Disability and Destiny in a Technological Age
Stephen L. Talbott
Chapter 4: On Forgetting to Wear Boots
"I have no doubt that Camphill is an expression of a
great intuitive thrust out of the deep heart of nature
which has us in its keeping and knows that both we and it
are in mortal peril". (Sir
Laurens van der Post)
Whenever friends visit my wife Phyllis and me, one of our favorite places
to take them is the nearby Camphill Village in Copake, New York. The village
is part of a thriving, worldwide movement for the care of people with
special needs. You will find here villagers with Down Syndrome and a great
variety of other mental handicaps -- all pursuing their lives in a beautiful,
restful, productive, socially supportive, and artistically rich setting.
If there is a place that can bring healing to a high-tech society, surely
this is it.
Dignity and Laughter
One of the first things likely to strike you about most any Camphill
community (there are more than ninety of them worldwide, from Ireland
to Botswana to India) is the beauty and craftsmanship evident in the buildings
and their furnishings. Much of the craft work issues from shops where
the villagers are employed -- there are facilities for weaving, pottery-making,
woodworking, candle-dripping, bookbinding, and jewelry-making, as well
as dairies, bakeries, and gardens. At Camphill Copake a seed-saving venture
has recently gotten under way, together with an herb garden and a laboratory
for the preparation of herbal remedies and salves. There is plenty of
healthy and fulfilling work to satisfy the villagers' strong need to contribute
something worthwhile to society.
Camphill villages spring from the same roots as Waldorf education, and
they share the Waldorf emphasis upon an artistically shaped life. This
emphasis extends from the long, beautifully carved, wooden tables in many
of the living units (where the resident villagers eat regular meals with
their house parents and any children who live there), to the celebration
of seasonal festivals, to the frequent gathering for artistic performances
in an auditorium that is typically the architectural crown of the village.
(In Copake, pianists Andre Watts and Peter Serkin are among those who
donate their time to perform for the villagers and staff.) Drama, dance,
dramatic speech, music -- there is always something to bring the community
together in consciousness of the spiritual background of life in which
we all are united. As a Camphill worker in Great Britain, Sybille Alexander,
has put it:
The atmosphere in the villages is determined by the recognition
of the dignity of each human being, the inner, spiritual work done by
the leaders -- and, of course, humor, without which the community life
would be unbearable.
I can vouch for the place of humor. A few years ago, on a slushy winter
day, we took a visiting friend for a walk through the wooded village in
Copake. Loafing along a muddy path, we were overtaken by two of the villagers,
women of older middle age securely bundled up against the weather and
walking to their jobs in the bakery. As they passed us, they caught sight
of our sneakered feet and broke into a fit of hilarity. "You forgot to
put your boots on!" they exclaimed, pointing and laughing. We acknowledged
our folly and joined in the merriment. After a brief exchange they passed
on ahead, still laughing and chattering gaily. We cracked up, too, as
we reconstructed their conversation for ourselves:
"Imagine letting people like that in here!"
"Yeah, don't have sense enough to wear boots in the mud. I bet they wouldn't
even come in out of the rain!"
"If you ask me, they're an ace or two short of a full deck."
Trying to Communicate
More recently, I had a rather different encounter in the village. The
staff had invited me to come speak on technology as part of a lecture
series they were putting together. Knowing how deeply Camphill workers
were in the habit of thinking about social issues and the human being,
I put together an ambitious and fairly abstract talk. But when I arrived
at the appointed hour in Fountain Hall, with its high-arching wooden beams
and stained glass windows, I was disturbed to find the auditorium seats
full of villagers.
I expressed my concern to the organizer, explaining that I had expected
to speak only with staff and had not prepared anything appropriate for
the villagers. (Not that I would have known how to prepare even if I had
been forewarned.) She quietly replied: "Just speak your real concerns
out of heart-felt conviction. That is what they need. They will hear what
"What is important?" I wondered as I sat down to await my introduction.
Then, at the podium, gripped by self-doubt, I proceeded to deliver the
hour-long talk I had prepared. "At least", I thought, "only the staff
will be in any position to ask questions afterward". But when the time
came, it was the villagers who thrust their hands eagerly skyward.
I called first on a lean, intense-looking gentleman in a suit and tie.
Upon being recognized, Robert (whose name I learned later) stood up and
began to speak earnestly while vigorously gesturing with arms, face, and
body. But nothing came out of his mouth. There was only the sound of muffled
struggle as inchoate words, trapped somewhere in the man's throat, tumbled
over each other on their way into some deep, internal void.
