Turn Handicaps Into Assets

( Originally Published 1950 )

PERHAPS YOU HAVE told yourself that these matters of decisiveness and positive action are all very well if one doesn't start out chained down by various handicaps. Handicaps might be expected to cancel the power of the positive, but on the contrary they frequently increase its development. We have dramatic proof of this on all sides of us. This proof is to be found wherever you have handicapped boys and girls or men and women—all of us who in one degree or another are handicapped either organically or functionally. We who are handicapped, and we all are, should be everlastingly grateful for our handicaps, for these disabilities, when met and overcome by the positive attitude, may be directly responsible for whatever success we achieve in life. Link the true positive attitude to an actual handicap, and it is almost axiomatic that success must result as surely as the glory of the sun succeeds the gloom of the night.

Perhaps it seems Pollyanna-ish or even brutal to maintain that we should be grateful for our handicaps, but if you will accept this concept for only a few minutes, you must be convinced. There are, of course, a multitude of handicapped persons who are only semipositive in their approach to their problems. They will find a way to correct a fault or effect a balance and stop right there. But for each of them there is another who, in fighting to overcome his handicap, will go on positively and achieve a point of what the psychologists call overcompensation. They go on to victories that might never, under more fortunate circumstances, have been theirs. A handicap of itself does not hand you a gift package of success, but any handicap that stimulates cultivation of the positive attitude will, because of that attitude, deliver a sweepstakes prize. There is good reason to believe that there is scarcely a handicap that is worse than negative thinking.

Let me tell you the stories of Harry Doehla and John Doe to illustrate the point. They are real characters, but you will understand why I don't more definitely identify John Doe. The two, as young men, were badly crippled by rheumatic fever—arms, hands, legs, twisted as though in vises. People felt sorry for them and their families. John felt very sorry for himself and never learned how to shed his negative outlook. He became a querulous invalid, a physical, financial, and emotional burden on his family, living an unhappy, unproductive life for more than thirty years. He hurt everything with which he came in touch. Naturally I won't identify him.

I have prevailed upon my friend of long standing, Harry Doehla, however, to let me tell the story of his million-dollar handicap for the help it may bring to others. Harry was the son of an $8-a-week weaver when rheumatic fever struck just after his graduation from high school. Gone were his plans to work his way through college and specialize in chemistry. Gone was the modest security of the Doehla home, in which the boy had to be carried about like a babe in arms when not in his wheel chair. For five terrible years pain racked his body, and searing thoughts raced in circles in his brain.

A flash of pain. "Why does this have to happen to me?"

A new complication, and a beastly diet is required. "It isn't fair that others should have strength and mobility and I must be confined this way year after year."

More pain. "What did I do to deserve this? It isn't fair. Why? Why? Why?"

There was great loneliness, since both father and mother had to go out to work for meager wages to keep him idle in his wheel chair. Why? Why? Why? Bitterness and hatred were branding his very soul. Then one painful, lonely day, a strange thing happened to Harry Doehla. He didn't quite realize what was going on. His parents saw no change that night. But there was a subtle change within Harry Doehla. A revolutionary process was begun. A miracle had occurred. He had stumbled onto a positive attitude toward his problem.

"The questions I've been asking are doing no good for me or anyone," he admitted to himself. "All these questions are useless. What is the question for me to ask?" That broke the negative vise in which he had been pressed. He was beginning to make a positive approach, and other questions followed. "How can I, crippled, and chauffeur to a wheel chair, be of use to others? What can I do where I am and under these circumstances to be of some use to others? What can I do now to make some money and share the burden?" Now, those were questions calling for positive answers, positive decision, and positive action.

Scores of possibilities flashed through his mind. One by one they were rejected as he passed on, seeking more feasible projects. He tried some things, and they didn't work out well, but he was making positive efforts to do something about his situation. Finally—to make it brief —without any training or special skill he began coloring post cards. He sold some of them, but the pay was small for many hours of work, day in and day out—$800 a year. He worked out a plan to buy finished cards and sell them by mail. His plan expanded so that now there are thousands who sell his cards. He has a million-dollar business.

