“THE COMFORT OF THE SHARED BURDEN”
The Donald H. Dabelstein Memorial Lecture, delivered by Mary E. Switzer, Commissioner of Vocational Rehabilitation, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Washington, D.C. at the Annual Meeting, National Rehabilitation Association, Schroeder Hotel, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 30, 1965.
To give the Donald H. Dabelstein Memorial Lecture this year is a special
opportunity for me–and one which I appreciate for deeply personal
reasons. Hardly a day has passed since Dab’s death that his spirit
has not been close at hand to help us, not only to bear the burdens of
ever enlarged responsibility and opportunity to serve the disabled,
but also to remind us that rehabilitation is and always has been the
complete example of the comfort of the shared burden.
His quiet exterior belied an inner dream and a burning ambition
that drove him to constantly seek better ways of serving people. He
Save himself so freely to others, and shared their burdens in so a
constructive way, that I often wondered where he gained his own reservoir
of strength to give.
Did his reading and thinking, well into the night, refresh him so
much that his gifts became viable by day? Maybe so, but after his death,
his wife found beside his bed among many treasured writings, a prayer
he always said to start the day. It was a simple prayer–for Dabs was
a simple dedicated man at heart. Perhaps this prayer, recognizing as
it does the need for some help outside ourselves, somehow conveyed to
Dabs the comfort of the shared burden.
I met God in the Morning
When the day was at its best,
And His Presence came like sunrise,
Like a glory in my breast.
All day long the Presence lingered,
All day long He stayed with me,
And we sailed in perfect calmness
O’er a very troubled sea.
Other ships were blown and battered,
Other ships were sore distressed,
But the winds that seemed to drive them
Brought to us a peace and rest.
Then I thought of other mornings
With a keen remorse of mind,
When I too had loosed the morrings
With the Presence left behind.
So I think I know the secret
Learned from many a troubled way;
You must seek Him in the morning
If you want Him through the day.
I feel certain that Dabs found in this prayer an abiding foundation
of comfort and strength which made the heavy burdens he accepted in
moving ahead with a better national program for our nation’s disabled
people, not burdens really, but opportunities to open doors for others
to share in making his dreams a reality.
The latest example I had of this remarkable ability he had to
encourage, inspire, and stimulate came in a letter from a colleague
describing a newly found associate in some highly technical project
she is organizing:
“I remember the first time I met Dabs. It was in 1955, in
connection with a grant for the Mental Health Project for the
Deaf – the first grant request under P. L. 565 made for the deaf.
I came to Dabs after years of waging a pretty lonely battle
for research and improved rehabilitation services for the
hearing handicapped. No one knew much about this population,
no one even wanted to know, no one cared. Boyce Williams was
my main support in those days plus a small handful of dedicated
deaf and hearing colleagues. The story of our ups and downs
(mostly downs) is a chronicle in itself. What kept uS going
I know not. But on we struggled until one day we found ourselves
face to face with P. L. 565! The hope that choked
us up was almost too much to bear; the fear we might not
make it was even worse.
“So tense with hope, fear, and responsibility I presented
myself to Dabs to ‘justify’ our needs. I had to succeed,
this was it, the time was now, my colleagues were counting
on me, the field whether aware of it or not, needed our efforts,
etc., etc., etc. Dabs took one look at me, said not a word,
sat me down and sent out for black coffee. Then he spoke.
He gently apologized for being in shirtsleeves – and even in
shirtsleeves, Dabs conveyed elegance – and while he was chatting
’till the coffee came, his wise and kindly eyes alao tWinkled a
message at me: ‘Carry on with your justification speech if you
must, they said, but you really don’t have to “sell” human need
to me. I have met it in so many forms. I know what it is.
Just explain to me the form it takes in deafness.’ And so I
did. And Dabs understood – with heart and mind, This is a
moment of experience I shall never forget.
“Dabs was at the vortex of the explosion of opportunity
for rehabilitation in those days, and busy beyond belief. So
I saw very little of him. In fact, the next time I met him was
about two years later in connection with a research fellowship
I had been awarded. Despite the tremendous pressures under which
he labored, Dabs remained the same composed sensitive and elegant
person. His wise eyes still twinkled with gentle humor, and
despite his burgeoning responsibilities, he was still able to
somehow absorb and lighten the worries of others. One felt
he cared – and he did. His range of human capacity was all
“In terms of the number of times I met Dabs, one might
Bay I did not know him at all well, and in a way this is so.
