Paulette Leaning (1926 - 1984)

Every CP child is to be regarded as educable until proved otherwise” stated Paulette Leaning in her book “the Challenge of Cerebral Palsy”

The pupils at Auckland’s Carlson School for Cerebral Palsy during the 1950’s and 1960’s were fortunate indeed to have their teacher Paulette advocating for them during their informative years. Paulette had Cerebral Palsy herself and therefore understood the frustration and loneliness that accompanied such a disability. This was an era that had little technology to guide wayward limbs. Heavy callipers and solid self propelled wheelchairs were the only means of getting about. Manual typewriters were the next big thing with electric typewriters on the horizon. Word boards, with core nucleus vocabularies, were made for the non verbal, who laboriously communicated their wants and desires to anyone who had the patience to “listen”.

Paulette (pictured) set aside time to listen and more often than not the teacher/pupil relationship became a friendship. Paulette also became a mentor to her charges opening up a world of possibilities. Her holistic approach went far beyond the classroom. She was also the first editor of the Cerebral Palsy newsletter. As Editor Paulette’s personal aims for her journal was to give CP people a feeling of belongingness and mutual comradeship whilst promoting within the community a clearer understanding, not only of the difficulties but also potentialities of the CP people. Paulette took on a further role as she became president of the Auckland branch of the “Spastic Fellowship — an early support group for CP people which will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

Her former pupils who are now well into their 50’s and 60’s remember Paulette with great fondness.

“Paulette Leaning was my first teacher I had when I began at Carlson School in 1958. In my early teens, Paulette taught the senior class and I developed the taste of classic literature – reading such books as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, “Tom Sawyer”, “Black Beauty”, “Oliver Twist” and many other books that were popular in the 1960s. There were poetry sessions to. – Sonnets from William Shakespeare, John Donne, Tennyson, William Blake, and H. W. Longfellow just to name a few,” said former pupil Margaret Thomson.

“Even at my young age of 8 or so I can recall admiring Paulette’s intellect and teaching skills. I remember Paulette trying to get the very best out of all the kids at Carlson. Even this far distance I can remember a very kindly teacher who took no nonsense from any of us.” said Ron Hannken.

“I remember many years ago Mum and I visited Miss Leaning’s small flat. Eventually the conversation turned to callipers. I was cheesed off and tired. I must have done my walking exercises in steel callipers and elbow sticks. (Great hulking, clumsy things that weighed a ton.) Whatever the reason I was really interested when Miss Leaning said she was trying to patent a new design for a calliper that would allow the person to stand leaving the hands – free and the person upright. It sounded good, however there was a lot of paper work involved and money was an issue so I don’t know what happened! Had the callipers been there that day I would have tried them out, “said Susan Preston.

During his visit in 1948 Dr Carlson met Paulette who saw her potential and personally recommended she do further study. She attended the Wilson Home for her early education which happened to be in her Auckland home suburb of Takapuna. Her mother drove her to and from school on a daily basis. Spurred on by Doctor Carson’s encouragement she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree mainly via extra mural study. Three years at Teachers Training College followed where she gained a teachers certificate. During the next three years she put her qualifications to good use by teaching Cerebral Palsy people including a year’s stint at the Cerebral Palsy unit at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Rotorua. As her knowledge expanded she became more and more an advocate of a holistic approach to educate CP people. To prove her theory she managed to convince people that further research was required and in 1956 arrangements were made for her to journey overseas to observe international teaching methods.

Her book, “The Challenge of Cerebral Palsy” is based on her findings. What emerged is a comparative study but it was far from a one way educational process. Within the pages of her book Paulette provides insights on better ways to educate Cerebral Palsy people. Such insights as a call for greater harmony among the disciplines, smaller classes and shorter classroom periods to combat fatigue, the value of pasting for a CP child who is unable to draw or paint and the confidence building technique that allowed the pupil to assume the role as teacher. She also questioned the usefulness of IQ test to measure the intelligence of a CP child and discusses the negative effect of what she called the unexpressed inner turmoil and the unspoken, bitten-back fear, which lies within the minds of the severely handicapped.

As she points out in her book Paulette saw the need for greater harmony among the disciplines of occupational therapy, physiotherapy and especially teaching. She was despondent to find that internationally teachers were not given enough encouragement to upgrade their skills like therapists. She was also adamant that because of shortened attention spans caused by fatigue classroom lessons needed to be short to avoid confusion, perseveration and distractibility.

“All CP’s are subject to concentration lapses and to a generalised and heightened sensitivity to external stimuli which leads to difficulty in the classroom,” she said.

Paulette’s answer was to limit classroom numbers to 10 where each pupil would more easily receive individual attention. This method would ease the dangers of constant high pressure routine and it would give the child an opportunity to rest upon returning from the concentration and discipline of treatment.