A few days ago I had one of my frequent and cherished long visits with Harry Doehla. He holds court in his home at Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and in Florida, but more often he has his pilot fly his private airplane to New York. I sat in his artistically decorated, privately owned home in the fashionable and comfortable Hampshire House. I looked down from his thirtieth floor residence into Central Park. Harry moved about easily in his light chair. Telephones jangled until he had them stopped. They interfered with his play of ideas and brilliant conversation. I consider him one of the best educated men I have ever met. He personally manages his fortune and business. He has a thousand interests and a multitude of friends. "Doug," he said, "I want to show you something." He wheeled over to an electric organ, almost lost in a corner of the spacious room. His music was beautiful. He can reach the pedals with a technique he has worked out despite his difficulties, and he manages the keyboard skillfully. He isn't ready for Carnegie Hall, but Harry and his positive attitude are doing all right. How now, John Doe?

The Harry Doehlas of this life succeed because of their handicaps—not in spite of them. You would be hard put to it to point out anyone in the upper reaches of accomplishment who hasn't had one or more handicaps. As a matter of fact, a great mass of people are handicapped. You see them marching ahead and are blinded by what they accomplish and perhaps overlook the blocks that were thrown in their way. A simple dip into statistics makes clear the multiple handicaps we suffer as a people. The American Medical Association reports there are 16,000,000 who are among the deaf or hard of hearing alone. There are millions suffering from other physical disabilities; many millions with mental disability; many millions handicapped by feelings of inferiority; other millions bowing under less serious burdens. And despite these infirmities, the positive-minded ones rise above the commonplace while the negative thinkers, those with negative hearts, join the ranks of the ineffectual whiners. It has always been so. The pages of history are studded with the names of the handicapped who won out because of their difficulties. For every one of the outstanding, there are the individuals of our own acquaintance, lesser known, perhaps, but just as valorous.

Test your own recollection of some of the valorous handicapped who attained greatness. Listed below are names of persons who could well have led fruitless lives, complaining that outrageous fortune had made it impossible for them to give something to life. Can you name their handicaps?

The Handicap

1. Julius Caesar

2. Charles Darwin

3. Lord Nelson

4. John Keats

5. Ulysses S. Grant

6. Ludwig van Beethoven

7. Lord Byron

8. Thomas A. Edison

9. Edgar Allan Poe

10. John Milton

11. Demosthenes

12. Charles Steinmetz

13. Elizabeth Barrett Browning

14. Peter Stuyvesant

15. Alexander Pope

16. Robert Louis Stevenson

17. Franklin D. Roosevelt

The list could go on and overflow a Manhattan telephone directory. The handicaps of the above list are as follows: (1) epilepsy; (2) invalidism; (3) one eye; (4 ) tuberculosis; (5) throat cancer; ( 6) deafness; (7) clubfoot; (8) deafness from boyhood; (9) psychoneurosis; (10) blindness from middle age; (11) stammering, inarticulateness; (12) hunchback; (13) invalidism; (14) wooden leg; (15) hunchback; (16) tuberculosis; (17 ) infantile paralysis.

So these are outstanding cases of handicaps overcome by men and women who had the positive attitude. How about the current crop? The files of the Veterans Administration are filled with instances of men who have rebuilt their lives despite devastating physical damage.

There is the case of Bob Allman. Read a brief sketch of his recent record at the University of Pennsylvania, and if you don't recall his handicaps, make a guess at what was "holding him back." He was star performer on the university wrestling team—won forty-four bouts, lost twelve. He won the outstanding award as "that member of the senior class who most closely approaches the ideal University of Pennsylvania athlete." The award was based on personality, character, athletic prowess, scholarship. He made Phi Beta Kappa for scholarship, the Sphinx Society of campus leaders, etc. The handicaps of this popular wrestling scholar? Well, he was operated upon for rib separation, had a badly infected elbow and a wrenched knee.

