Academic journal article The Journal of Rehabilitation

A Conscience for Rehabilitation

Academic journal article The Journal of Rehabilitation

A Conscience for Rehabilitation

Article excerpt

I was deeply saddened this summer when I learned of the death of Simon Olshansky, a person whom I had come to know and admire over 25 years as one of the leaders of rehabilitation. For people of my generation Sy was a person who played an immensely important role in shaping our ideas about rehabilitation counseling, mental illness, mental retardation, and vocational rehabilitation. His ideas, writings, and lectures had a major impact on our field, and continue to have relevance for the issues of our own time.

The Prophetic Tradition

He was not a believer in any organized religion or creed, yet ironically the writings of Simon Olshansky were reminiscent of the prophetic tradition of the Bible. His jeremiad addressed to the government bureaucracy, his criticism of the public and private agencies which provide services to clients with disabilities, his scathing denouncement of societal neglect of persons with mental illness or mental retardation, all can be likened to the Old Testament prophets who penetrated the social hypocrisies of their time, and recommended reforms and envisioned a better future.

In reevaluating his writings from 1952-1980, the one thread that continues throughout his work is a vision of a more just, humane society for people with disability. In a 1952 paper titled, Needed: a Sense of Humor (Olshansky, 1952), he quotes a New Yorker cartoon, which portrays an employer interviewing a prospective worker, who looks exactly like the employer, with the caption stating, "Bud, I like your looks. I think I'll hire you." His exposure of the hypocrisy of the labor market which is supposed to be free of discrimination, and his ridicule of the universities which teach "absolute rationality" in matching workers to jobs, is illustrated by this one cartoon.

Long before it became a watchword for rehabilitation of the person with mental illness, he discussed the phenomenon of passing and the need for normalization of ex-mental patients. In a famous study of the employment experiences of patients discharged from three state mental hospitals, he observed, in 1960, that approximately one third of them passed into the community without further difficulty and resumed their former lives (Olshansky, Grob, and Ekdahl, 1960). He concluded from this study that about one third of ex-patients do not need the services of rehabilitation. Passing may make some patients anxious, as they camouflage their former hospitalization, but it permits the patients to resume former life functions without the embarrassment and stigma of being identified as a mental patient (Olshansky, 1966).

His criticism did not spare the professional rehabilitation counselor. If normalization is something to be encouraged, then is the counselor more of a hindrance than a help in achieving society's acceptance? He saw the need for a client's ability to master the client's own destiny. If trained professional counselors were always needed to place clients on the job, then clients would always needed to place clients on the job, then clients would always be identified as patients. He suggested that "passing should be encouraged whenever possible. The opportunity to pass should not be blocked unless the costs are likely to be greater than the gains". (Olshansky, 1966, p. 87)

At times his vision ran counter to the prevailing wisdom. When state rehabilitation agencies were beginning to employ counselors trained in physical rehabilitation to counsel with persons with mental illness, he challenged their policies. He felt that the prevailing bias toward serving persons with physical disability and the lack of professional training to serve the person with mental illness would be damaging, if not fatal, to success. After his article titled, "Vocational Rehabilitation and the Ex-Mental Patient," was published in the Journal of Rehabilitation, he was scorned and isolated for many years by the rehabilitation establishment (Olshansky, 1960). …

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