I have no anecdotes, stories, nor humorous incidents to bring
his memory to life. But in another way, I know Dabs very
well, for what he gave me of his wisdom is part of me today
and always shall be.”
How very close this expression brings us to the spirit of the man we
recall today – and how poignantly it reminds us that of all that goes into
the development of the rehabilitation program, nothing is as important
As a rehabilitation counselor many years before, he had learned
that disability is a very personal thing and constantly reminded us of
this fact. Not even the nearest and dearest companions in the family
can ever really encompass the feelings of the person who has lost his
ability to be physically and mentally on top of life. This is especially
true of the person stricken suddenly–the victim of polio or an automobile
accident–or even the older person who becomes blind or deaf.
Such radical changes in the fabric of living make radical chatlges in the
approach to life itself. The first reaction must surely be “how can I
Then, when the grim fact of bearing it becomes a necessity for
survival, the reaching out begins–sometimes piteously, often belligerently,
frequently accompanied by a fierce independence that at once
recreates a new spirit and shuts out the help needed to complete the
process of renewal.
Occasionally we find a revealing expression of what goes on inside
a person as he works back to normalcy. Such a story is told with unusual
perception by Leonard Kriegel in “The Long Walk Home.” Here a man, now
a teacher, looks back over his life and takes us step by step on the
long journey from the moment he is stricken with polio in his camp until
he finally stands tall–rehabilitated. To me, the most moving moment
in the story is the one when he realizes what his condition means to
others. There are scores of stories of successful rehabilitation available
today, but I have not read one that captures the reality of the
effect of one’s disease on others.
Disease, too, is a sharing, he says in the moment when his rehabilitation really started.
“I remember that room in the hospital in Cold Spring as clean
and sterile–but the weight of that memory is something dark and
oily. In the secret places where I have stuffed my pride, I love
that memory. For when you go toward death and you find a resting
place and that resting place in tum becomes a place where your
life itself unhinged at the joints, where past and present and
future collided in the anarchy of your blood, then it is a
place of discovery. I am, after all, alive. And I love my
life with the selfishness of a beggar whose foot brushes a
buck in the streets. The room holds the secret of my guilt,
too, for it was there that I first counted my owings to the
world and balanced them against my owings to myself”
“The guilt first came to me in the very late afternoon
of my second day there. as the dying summer sun streamed through
the open window and weakly flagged its blessing across my reet.
My feet had frozen at almost a forty-five-degree angle; the
toes were rigid and cramped against a heavy box that the
doctor had ordered as a prop. I rested in pain, but at least
I rested. I lay quietly and even contentedly, like the virus
whose hunger had been, for the moment at least, satiated.
And then my mother entered the room, escorted by the older
nurse, My mother’s face was naked and white, And as I watched
her make her frightened way across the room, I saw that even
disease is not a selfish thing, Disease, too, is a sharing,
Until I saw her, I had known only that what had happened to me
had happened to me, that I could no longer move my legs, that
my body, was stiff and aching, that my head throbbed with a dull,
gluttonous pain. But in her face shone the appeal of self-pity
and the harshness of accusation, And, at that momalt, the
budding concept of the child as solitary victim died. I had done
this, I saw, to them, too.
“It was not a nice bridge, but it was the first bridge I
had to cross–perhaps even the most important. To admit that
guilt, to admit what I had done to them, to all the thems. It
was, admittedly, the logic of cliche, even at the age of eleven–but
a cliche of a certain depth, a certain subtlety, I suppose
it was then that I first sensed that I could never make it
entirely alone, for the self would not admit so heavy a burden.
‘No man is an island,’ Donne wrote–and how right, how brutally
right, he was. But the continent was not of humility, nor even of
sharing. The continent was of guilt, its sands resting on what
I had done to them. That was my sin, and out of it would grow
my joining. I first read it on my mother’s face, on a day
that she entered a child’s room to slice his selfhood in half.
“I could not fight it, and as she bent over me, her eyes
brimming with tears, I yelled, ‘Momma, I’m sorry.’ She had
the unconscious grace to cry. And I cried with her, relieved
that I had won forgiveness.”
