The Copernican Revolution In Disability
Since graduating as a physiotherapist, I’ve been working in Australia and throughout Asia, with people with disabilities, for the better part of two decades. It strikes me that the field of disability is going through a seismic change; one which is way overdue.
And recently, while reading about the Copernican revolution, I realised that the same approach is needed in our field.
In the 16th century, in Nuremberg, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, Nicolaus Copernicus sat down to write what would become a highly influential book. Copernicus was a thin, wiry man with pointed features and piercing eyes. He was almost 60 by the time he finished writing.
Copernicus was a polyglot, fluent in German, Polish, Greek, Italian, and Latin.
This book – which would later become his magnum opus – was titled De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Its English translation is On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.
De revolutionibus was the first publication to challenge the Ptolemaic model – the assumption that the earth was stationary at the centre of the universe.
This was something that people had believed for close to 15 centuries. This idea was so deeply embedded in our understanding of the universe, that it had been adopted by the Catholic Church as gospel. To challenge this theory would amount to heresy.
Martin Luther is quoted as saying:
People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon … This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us [Joshua 10:13] that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.
These days, of course, the impact of the Copernican revolution is obvious. Our entire belief system has changed.
It seems to me a Copernican revolution is occurring in the field of disability. It’s changing how we, as clinicians, approach our work. And hopefully, this will result in much better results for everyone.
The old model of therapy puts the clinician at the centre of the universe. Goals were created for clients, based upon what clinicians viewed as important. Knowledge was withheld or full of jargon.
When a client improved, there was no easy way of understanding how that happened. It might have been as simple as the clinician saying “This week, Tommy scored 65 out of 80 on this test, whereas last week, he scored 50.”
If a family needed an appointment, they did it during business hours, and they might have to drive for hours to get to the clinic.
The old model of therapy worked in an environment where information wasn’t readily available to families, and hence they weren’t empowered. But, like the Ptolemaic model of the universe, it was never going to last.
The new model of therapy places the needs, hopes and dreams of the family at the centre of the universe. And everything revolves around that.
It means that goals are created in tandem with the clinician. Therapy is driven by the family, as experts in their own lives. It means that clinicians share as much information as is possible with families, or use big words to describe something very simple.
It means that even a child who is eight and has autism should be able to understand in which ways he is improving, and the progress that he is making every day.
It means that therapy happens when and where the family wants.
The Copernican revolution wasn’t an overnight success.
The reception to De revolutionibus was lukewarm at best, with astrologers distancing themselves from the central theory of the Sun being the centre of the universe. However, it was enough to spark a number of followers, most notably Galileo Galilei, who was forced to recant his beliefs and placed under house arrest by the church for heresy.
It took many revisions by Copernicus’ followers to improve on the original ideals. But it was a collaboration over time which fundamentally changed our world for the better.
For people with disabilities, the same approach will revolutionise therapy.
And though we have already seen much progress, it will take more time and more thought until we get it right – until the person is at the centre of the universe.
At Umbo, we believe that combining the tools of online therapy and taking a person-centred approach are both morally and pragmatically correct. It means we fully embrace the mantra of “Nothing about us without us”. It means that as we work towards goals created, we make a difference in people’s lives that they value.
The Copernican revolution in disability is already underway. Will you join us?
About the Author
Weh is the CEO and Co-Founder of Umbo. After co-founding WhyDev, a non profit organisation committed to getting international development right, he founded OIC Cambodia in 2013, and handed over leadership to a local Cambodian team in 2017. OIC is an initiative that aims to establish speech therapy as a profession in Cambodia.
He has both a BA in Physiotherapy from the University of Sydney and an MA in Development Studies from the University of NSW. He has volunteered with people with disabilities in Vietnam, interned in India, studied Mandarin in Beijing, and milked yaks in Mongolia.