Education lessons from a haunted house.


Lessons From a Haunted House

What situations are more horrifying than things that go bump in the night?



Halloween reminds me of Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Spring City, Pa. The hospital opened in the early 1900s as an institution for “feeble-minded and epileptic” persons. After decades of allegations of unsanitary, inhumane and dangerous conditions, the hospital closed in 1986. Three years ago, the site was reopened under the name Pennhurst Asylum, a haunted house attraction that mixes “fact with fiction” and features a morgue and rooms for shock therapy and lobotomies.

Working in a “haunted asylum”

The hospital was the site of my first full-time job after graduating college. I was employed by an agency that was contracted by the state to transition “clients” from the hospital to residential living arrangements, or group homes.

Social workers provided us with assessments of our clients’ behaviors: outbursts of profanity, intimidation, biting, hitting, kicking and throwing and breaking objects were not uncommon. With some of the clients weighing more than 250 pounds, I didn’t need the sensationalism of a haunted asylum to scare me. Fortunately, my employer provided education. Some of it was helpful (lessons in passive self-defense), some troubling (a seminar entitled “Are restraining devices necessary?),” but most valuable were workshops at which we role-played.

During one, I played a patient who had vision loss, thanks to a pair of glasses with lenses rubbed in petroleum jelly, and no verbal skills. The instructor explained that patients often wear glasses with the wrong prescription because refractions were challenging to complete. Thus, prescriptions were often estimated. In addition, some patients did not clean their lenses or might even wear another patient’s glasses.

The real scare

I wouldn’t dare to compare my experience to that of any of the hospital’s patients, but after 20 minutes, through my inability to communicate and accomplish simple tasks (using utensils, catching a ball, identifying people, using tools, walking, etc.), it became obvious how patients could become frustrated, withdrawn or aggressive due to deficiencies in vision.

Beyond that, I developed a deep appreciation for those professionals who first seek to understand others before they educate, rather than assume each of us learns through a single common vocabulary. Without this understanding of the “unique language” of others, life can be scarier than any haunted asylum. OM