Is it not somehow the distillation of such a scene, multiplied over
and over, that is the essence of the rehabilitation movement? As we
look at the scene today – on the threshold of the greatest expansion
in service ever contemplated – how has it all come about? What is the
secret of the enlarged horizon? What are its challenges and pitfalls?
First and foremost is the acceptance of the commitment to care – really
caring enough to make the work of rehabilitation count. Not routine
treatment, but the transference to the person served the sense that
someone cares enough to share the burden, if not of the disability itself,
at least of the struggle to overcome it.
The history of the growth of rehabilitation, not only in this country,
but also throughout the world, is the story of the pebble dropped in the
pool and the series of concentric circles produced by it. Without the
pebble, no circles; without the waves of the circlcs, no movement in the
stagnant pool. As we look back from the success story that rehabilitation
is in 1965, we see a network of people in public and private agencies–committed
to a professional career in rehabilitation, or volunteers
supporting these specially trained workers in the typical American way.
We view the past from any one of a number of vantage points–the
well established public program with its roots now in every community
in the country–the mosaic of local community groups serving the mentally
retarded, the cerebral palsied, the blind, and some antedating the idea
of rehabilitation, but unknowingly committed to its philosophy, Some,
more recently established, have been able to rush ahead to a goal without
prolonged agony in fighting for public acceptance.
We look back, too, from any one of hundreds of rehabilitation facilities
designed to provide under one roof the many services we have learned to
give, many of which were unknown in the historic past.
We look back from the apex of our educational institutions–hundreds
of them–where thousands of dedicated, talented people, young and some
not so young, are acquiring the knowledge and skills to go forth to share
the burden. As they study and contemplate, they have the example of
the few who started to make rehabilitation not only a reality, but a
Today, the success of vocational rehabilitation owes much – perhaps
all that is distinctive in the program to the principle that inherent in
accomplishing rehabilitation, the serving person gives himself to the
served – he thinks first of the disabled person as a human being in need
of something – and in the giving of that something, the giver received
even more, to store up for the next cycle of sharing.
The program today, then, is more than a program. It is the cushion
on which many services rest – a deep and enduring cushion of shared
burdens, joys, and excitement – little or nothing alone, but everything
I remember incidents in the far past that continue to inspire me
today–incidents that underline the validity of rehabilitation’s approach
through the years. Many of these incidents became part of my being
through Tracy Copp, who brought Dabs to the Federal office. by the way,
and made possible the sharing of his inspired talents for all too brief
I remember that in Missouri, where we new have such a varied and
exciting public program with many collaborators in all sorts of community
groups, the program started with the Red Cross in St. Louis.
For almost fifteen years public resources joined with private,
giving before the final recognition of the public’s representatives that
the disabled of the State of Missouri were entitled to join the Union!
And I remember in Bell Greve’s Rehabilitation Center in Cleveland–one
of the earliest vocational rehabilitation facilities in the country–the
first program run by volunteers for cerebral palsied youngsters where
the extremely dependent ones were brought in for one afternoon a week.
Why? To give the mothers, aunts, or grandmothers caring for them the
comfort of a shared burden–by freedom from that burden for a few hours,
Now, a quarter of a century later, We have such arrangements as a matter
of course in countless centers, small and large. Bell Greve would burst
with pride today to see the great expansion of her small dream coming
to flower as a major part of Cleveland’s urban renewal. The People’s
renewal–the extraordinary new rehabilitation facility is called.
In many ways, the growth of service in this one place spans what
has happened for the disabled in our time. I remember the excitement
and almost unbelievable wonder that surrounded the establishment of the
Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville, Virginia–one of the
first fruits of World War II for the program in the State of Virginia-and
a radical thing for a State to do.
Dr. Howard A. Rusk had not yet established his great center, which
is so symbolic of what we think of as being “rehabilitation” that we forget
it has not been there always. Now we have several fine State-operated
vocational rehabilitation centers–and many more to come on the wave of
One of the reasons for the success of this program has been that
through all these developmental years, it has been small enough to be
a personally oriented program of service. Every single one of the 135,000
rehabilitants of last year was seen by a rehabilitation counselor, who
had this personal opportunity to work with the disabled individual as
he was arranging for medical rehabilitation, training, and finding a job.
