Two clowns at nursing station
Bloom Blog

'Foolishness' is a critical part of rehab

By Louise Kinross

The ‘fool’ in Shakespeare’s plays and the ‘trickster’ in Indigenous stories held an important role in upending the status quo. A Holland Bloorview paper published this week in the Journal of Medical Humanities notes that the foolishness of therapeutic clowns—their emotional vulnerability and willingness to fail—is at the heart of their work with hospitalized children, producing a ‘joy without demands.’ Clown practices, however, are often seen as ‘secondary to thereal work of medical professionals,’ and devalued. 

Lead author Julia Gray, a post-doctoral fellow at Holland Bloorview, argues that all clinicians and researchers could benefit from embracing aspects of foolishness in their own work. BLOOM interviewed Julia about the paper, called Seriously Foolish and Foolishly Serious. It looks at how clowning creates a space of vulnerability, surprise and the unknown in which children feel agency, as well as the freedom to express sadness, despair, pain and delight. This spontaneous, undirected, flexible practice isn't usually taken seriously in a medical world grounded in science, expert knowledge and quantifiable outcomes. 

BLOOM: Why was there a need for this paper? 

Julia Gray: 
It came out of things I was observing anecdotally about the clowns’ role at Holland Bloorview, and in other hospitals, and reading in academic literature about how clown practice is framed. I was seeing a strange tension between admiration for the clowns and an attempt to legitimize them by framing them as a medical practice. They had to have certain kinds of medical goals, or be supporting the medical goal of other professionals. 

As an artist and scholar myself, it seemed such an odd way to try to legitimize what they do. The arts do things that may complement medical goals, but they also do other things: they help us be in the world, they help us feel things, they help us see things differently, and they help us see ourselves differently. Those [experiences] are really important in a health setting, but they tend to be overlooked generally, in practice and in research. 

BLOOM: What kind of knowledge has traditionally been valued in children’s rehab? 

Julia Gray:
 Science tends to be valued, and particular kinds of science—objective research. 

BLOOM: So quantitative over qualitative research. You also wrote about “high knowledge.” 

Julia Gray: 
Yes. It’s quantifiable, an intellectual prowess that is valued, reasoning. It comes out of the Enlightenment, and the roots of scientific method are revolutionary and incredibly important. But when you value that over other ways of being or knowing, it has the potential to exclude people who may have different abilities and strengths. 

BLOOM: You wrote about how foolishness is central to the role of the clown. Why is emotional vulnerability, and a willingness to fail, important to hospitalized children? 

Julia Gray: 
Our rehab practices are continually encouraging them to be independent, and that independence is where strength is, as opposed to being vulnerable. They’re supported to be a certain kind of ‘strong.’ That has implications for how children with disabilities see themselves. Some of them are never going to fit that mould. 

Rather than pushing children to fit a particular mould that we understand to be success, we need to think more about what ‘that success’ is? At a philosophical level, it asks us to question what it means to be a human being. Is being independent and self-sufficient valued, above all else? Is it holding down a particular kind of job that makes more money? Or is being playful and joyful enough? 

BLOOM: One of your co-authors, Barbara Gibson, is a physiotherapist, which is a more traditional clinical role in children’s rehab. As authors, you note that typically, play in children’s rehab is not an end in itself. It’s always tied to a therapy goal or achieving a developmental milestone. Why is this problematic? 

Julia Gray: 
I think it comes back to what does it mean to be human? Is it not enough to play? Why do we need to use play to control development and decide what is 'normal' or 'abnormal' play? I sometimes think medical culture gets it backwards. These artistic therapies and practices are seen as a way to fix people, rather than as a way to support kids, so they can be in the world as themselves.

BLOOM: That approach can also take all of the joy out of life. I remember when every interaction I had with my young son had an agenda—I was trying to get something out of him, rather than enjoying the moment. And if I wasn’t successful, I felt like a failure. 

Julia Gray: 
There’s this pressure to always be better, but we don’t question what better is. 

BLOOM: What if better is happier, and has nothing to do with abilities? 

Julia Gray:
 What if better is chilling out in a bath? 

BLOOM: You note in the paper that hospital clowns are often misunderstood. People think they provide simple laughs or positivity, when what they do is actually very sophisticated. You include an example of an interaction between a nine-year-old patient, Daniel, and Helen Donnelly, a co-author, who is a therapeutic clown at Holland Bloorview known as Dr. Flap. 

Daniel, who uses a ventilator, accuses Dr. Flap of lying about the death of Jamie Burnett, who was a therapeutic clown at Holland Bloorview. He worked with Dr. Flap until he died of a brain tumour in 2011. Why did you choose that example? 

Julia Gray:
 I wanted to show how the child drives the boat, and Helen really follows his lead. Helen doesn’t balk at what he’s putting forward, when he challenges her. It’s really brave for a child to challenge an adult, and accuse her of lying. She doesn’t try to take control by saying ‘No, no, I’m a serious adult. I know what’s best.’ She follows his play, and lets him lead. She makes herself very vulnerable. She recognizes the importance of not always talking and being clever and being in control. 

BLOOM: You write about how fool-like characters historically played an important role in challenging the status quo. You also share examples of how scientists and research students, here and in other rehab facilities, reacted to learning you were researching clowns. They felt uncomfortable and hesitant. In fact, one colleague said she was afraid that if she encountered the clowns, they might make a fool of her. Can you explain? 

Julia Gray:
 Our culture really values high intellect, certain kinds of expertise, and being in control, and the clowns do not offer that. They are constantly playing low status. They relish in being ridiculous and weak and failing all over the place. 

