Disability 101: Learned helplessness
May 27, 2008
When I earned my special education degree at the University of Northern Colorado, one of the top teacher training universities in our country, my professors warned me about the phenomenon of learned helplessness as it relates to working with people with disabilities.Learned helplessness is a psychological condition in which a person comes to believe that they have no control over a situation, that they are helpless. The individual is passive in unpleasant and dangerous circumstances even when they actually do have the power to improve the situation. They believe they dont have any control so they dont bother to try to make any changes. This often results in significant and dangerous depression.How does a person with a disability develop the belief that they are helpless, that they have no control in the face of their disability? Very often they learn this erroneous belief from their able-bodied helpers. Sometimes its a parent, a spouse or other family member. Sometimes its a service provider such as a medical professional, a teacher, or a social worker. Sometimes its from the community at large, who are so eager to help that they go overboard.Since I became disabled I have actually had to fight off continued recommendations from many well meaning service providers and community members that I apply for social security disability benefits. But I dont need disability payments. I can still work and I want to work.When I began the process of purchasing my wheelchair, many well meaning people insisted that I get an electric wheelchair. But I dont need an electric wheelchair. My manual wheelchair has worked quite well for me and has actually helped to improve my physical functioning because I still get exercise pushing myself around.When I was working as a special education teacher, to my great distress I discovered that some teachers and paraprofessionals actually encouraged their disabled students dependence on them. The more dependent the student is on the teacher, the more the teacher feels better about him or herself because look at what a great thing they are doing helping this poor, unfortunate soul.This was never stated out loud, of course. But every time a teacher did something for a student that the student could actually do for themselves, the more the teacher encouraged the students dependence and the greater the likelihood that the student developed learned helplessness.Helping is doing something for a person that the person cannot do for themselves. Doing something for a person that they can do for themselves is more of a codependent enabling and promotes learned helplessness.When a disabled person constantly hears, You cant do that. Here, let me do it for you, they start to believe they cant. They learn to be helpless. And depression usually results.Able-bodied people always insisting that they know best for a person with a disability can have the same results. If you always try to make all of my decisions for me, you are communicating to me that I am not smart enough to do anything for myself. If I stop making my own decisions, I become passive, and I have learned helplessness.It is exceedingly important that the disabled be surrounded by people who encourage them to do everything that they are capable of doing. The disabled need encouragement to try. They need opportunities to attempt new things. They need the opportunity to make decisions for themselves. They need to discover the many things they can still do well. Then they move into a stage of acceptance and confidence.,i>Frisco resident Sandy Lahmann is a disability consultant with Wheels on the Summit. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org .