Specialized Programs for Physically and Mentally Challenged Children

Aisha Henry

Advocates for Children
College Park Scholars
University of Maryland at College Park

Having a cousin who is physically handicapped, I have always been concerned with specialized programs. After recently speaking with her mother, my Aunt Liz, I realized how difficult it was in the past to get help for children who were diagnosed physically and mentally challenged. My aunt explained that after being dissatisfied with the lack of programs available, she was forced to teach and care for Shari herself. After speaking with my aunt, I was very interested in finding out more about the special programs currently being devoted to underdeveloped children. At first I began searching the Internet in order to see what information was given about the disabilities dealing with children today and what types of support programs were available. I found quite a bit of names and addresses of special programs, and one site in particular which was dedicated to current information about handicapped children and the assistance available to them. Then I realized that I have personally been involved in a program which is dedicated to children who are underdeveloped-The Children's Developmental Clinic. I realized that my experience there, which has been invaluable to me, could give insight into the importance of having specialized programs. In this paper I will discuss this program which I have been involved with for two semesters, I will also recount my own personal experiences and the experiences of others involved, and I will explain why I feel it is important to have specialized programs for physically and mentally challenged children.

The Children‘s Developmental Clinic, which I am currently involved in, was founded by Mr. Warren Johnson in the late 1950's. As a previous partner of the late Mr. Johnson, Dr. Paul Hahn became the supervisor of the clinic which is now located at the University of Maryland. Dr. Hahn goes around to different classes every year in order to recruit Maryland students to be clinicians in his program. It was last semester during one of his speeches, that I became interested in the clinic. This non profit program provides a special service to children who are experiencing various developmental difficulties. The children in the clinic range from birth through age 21, and they attend various schools in the Prince George's community. Their developmental difficulties include "learning problems, developmental delays, physical fitness and coordination problems, brain damage, mental retardation, emotional disturbances, or orthopedic handicaps" (The Children's Developmental Clinic). These children attend the clinic for nine consecutive Saturday mornings during the fall and spring semesters of the academic year. All children are enrolled in the motor development phase of the program for one hour each week. This phase is the major area of concern in working with the children, each child is assigned a clinician or friend whose major objective is to have fun with the child (The Children's Developmental Clinic). There are various games and equipment for the clinician to work with the child. Some of these games include; bicycle riding, trampoline, air float, and parachute launching. All of these games are non-elimination games, this way each child has fun with his/her clinician, and other children, without ever feeling inferior. After the motor developmental phase, if the children have additional problems, they spend the remaining hour in either the language development or the reading development phases of the program. Both phases are under the supervision of a language or reading specialist who develops fun and educational ways for the children to improve their problem. These challenges include a scavenger hunt, painting, drawing, and inventing original stories. Both the children and the student clinicians spend a fun Saturday morning learning new and exciting things about each other. By the end of the day there is hopefully a bond between the clinician and the child, one which is especially unforgettable for the child.

My personal experiences as a clinician have been invaluable. There is no feeling like the feeling you get from watching a seven year old boy hit a balloon with a bat in his persistence to feel like a baseball player. This is an actual experience that I had during one of the first few Saturdays that I started at the clinic. One Saturday I had the pleasure of working with a little boy named Brent who was physically unable to move his legs and had problems using his right hand. As a result of his disabilities he had never been able to play baseball, partly because he could not grasp the bat correctly, and partly because his hand-eye coordination was too slow. While tossing a balloon at him during the session, I came up with the idea of giving him a thin plastic stick and tossing the balloon at him to hit. In this way he could stay in his wheelchair, hold on to the stick, and because the balloon is so light, have time to correctly swing at the moving object. The joy that came across his face as he hit the balloon for the first time was a joy I will remember for a lifetime. I was excited that he was able to hit the balloon numerous times and finally feel like a real baseball player.

Another experience I had recently was with a 20 month old baby who was extremely delayed for her age. Sara is unable to sit up because of problems in her back, she is unable to keep her head up straight, she has vision problems, and also has seizures on occasion. For an hour a day for about seven sessions I worked with Sara in order to build up her strength and improve her sight. Using pads and bright objects, I worked to keep her back straight, her head up, and her eyes focused. For the first couple weeks I did not get much reaction from her because she could not say any words, and rarely showed any emotion unless she was uncomfortable. I can remember the first day I got a smile from her, I was so excited--she held up her head as I played with her and looked me in the eyes as she smiled. It was a small accomplishment but it was very exciting and gratifying. Over the last few sessions I saw some improvements and I really felt like I made an impact on her life. At the last session her mother thanked me and promised to send me pictures, it was a moment in my life that I know I will never forget.

Other clinicians have experienced similar pleasures from being a part of this program. Jill Basso recounts the day she helped a twin girl jump on both feet for the first time. Jill explained how she told the girl to “pretend her feet were glued together” as she came down from her leap into the air. Jill explained that she was extremely excited because it was something that she had thought of and it was successful. Another former clinician Amy Tsou recalls how , at first, her child Dylan was uncomfortable and unwilling to leave his mother. However, after a few sessions he opened up and was excited to be with her every Saturday. Amy explained how her “persistence paid off because [they] became good friends and [they] left with a tight bond.”

It is obvious from my experience and the experiences of other clinicians that the students get emotional rewards from helping disadvantaged children. However, it is much more important to look at the fact that these children have a friend for the day, and hopefully a role model for life. Children who are mentally and physically challenged need special attention and also need not be isolated or feel somehow inferior to other children their age. For this reason, I feel that programs that work with special children in order to improve their skills and build self confidence must be accessible to all children with disabilities. It was hard for my aunt to find help in the past, but that should no longer be a problem. Having programs like the Children's Developmental Clinic brings volunteers, like University of Maryland students, together with underdeveloped kids in order to build respect and love between all parties involved. I have truly benefitted from this program and because of this, I hope that programs like this one will always be available.


*Prince George's Community College. The Children's Developmental Clinic.
*Personal Interviews:
. (1) Dr. Paul Hahn (CDC Supervisor)
. (2) Amy Tsou (former clinician at CDC)
. (3) Jill Basso (former clinician at CDC)

This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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