Education Health

Life Lessons from the Developmentally Disabled


Nearly 50 million Americans live with a disability. For many within this community, the challenges of sustaining relationships can be life and death matters.


Sanford Rosenthal teaches PAIRS class
Sanford Rosenthal, a veteran PAIRS instructor who lost his vision to retinitis pigmentosa, teaches relationship skills to a developmentally disabled group at ARC Broward.

Nearly 50 million Americans live with a disability. For many within this community, the challenges of sustaining relationships can be life and death matters.

This week, I joined Sanford Rosenthal, a veteran PAIRS instructor and social worker who lost the last remnants of his vision several decades ago to the disease retinitis pigmentosa, to introduce PAIRS relationship skills to 70 disabled adults and staff members at ARC Broward.

The private, not-for-profit organization provides daily support and assistance to children and adults with mental retardation, autism, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities, delivering a continuum of support to over 1,000 children and adults.

The audience fast embraced our invitation to begin an adventure into the miracles of their own lives and relationships, eagerly sharing insights into the logic of love and emotions from the unique perspective of the severe challenges they face daily.

As we introduced Virginia Satir’s powerful stress styles of communication, the men and women eagerly offered comments and perspective on behaviors such as people pleasing, blaming, computing, and distracting through facial expressions and words many struggled to share.

When we began teaching Satir’s Daily Temperature Reading, a powerful exercise for nurturing cherished relationships, hand after hand quickly rose for a chance to participate through heartfelt, specific appreciations for the people who make a difference in their lives. Many motioned to staff members, urging them forward to thank them personally for their daily counsel, faith, and support; others turned to one another to offer a warm embrace, words of acknowledgment, and other verbal and facial expressions that communicated their gratitude. The 90 minutes allowed for our brief presentation could have easily turned into a full day, as the courage and example of each class participant inspired similar expressions from their enthusiastic peers.

Although close in proximity, this group – like similar groups in communities throughout our nation — lives a world away from millions of Americans who are not afflicted with a life-altering disability. It was impossible not to be touched by the deep gratitude they expressed for those who met their most basic human needs – someone to listen, believe in them, truly see them.

I suspect Sanford and I both left the group having learned as much, if not far more, than we shared.

I returned to my nearby home, wife, and nine-week old son more aware of my ability to speak, learn, listen, and share; more grateful than ever for the resources, freedoms, lessons, and challenges of my life as I reflected on the overwhelming obstacles each of these men and women endure daily to continue their own. I recalled my adolescent experiences with the late Virginia Satir and Daniel Casriel — the energy, authenticity, and faith they brought to developing the exercises and insights we shared with this audience, trusting they were smiling upon our efforts, offering their own blessings to the lives of these extraordinary human beings, grateful that their lives, values, and passions were continuing to make a difference in the world.

And I thought of Satir’s poetic words, “I am me,” penned in response to a teenage girl decades ago who turned to her for guidance as she struggled to understand her own life:

“I am Me. In all the world, there is no one else exactly like me. Everything that comes out of me is authentically mine, because I alone chose it — I own everything about me: my body, my feelings, my mouth, my voice, all my actions, whether they be to others or myself. I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears. I own my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes. Because I own all of me, I can become intimately acquainted with me. By so doing, I can love me and be friendly with all my parts. I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me, and other aspects that I do not know — but as long as I am friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously and hopefully look for solutions to the puzzles and ways to find out more about me. However I look and sound, whatever I say and do, and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is authentically me. If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought, and felt turn out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is unfitting, keep the rest, and invent something new for that which I discarded. I can see, hear, feel, think, say, and do. I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive, and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me. I own me, and therefore, I can engineer me. I am me, and I am Okay.”


Seth Eisenberg is President and CEO of PAIRS Foundation. This post originally appeared in his personal blog, Redefining Relationships. Reprinted with permission.