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July 17, 2010

disABILITY: Breaking free of schooling 'rules' opens new avenues for learning

Daily Star

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I went back to school for massage in April, and, already, I am halfway done with the program and my 1,000 hours of hands-on experience.

Time has unfurled with a vengeance. In 3½ months I've learned Swedish massage, pregnancy and infant massage, elder massage, Shiatsu, deep tissue massage, sports massage, body mechanics, essential oils, energy therapy, flower essence therapy, ethics, kinesiology, and anatomy and physiology.

Next it's business classes, learning neuromuscular therapy, pathology, hydrotherapy and medical and cancer massage. There are probably some other things I'm not recalling at the moment, as well. My experiences are already giving me the feeling of being pretty well-rounded.

I've spent clinic hours massaging my classmates, people of all ages from the community, family, friends and some developmentally disabled clients.

Some of these people only see me once. Some, like a developmentally disabled client of mine is seen weekly. Every clinical experience builds my confidence as I can perceive real change. Even after a single massage, it's taken me by surprise at times, about what a change I can perceive in the person's body I just finished working on.

Before I knew the body structures and the muscles I was massaging, massage was just something that made people feel good. Human touch is powerful in itself, but being able to really help someone's medical pathology by designing a massage to address their specific problem and seeing the results, even within a single session, is an awesome, awesome experience.

But massage isn't the only thing I've been learning. Spending hours upon hours with my classmates has been a real learning experience as well. It's pretty much been an exercise in community building. Caring about a random group of 18 folks as though they are a large extension of my own family is the way it is.

I don't have any trouble caring about or getting along with any of them. My communication skills used to be good, but they have since ripened to a huge degree.

At school, the biggest thing that I've benefitted from is the way that the faculty is always conscious of being very communicative and very open and transparent with the students. I quite liked it and figured that I would adopt it into my own personal repertoire.

I don't leave anyone guessing or misinterpreting me, not even a little. I like that feeling of clarity. Communication is hugely important and many of my role models growing up didn't use the power of transparency, at least not to this extent. Mind reading was more the name of the game until things were so badly inflamed that they were forced out into the openness to be talked about. So discovering this level of transparency and putting it into practice, myself, leaves me with the same feeling I might get if I discovered a buried treasure underneath the sea. It is not only valuable, but exciting.

And on top of all of these things, even, is one more discovery. The school I am attending has a mission of being a place that anyone who wants to learn massage can come learn it in the way that makes sense to them. This leaves plenty of room for everyone to be successful whether they learn best sitting on a bean bag rather than at a desk, or if they are an auditory or a visual or a kinesthetic learner. I for one get so distracted by lots of written activities. I'd rather go touch skeletons and feel the muscle groups we're learning on a classmate's body. I also like reading my manuals and books in a very orderly fashion. I get distracted and feel so disorganized the more papers and extraneous assignments I'm given. So when they put handouts at the front of the classroom for people to complete I don't worry about it. None of those kinds of things are graded or handed in. They are there for those people who learn best by using them.

It's definitely been a challenge to break out of the patterns I learned in my previous schooling experiences. I finally am able to study in my own way now and while it seems simple to do what should be coming naturally and easily to me has been one of the hardest things to do. I feel this old sense that I won't learn a thing until I do all kinds of busy work and open lots of channels for information to come through to me. But in all honesty, I've found that if I stick with reading my manuals and textbooks and shut down all the other informational overload, I learn better and actually stay interested in what I'm learning. And for me, it works every time I allow myself the privilege.

Kate Pavlacka, a graduate of the State University College at Oneonta, has been totally blind for about a dozen years. Her columns can be found at