As the program has multiplied, as more people have been involved in it,
the struggle to keep this personalized approach has been intense and, up
to now, successful. It has pointed the way to many programs that have
come into being in the last four or five years to handle thousands of
people in trouble; it has emphasized that the person to be helped must
have a conviction that someone cares. Unless this idea can be instilled
in tbe many hopeless and almost helpless victims of all sorts of overwhelming
circumstances, our society faces a prolonged period of troubled
If we in rehabilitation are thus prepared spiritually and philosophically
– if we accept this fundamental responsibility for being the
agency and the people who care – if we fully believe that the comfort
of the shared burden is more important than anything else we bring to
the disabled men and women who seek our help – then we are prepared for
the other demands that are going to be made upon us. And not just here
at home – but around the world – for in our program of international
research in rehabilitation, we have touched the lives of disabled men,
women, and children in far away India, Pakistan, Israel, Egypt, Syria,
Yugoslavia, Poland. We have proven that our concern for disabled people
“does not diminish with distance” – but the victims of leprosy in India,
mentally retarded and cerebral palsied in Israel, and deaf in Yugoslavia,
are our clients and through them we show how serving can save lives in
the midst of a warring world.
No, we do not face just another demanding year ahead. Rehabilitation
is not just growing, It has come of age already.
What we face now is the challenge of success, This year the entire
public program of vocational rehabilitation is the custodian of around a
quarter billion dollars of public funds. It is working with voluntary
and other agencies which probably have nearly that much available for
their rehabilitation services and programs. In vocational rehabilitation
we are involved in the lives and the fortunes ano the future of more than
a quarter million disabled youth, men, and women on any day of the year.
Whatever legislation is enacted this year, all these measures of
size are going to increase – and quickly. It is probable that many State
rehabilitation agencies will be asked to double in size within the next
two to three years – in funds, in staff, snd in the number of disabled
people served and rehabilitated.
For decades we have dreamed of the day when all disabled people who
need service could get it, Was it entirely a matter of dreaming – or were
we also planning for it with realism and courage?
We are about to find out. Our success in a small way is going to be
rewarded with responsibilities in a big way.
This is the challenge we face – the challenge of success.
We cannot meet it simply by doing more of the same, in the same way,
The great question is how we can develop new, faster and more effective
methods of delivering services, and yet retain the principles which
have made our work distinctive and successful.
For one thing, we cannot continue to pick and choose among the large
number of disabled people who need services.
We will not be able to defend prolonged periods of waiting between
referral and service, or great time lags during a rehabilitation program
which are convenient for the agency, but tragic for the client.
We will find ourselves under increasing requirements to raise our
sights on training and employment objectives for disabled clients. We,
of all agencies, will be expected to lead the way in providing the very
highest possible level of job skills in a changing job market, and to
raise the average earnings of our rehabilitated clients well above anyone’s
concept of poverty.
The public program of vocational rehabilitation is going to be “used” –
in the sense that we will be expected to fit ourselves into programs
with larger national, State, and local objectives.
We will be expected to function as a partner in hundreds of community
efforts to reduce poverty and illiteracy.
We will be asked to work alongside court officials, welfare staffs,
penal officers, and others to help bring under control the problems of
crime and law enforcement.
Neglect of disability among children and youth is going to drop
dramatically in the next few years – and loe will be expected to help. We
should be ready to meet local and State school officials more than half
way – in fact, to be the catalyst wherever necessary – to see that the
transition from school room to job is made without interruption, and that
these handicapped teenagers are not permitted to become statistics of
failure in the manner of so many who preceded them.
We will be in the vanguard of the struggle for civil rights, for we
have lived with prejudice and know what is required to overcome it.
These and many other evolving changes call for a sharp new look at
how we conduct this phase of the public’s business.
No State agency will do it alone~ nor will the Vocational Rehabilitation
Administration draw a blueprint. It calls for the minds and the experience
and the courageous determination of many people in many places, to produce
and use the improvements we will need.
But we will do it – together – as we have accomplished so very
much together over these mnny years. And because we will. be
shouldering the task together, we will be giving to each other what
for so long we have given to the disabled people we serve – the
comfort of sharing this burden, and we can sing with the beloved
poet, Carl Sandburg:
A New America
I see America, not in the setting sun of a black
night of despair ahead of us.
I see America in the crimson light of a rising
sun fresh from the burning, creative hand of God.
I see great days ahead, great days possible to men
and women of will and vision.