Go to the kitchen, put an oven mitt on one hand and leave it there for a few hours as you get on with your day. After that, come back and read the rest of the article…
You probably have experienced a relatively frustrating time performing the more mundane tasks like opening a bag of crisps, buttoning your clothes, tying your shoes or typing on your computer. For many people, these challenges are everyday struggles because of a condition they were born with called hemiplegia. This year I became involved with a groundbreaking project called Breathe Magic (run by the charity Breathe Arts Health Research) that trains children with the skills of magicians to help them improve their physical abilities.
Little did I know, I’d be learning as much from them as they were meant to be learning from the magicians.
Hemiplegia is caused by a brain injury and it’s more common than you might think. It’s a form of cerebral palsy that affects 1 in 1000 children, inhibiting mobility of the limbs on one side of the body. Many children born with it will grow up wearing a splint on the leg of the affected side of their body and will have need of physical and occupational therapy to help them expand the capacity of the affected muscles. Many daily tasks the majority of us take for granted are either a massive challenge… or impossible for someone with hemiplegia.
Breathe Magic is actually breathing due to the persistence of David Owen who is a QC and a Magic Circle magician. He peddled his idea to numerous charities; all of which were not enthusiastic enough to take up his inspiration. I imagine no one managed to understand how magic could actually be useful for such a serious matter. It could easily be seen as entertainment relief at most. But this wasn’t what David, in collaboration with colleague Richard McDougall, had up their sleeves. It was finally Yvonne Farquarson, the MD of Breathe AHR, who understood that his idea of Breathe Magic was something much more than first met the eye. Yvonne’s enthusiasm now leads a creative and resourceful team of researchers, occupational therapists and magicians to make Breathe Magic happen.
The central programme begins with a full-immersion course (to the children, it’s ‘magic camp’) of ten full days over two weeks — all culminating in a show in which every young magician takes part. After this, throughout the course of a year the children meet for a magic club once a month to maintain their skills on the old material as well as add to their magic repertoire.
One aspect of Breathe Magic I expected and found was the physical improvements many of the children achieved. Magicians work with occupational therapists to carefully select performance material that targets desired improved physical actions. Ambidextrous targets are always required: the young magician is coached to hold the ball in the right hand to show it to the audience towards the right, then they take it in the left hand to show it to the audience sitting towards the left. Unbeknownst to the children, as they are liberated and engage with the fun of the magic, behind the curtain each performance has ‘secretly’ been chosen to stretch and strengthen their muscles in a desired way. A specific move they have to master in order to deliver their performance will also serve them to accomplish a particular skill necessary in daily life. There can be tears of frustration at the struggle but also tears of joy when breakthroughs are made. The researchers in Yvonne’s team take note of the results of every child, measuring their speed, their range of movements and other factors. They then make use of this data to improve methods to help the children. Many accomplished daily tasks during the camp they never had done before.
In learning the magic ‘tricks’, other truly magical things began to happen.
But there was something else I discovered there that I didn’t expect. (A magician always loves it when s/he’s the one being surprised!) Apart from the work on dexterity, it was the triumph of character from all this magic that caught me off guard. Many of the children came to the camp having faced rejection from others because of being different and some tended to hide their hemiplegia afflicted hand from the world. It was the experience of learning to be a magician that prompted many of the children to blossom. A good magician makes eye contact with his or her audience and confidently presents their skill to those watching. In learning magic, in a matter of days they could share new abilities that their parents, friends and peers do not have. Confidence in many children soared, which in turn seemed to help with their attitude toward the physical tasks involved in learning how to handle the props. Their leaps in skills with public speaking, their eye contact, their confidence to engage with the world were all the things that turned out to be the real magic.
My other surprise was all that I had to learn from them. It struck me that the important thing with what they’re doing – and with what anyone is doing – isn’t actually about disability. In fact we’re all disabled in some way or another; my right hand is dominant over my left and there’s always someone better than me when performing any number of skills I try every day. Instead of it being about disability, the take-away for me was seeing how the children rise above it and through the process of becoming magicians they push their limits. That courage they have to push their boundaries and reach beyond the ability they have today is nothing short of inspiring.
Every workshop day there’s something valuable they remind me: the importance of chunking down and isolating small parts of the problem so not to get overwhelmed by the whole. Also the value of celebrating the small breakthrough moments and to give yourself a break like when you’re trying hard and it’s not working. And most importantly to be sure that every day we’re reaching a little bit beyond what we think we ‘can’ do. The results I’ve seen of this formula being applied in the Breathe Magic camp produced results that were simply magical.
Post script: If you’d like to support Breathe AHR, here’s an easy way. Breathe continues to develop its workshops and other activities in a variety of innovative directions – you can learn more here. All views expressed in the article are my own.