And then, too, Bob Allman is blind!

How are you doing with your handicap?

Cripples under Coach Von Elling at New York University learned how to jump the hurdles. He had a boy crippled by infantile paralysis clear the bar at five feet nine inches and moved it higher. Ever try that without paralysis? Better be careful and try it at three feet first.

How are we all doing with our own handicaps?

Were you one of the many who laughed at and sang the praises of the book and play Life with Father? Clarence Day tied a pencil to his fingers in order to write it. His fingers had been crippled by exposure in the Spanish-American War.

And how is your handicap, today?

Handicaps don't stop the positive-minded. They can hold back only the negatives of life.

Have you been handicapped by lack of money, lack of formal schooling, lack of time, lack of various desirable things, or just plain lack of the positive attitude?

Ten-year-old Ethelwynne Kingsbury was swinging as high as she could in the hammock. She fell out. She was paralyzed from the waist down. Her mother made a modest living as a practical nurse and had to leave the child alone during the day. The lass studied at home with special lessons and was graduated from high school with high honors. A Minneapolis business college wouldn't admit her because it was believed her handicap wouldn't permit her to earn a living. She turned up at the school however and later became secretary to its president.

You can't stop a positive person. Ethelwynne wanted to be a singer. With her secretarial earnings she took training and won a Columbia Broadcasting System singing contest. She had fine earning capacity on the radio networks. She became business manager for the pianist, Countess Helena Morsztyn, and president of the Minnesota Federation of Music Clubs.

"My first step," Ethelwynne Kingsbury explains, "was to realize that one of the worst things I could do was to invite or even expect special consideration because of my handicap—there is nothing so crippling as sell-pity."

The positive attitude can always banish self-pity, which is the infiltrating fifth column of negative thinking.

The cases cited here are not carefully selected instances. There are tens of thousands of individuals to choose from. For instance you could select any one of the 700 handicapped workers studied in the Western Electric Company. One day the company executives decided to study the work of the 700 handicapped as compared with 700 who had no apparent impairments, all 1,400 doing the same kind of work. The work of all was scored on the basis of rate of production, labor turnover, and absenteeism. On each of the three counts the handicapped were superior to the unimpaired!

When one considers what the uneducated and physically handicapped accomplish through their positive approach to their problems, it is difficult to give much sympathy to the many who wail, "Oh, but I never had a chance at a good education. If I had been able to go to college, I'd set the world on fire." Yeah? What are they waiting for? A considerable percentage of the men and women listed in Who's Who in America never had the advantages of a formal college education, but they educated themselves. Not long ago B. C. Forbes studied the careers of the fifty outstanding business executives in America. About half had never had a college education. The great majority of the branch managers of the Bell Telephone Company never moved the tassel of a mortarboard from right to left, signifying the award of a college degree. Bob Devine ran a truck and operated a small automobile repair shop. He had no college education. He married. He became a New York City detective. He studied nights and enrolled in New York University. In June, 1949, he received his Master of Laws degree. Raphael Demos, a Greek immigrant who worked his way as a janitor to his Harvard Ph.D., holds Harvard's Alford professorship of natural religion, moral philosophy, and civil polity.

Men and women without arms, without legs, without eyesight, without formal education, without inherited wealth and position, without the advantages of the more basically favored are constantly attaining desirable heights of achievement. They outstrip fortune's favorites because of their handicaps—if they have the positive attitude.

The majority of people are vague about what they really want to do when it comes to selecting a vocation. The majority never really find out what they are best fitted to do. They drift. They are positive enough to keep from starving but sail without compass or rudder. In contrast, the handicapped, faced by sheer limitations, analyze their situations and take the positive approach to develop their highest abilities under the circumstances. The negative folk invariably make way for them in business and professions and in all areas of life.

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