That kind of exposes the ridiculousness of how seriously people take intellectual control. It has a place, and we have discovered all kinds of amazing things. But even in science, you need creativity, and there’s so much ‘not-knowing.’ It’s ironic that people get nervous around the uncertainty and not-knowing that the clowns bring. 

BLOOM: That’s so interesting, because now I think about it, I remember a couple of times I was having a bad day, and I saw the clowns in the hall, and thought: ‘Oh no, I hope they don’t see me. What if they engage me, and I don’t know what to say? What if I don’t understand the characters they’re playing? What if I can’t say anything, or be cool?’ 

Julia Gray: 
People think they need to be funny, and that it’s about wit and intellect. It’s not. It’s about imaginative play, and you don’t have to know anything. You don’t have to know. 

BLOOM: How does our focus on science and high intelligence and professional expertise potentially impede creativity and more flexible ways of thinking about disability? 

Julia Gray: 
When there’s an emphasis on a particular kind of knowledge as being more valued, it delegitimizes another kind of knowledge, which comes from people’s experiences and feelings and emotions and senses. For example, clients are constantly being asked to articulate their goals in rehab, but only in certain ways. We say we’re being client-centred, and doing what the client wants. But we expect them to articulate those goals in a way that fits with a world where independence and productivity are valued. 

BLOOM: There was an interesting quote related to that in your paper. 'Rehabilitation functions in tandem with efforts at home, school, and community to secure children’s futures as productive, contributing, autonomous and ‘normal’ adults.' I’ve always said that in mainstream childhood, parents don’t talk to their children about goals. It’s a clinical concept. 

Julia Gray:
 I never sit down with my able-bodied kids and talk about what their goals are for their own bodies. I tell them to go outside and play. When a parent is trying to get a child to do things that will make them more 'productive,' it shapes the whole relationship. This opens up questions about what the purpose of rehab is? When we value independence and expertise over other ways of being, it influences our practice. Could we support kids to be who they are in a variety of ways?

BLOOM: There’s a brilliant line in your paper that I want to read. ‘There is little room in the serious scientific aspirations of contemporary rehabilitation practice and research for risking failure through creative experimentation, promoting pleasure, supporting alternative ways of being and doing, particularizing care, and/or thinking about people differently.’ 

I read that, and I thought: That’s why we don’t do more research on really complex populations. For example, we usually study youth with disabilities who are employable in conventional ways. Why don’t we research youth who will live unconventional futures, and who won't be able to do paid work? What do they do? What kind of a good life is possible for those people? I think we don’t go there because we don’t want to enter into a field where we don’t know the answers. We don’t know how things are going to look. 

Julia Gray: 
And it probably won’t show what we consider productivity to be. We’re more comfortable celebrating certain kinds of successes, but what do we mean by success? We’re in a time where we have to account for every dollar spent, and if there’s money going to help kids be successful in particular ways, we have to account for that. If they’re successful in other ways, you can imagine people saying ‘But how is that going to help the economy?’ All of this is situated in our larger culture and its expectations. Those expectations really limit us, because we don’t critique what we even mean by success or improvement. Why do we need to improve? 

BLOOM: Maybe a goal for a child is acceptance, so they feel good about themselves. Your paper resonated with me because I’ve felt a lot of discomfort with how we promote the academic exclusivity, or high intelligence, of our research work. How does that fit with our vision of inclusion? 

Julia Gray:
 We are heavily academically inclined. We are measuring particular kinds of successes and experiences—largely through marks. 

BLOOM: Yet some of our population, due to intellectual disability, can’t be successful in academics. You suggest that all rehab clinicians and researchers can enhance their practice by incorporating foolishness into it. What might that look like? 

Julia Gray: 
My son used to take violin when he was 6, and one day, after about five sessions, he showed up and said ‘I don’t want to be here,’ even though he was the one who'd asked to take lessons. The teacher said ‘Okay, maybe we don’t need to practise bows and techniques. Why did you decide you wanted to take the violin?’ 

He said he thought it was a cool instrument. She said ‘Let’s take a look at the instrument,’ and that’s what they did for half an hour. They talked about the different parts of it, without playing it. If the teacher had had in her brain ‘I must teach technique and I have these goals,’ she would have pushed him away and he would have been even more annoyed. She knew that her relationship with him, and with music, was more important than holding the bow in the correct way. 

BLOOM: One of the messages in your conclusion is that relationships, and activities that spark happiness, in the moment, with children, are as important as clinical outcomes.

Julia Gray: 
Therapy and physical function, and relief from pain, are incredibly important, and have a very important place. But it's also important to think about why we focus so much on improving in rehab? What are we improving? What is our understanding of betterment? Why do clinical outcomes take priority over a child being in a good way with a person in a space—being in a good relationship? Isn’t that, really, what life is all about? 

BLOOM: What do you hope professionals take from your paper? 

Julia Gray:
 I appreciate they’re in a tough position. We’re in a culture where the pressure is to be ‘better.’ That, according to the funding, is the point. They need to be able to show particular outcomes to justify their practice. Many feel very torn about existing within that structure that pushes them to practise in particular ways—ways that may sometimes be harmful. I don’t know what the answer is. I think we need to rethink what we value. What is valued as ‘better?’ What is valued as ‘improvement?’ 

BLOOM: What message do you hope parents take? 

Julia Gray: 
To recognize that therapy, or betterment, or improvement goals or practices, can be totally overwhelming, and overtake your relationship with your child. Maybe there are ways to resist that by just being. And playing. Being silly, and sitting in the sun. Try to prioritize that, and remember that the parent and child being together is enough—as opposed to the parent being the fixer.