Yet he spoke with all the vivid force of a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher,
and he began to move from his place as if carried along by the momentum
of his own gestures. He traversed his row to the aisle and, still gesticulating
with a message urgently demanding expression, began to approach the podium.
Alarmed by the man's almost violent and growing intensity, I began to
wonder whether I might be in some physical danger -- a puzzling sort of
question to ask while you're looking out over an audience that seems as
serene and undisturbed as ever.
In the actual event, someone rose easily to meet Robert's advance and
gently ushered him back to his seat -- a guidance he did not resist. Apparently,
it seemed natural to everyone that he should have had his say.
Of course, I owed Robert a reply. So I told him that I envied his ability
to speak with such force and passion, since my own great limitation lay
in my inability to do so. And it was true. Robert's force of conviction
was fully on display, while his words remained bottled up inside him.
My own intellectual work is in fact driven by great passion and conviction,
but I learned long ago to choke off any outward expression of feeling.
My words flow freely enough, but their passage into the outer world is
cut off from the furnace of their forging.
Other questions and comments came. One villager told of enjoying a game
of computer solitaire when she visited a relative's home. Another confided
to me afterward that the questions I raised were so gravely important
that he would carry them into his nightly bedtime meditation. Some other
comments I could scarcely understand -- perhaps because I was not as attuned
to what is important as my audience had been.
Karl König, founder of the Camphill movement, once wrote that
I can help my brother only if I see the helper in him, [and]
the receiver of help in me.
You will find throughout the Camphill movement a strong sense that people
with special needs bring special gifts to the planet -- perhaps exactly
the needful gifts in our time. These folks can teach us the virtues
our culture has largely disregarded -- for example, the virtue of attending
fully to the person immediately in front of us. Rose Edwards, a former
Camphill worker, once told me,
I worked for eighteen years with extremely disabled children,
and to this day I can recommend it as a tremendous background for life.
Everything had to be exaggerated: you had to speak more slowly, be more
patient, plan more carefully, be more present in the moment.
Her own manner of deliberate, thoughtful speech gave uncommon emphasis
to her testimony. Hearing her words, I couldn't help thinking of the contemporary
habit (often proclaimed a virtue) of divided attention. I also thought
of the fabled ethic of Silicon Valley, with its pride in raw efficiency,
in supreme technical ability, and in "don't get in my way or I'll run
you down" aggressiveness. At Camphill the whole point is to allow the
other person to get in our way. That's how we begin to see him for who
he is, and thereby discover something about who we are -- something
other than what our preferred mirrors tell us.
When you create an environment like that, remarkable things begin to
happen. What often catches people's attention about Camphill is the extraordinary
and unanticipated development their loved ones undergo there. Part of
this is owing to the special gifts the villagers bring with them. König
has remarked that, while we can often gain efficiency and speed by ignoring
those with special needs, in some matters they may possess a speed and
ability far surpassing our own. As a writer at the United Kingdom's Botton
Village Camphill has put it:
All kinds of issues can be discussed with far more grasp by
people who are normal, yet the generosity of nature, the power of commitment
to ideals, the capacity of forgiveness in those with special needs can
be disconcerting to say the least. In the end, living with people with
special needs is living with people and this is a symphonic task
in which, at any time, any instrument can soar upwards and lead the melody
to the accompaniment of all the other instruments in the orchestra.
Serving the Other
A great deal depends on an environment that supports, believes in, and
encourages individual gifts and individual development. König describes
the "College Meetings" at Camphills for children, where every week the
staff of a house or entire facility come together to discuss a particular
The child's case history is read, and then the teachers, helpers
and nurses give their reports and impressions of the child in question.
Many symptoms, signs and features are collected until -- usually under
the guidance of one of the doctors -- the image of the child arises. His
habits, achievements, faults and failures are laid out in such a way that
gradually a complete picture of his individuality appears.
In this picture the staff find guidance that enables them to clear a
path for the child's continued growth.
