What Are You Looking For?

skin-3358873_640Rebecca was nineteen, but had the intellect of an eight year old. She was clumsy and uncoordinated, often having trouble putting her clothes on correctly. She could not navigate around the block or properly use a key to open a door. Her grandmother described her as having “no sense of space.”

She wore thick glasses, as she suffered from degenerative myopia. Her fingers were stumpy with deformed nails, and she had partial cleft palate, causing her to whistle when she spoke. She could not count change, and never learned to read or write. Painfully aware of her differences, Rebecca was extremely shy, preferring solitude to the disgust and ridicule often projected her way.

When Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist, first met Rebecca, he described her as “a poor thing.” He writes about her in his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for Hat. “I saw her merely, or wholly, as a casualty, a broken creature, whose neurological impairments I could pick out and dissect with precision.”

However, their next encounter was entirely different. Walking the grounds of the hospital where he worked (and where Rebecca now lived), he spied her sitting on a bench in the garden. She was soaking in the sun and intently observing the nature around her. Her posture was relaxed and her face betrayed no sign of her many deficits.

She spied Sacks, smiled and exclaimed “Look at the world. How beautiful it is.” She then began to describe what she saw in a stream of poetic words and phrases. While she struggled with what we consider “normal” cognitive abilities, she seemed to excel at abstract thought and artistic expression.

Suddenly it dawned on Sacks that the vey tests used to categorize her impairments were useless in gauging her strengths. Trained himself to identify deficiencies, Sacks’ first inclination was to seek out what was wrong with his patient, not what was right. He concluded that “our test, our approaches, our ‘evaluations’, are ridiculously inadequate. They only show us deficits, they do not show us powers.”

Seeing Rebecca from a different perspective allowed Dr. Sacks to reassess her treatment. She was removed from the standard classes and workshops prescribed to address her deficiencies. They weren’t working anyway. Instead, she was enrolled in music and theater classes where she did remarkably well. Seeing her on the stage, Dr. Sacks remarked, “One would never even guess that she was mentally defective.”

It occurs to me that neurologists aren’t the only ones who would do well to expand their methods of evaluation. Everywhere you turn, there are mindsets and systems designed to look for exclusions rather than inclusions. Negative headlines make the news because what someone has done wrong is more interesting than what someone has done well. Pranks and jokes intended to embarrass others receive more play than inclusive activities. And sadly, my own tendency is to look for the inadequacies in others as opposed to their superlatives. I have to remind myself that, even as I like to see myself as the evaluator – as a Dr. Sacks, there are others evaluating me – seeing me as a Rebecca. It’s a humbling thought.

How do I see my customers?

Through what criteria do I evaluate my coworkers?

Am I looking for deficits or powers?