive, up-beat and determined, and that television grants them unparalleled opportunity to reach out directly into the hearts of other parents.

Witness to this some of the comments posted on Facebook in response to this reshow of ‘Mind and muscle‘. Three examples:

  • Conductive Education has given our family so much hope for our 3yr old son, Josiah, who has CP. His first five weeks of Conductive Ed. did more for him then the 3 years of physical therapy he had here in the States! This video is AWESOME and is a great understanding of the love us parents have for Conductive Ed. We hope and pray that someday the States will accept this for our kids. 60 minutes, please play this video, people must see this and become inspired.
  • That video was awesome. Not only do you see a method that works, but look at how hard those children were working. They want that independence too. How can we deny them? Please, air this video so that more people become aware of it, and can help their children, as well as push for more Conductive Education resources in the States.
  • Brought tears - we have so much in the US - we need to get our priorities straight - why not bring the program here for our children

In summary:

  • hope
  • discernable progress that the existing system does not bring
  • we want this at home.

These respondents at least were not concerned with the awfulness of the explanation provided. What counted for them was the awesomeness of what they saw and heard, and of what they experienced themselves in response to this.

Upgrading understandings

The situation in the United States is hardly unique. To use the word in its currently fashionable sense, Conductive Education in indeed ‘awesome’, either in the flesh or on television, both directly in its involvement with children (and adults) and indirectly in its effects upon their families. Everyone knows this by now. Yet once the talking starts, the obvious corollary, making CE widely available, in most places just runs into the sand.

There are many reasons for this, some perhaps good ones, some certainly bad. Of the latter, high on then list stand poor understanding, poor explanation, poor discussion, mistakes, errors, confusion, sheer sloppiness of analysis, all amounting to awful failure to do proper justice to awesome practice.

On Sixten’s website Robert Kurz (2009) says of the 60 Minutes report that he ‘continues to be hopeful and appreciative of any such coverage that we receive’. I salute his sentiment but beg to differ over one thing. Next time please, can coverage meet the challenge of articulating the basis of such remarkable human achievement?

Note and references

60 Minutes. (2004) Mind and muscle (video)

Herrick, C. (2009) Sixty Minutes, Facebook, 30 March

Leung, R. (2004) Mind and muscle: Peto Institute brings hope to kids with cerebral palsy, CBS 60 Minutes (transcrips), 18 August

Sixten's Foundation “Sixty Minutes” segment revisited, Sixten’s Foundation.org, 1 May

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