All this echoes the way children are assessed in Waldorf schools, where
the College of Teachers will often hold meetings to discuss the problems
and opportunities facing a particular student. The contrast with the mentality
behind standardized testing could hardly be greater. Certainly teachers
must assess student performance -- and in the most profound and
intimate way possible. The problem with standardized testing is that it
avoids any such rigorous assessment. It is a hopelessly crude tool,
a means of studied ignorance rather than deep understanding. And, as a
side effect, it removes all flexibility, the living qualities, from classroom
engagement. When you know in advance exactly what knowledge the student-container
is supposed to hold, there's not much incentive to attend to the particular
gifts and developmental needs, or the consuming interests, of the individual
learner. Standardized testing is not student assessment; it is the refusal
No student's needs and timing and achievement and potential can be assessed
in exactly the same terms as another student's. I suspect that, where
teachers willingly acquiesce in the demand for standardized testing, two
factors at work are laziness and fear. It can be both difficult and disturbing
to confront what lives deeply in another human being. This, of course,
is exactly the burden that Camphill workers take upon themselves. But
the principle of the distinctive character of the individual is hardly
less important in mainline schools.
Of Accident and Destiny
Whether it accords with our philosophical disposition or not, most of
us have had some sort of an experience of destiny -- for example, we have
(perhaps unwillingly) felt that a horrific accident or dramatic change
in fortune or a significant personal encounter was somehow "prepared"
for us. What we met on these occasions seemed to be ourselves, or something
that belonged to us. The events were "fated", answering as if by some
hidden intention to a need or potential of ours.
In other words, the accidents did not not seem really to be accidents;
they were integral to our lives. But, at the same time, we could not feel
ourselves reduced to these strokes of destiny, for we also stood
apart from them; it was we who chose how to make them into material for
further development. If they were part of us, it was because they presented
us with the opportunity to exercise exactly the capacities that needed
strengthening. All such events shape us, but they do so most crucially
by giving us the opportunity to transcend them.
Of course, the prevailing, scientifically informed culture leaves little
room for any very significant reading of these unusually freighted experiences.
Nevertheless, given that the purpose of sound science is to elucidate
experience and not merely to dismiss it, our inattention to these inklings
of destiny is much more problematic than the effort to bring them into
But my purpose now is not to argue such matters either way. Rather,
it is merely to point out that, without a strong sense of human destinies,
Camphills would not exist. What is true of the "external" events of our
lives, Camphill workers will tell you, is also true of your and my bodies
as physical instruments for the expression of our selves: the instrument
of my earthly existence is not an accident; it belongs to me. But at the
same time, I am not just the instrument. There are many ways I can use
it, and in the using I can to one degree or another grow beyond its limitations
-- grow by means of its limitations.
It is not hard for us to realize that the crushing, outward circumstances
of life may have kept hidden from us some of the most powerful, ingenious,
and significant personalities ever to inhabit the earth -- a Mozart, perhaps,
who never laid hands on a piano, a Gandhi whose crippling accident and
unenlightened society left him in institutional darkness.
What you will find among many Camphill workers is a sense that this
same truth applies to those individuals coping with the severe constraints
of a defective physical organism. The self whose destiny it is to wrestle
with such daunting limitations may be a self whose hidden resources and
powers of development far exceed those of its helpers. The close connection
between genius and the breakdown of normal function is well known. We
are not just our handicaps. We are not just our symptoms.
A Parent's Disconcerting Revelation
Carlo Pietzner, who helped found the Camphill movement in America, has
spoken of the experience, both striking and shattering, when parents realize
their child is more than his symptoms. They suddenly find themselves utterly
alone in a society unable to appreciate their revelation. No one is prepared
to help them understand why there is more in the child than
the symptoms of stammering, stuttering, not being able to learn to read,
not being able to walk, not being able to feed themselves, to complete
toilet training. Surely, yes, these are the describable symptoms, the
incapacity of the instrument. And yet they can see and feel that there
is more to it; there is the player to it. And if there is a player to
it, it cannot be only an accident. This player must have the possibility
of finding a way to play his sonata, however hollow the instrument may
sound, or however many notes may be missing. (From Questions of Destiny.
Whose life is not a broken song? Camphills are a testimony to the conviction
that even the most troubled songs need singing -- and more, that these
may be, in their own way, songs of genius, giving voice to some of the
most critical melodies and counterpoints in the sung destiny of earth
As I said, I am attempting no explicit justification of such a view,
remote as it is from conventional understanding. But Camphills are real
places of practical effectiveness -- remarkable sites of healing and inspiration
exactly where the surrounding society would be least inclined to look
for anything of much importance. My own inclination, in trying to glimpse
a tolerable social future, would be to look at least as hard at what is
going on in a Camphill village as to look at the excitements of Silicon
Copyright 2003 The Nature Institute
Steve Talbott :: On Forgetting to Wear Boots