Paulette also questioned the value of IQ tests which requires the subject to make “oral, written responses to a wide variety of problems, which are often scored according to time taken, as well as to correctness” In her discussion paper at New Zealand’s first Cerebral Palsy conference (Dec 1950-Jan 1951) she pointed out what she considered to be the five major testing problems confronting those seeking suitable measuring scales for CP. They were time-limit, verbal expression, motor control, school room knowledge and life experience or environment. Unlike mainstream children who “all have had similar opportunities for growth, development and education and have started off in life with similar physical and sensory endowment” (p25) CP children have restricted opportunities.

“We would not test a deaf child on an oral test yet a great number of CP children have varying hearing defects. We would not test a foreign child with little understanding of English on a verbal test; yet it is estimated that up to seventy per cent of CP children have speech defects and consequently, limited and below average facility in word usage,” reasoned Paulette. P27.


Paulette became very concerned about what she called the inner turmoil and the “unspoken, bitten-back fear which lies within the minds of the severely handicapped”. She doubted whether any doctors or therapists yet fully realised the intensity of this fear. She theorised that this intense fear remains unexpressed. Progress is made in therapy and the fears are pushed back further and further and then suddenly they can be pushed back no further and progress comes to a baffling stop. Pent up emotions robs the personality of much of its vitality and this does, it may be stated with certainty, cause the lethargy so frequently attributed to many. Likewise when a child is punished he can walk away but the CP child cannot, therefore an inner turmoil develops which can go far beyond the stage of punishment. This situation can intensify behaviour problems and the welling up of feelings of inadequacy, helplessness; despair and frustration are added to the indignation of shame of the moment. This cocktail of negative emotions is responsible for unsettling the whole nervous system and regression in hard won physical control usually follows. (p75-76)

Paulette’s answer was to review the child’s whole programme at school and home and find some way of giving more purpose and interest to that programme in the child’s own eyes, in order that life will become more worth fighting for and some feeling will become more vivid than that of fear (p76)

Paulette introduced more than a few teachers she met aboard to the value of pasting in the classroom. She observed that a CP child who is unable to draw or paint can very often manage to paste a picture or a word. A job that he or she can accomplish themselves which increases self esteem and improves concentration spans

Another confidence building technique she liked is to allow the pupil to assume the role as teacher.

“Children have very little opportunity of asserting their authority over others and this technique allows the release of frustrated feelings in a permissible manner,” she said When using this technique personality development and feelings of comradeship replaced feelings of awe and a happier working relationship is built up.

Paulette had great concerns about the lack of assistance for adult CPs. In her own words she said “Up until now there had been a lot of childhood assistance but the vision tapered off to a low level in adult life.”

Paulette saw one of the main problems was that of prolonged dependence when a mentally mature young adult is still physically dependent on his or her parents or guardians. This leads to frustration, as basic urges towards individual assertiveness contradicts this dependence. The parents in turn come isolated from other interests and social pursuits and tend to come dependent on the child as a centre of existence. The frustration continues as the child belatedly becomes independent and wishes to go his or her own way. Frequently, in this situation parental anxieties work against ultimate realisation of the final goal of rehabilitation. It’s the day to day conflict of keeping child safe verses helping him/her become independent.

However Paulette was a great believer in facing life head on. “Those who face the challenge will know the deeper meaning satisfactions of living, of striving for a purpose, of boarder experience, of relationships within society, of being a contributor rather than an observer in the community,” she said.

In the June 1963 issue of Cerebral Palsy News Paulette wrote “I am convinced that self confidence which gradually develops during periods away from one’s home and family is the very best way of being prepared gently to face life as an adult. It is very much kinder to learn to adjust to adulthood this way than a sudden jolt in event of illness or death.”

Her concerns led her to be heavily involved in the continuing problem of residential provision and care and had high hopes of the Ryder –Cheshire foundation being a success. Paulette attended a talk by Leonard Cheshire who was in NZ on a whistle stop visit. Paulette rated his visit second only to Dr Carlson’s visit. Some years later she hosted a garden party for Sue Ryder-Cheshire. The official part of proceedings was introduced by Sir Ronald Algie MP followed by a speech by Sir Keith Park (the president of the local Cheshire branch.)

Her work also gave impetus to the new emerging national trust soon to be known as the Laura Fergusson Trust for the Disabled.

Another big accommodation advancement that Paulette was involved in was the “Short Stay” Una Carter Hostel which opened on June 1st 1963. The first four boarders in the Una Carter were Freda Langabeer, Daisy Scott Davidson, Grace Johnson and John Morgan. Miss Helen Grant OBE was the manager.

As these accommodation options became available there was some parental resistance, but Paulette pleaded for parents to give their son or daughter the courage to live away from them.

Paulette also fought hard to invite Dr Meyer Perlstein to New Zealand in 1960. Dr Perlstein, who was the American representative on the world commission for CP, was eventually sponsored by the NZ Pediatric Society. At the time his visit was strongly opposed by some who asked, “How will my child benefit?”

“I am certain if Dr Carlson did not visit our shores in 1948 my desire for university education and professional training would not be fulfilled,” was Paulette’s reply.

One evening in September 1926 twin girls was born prematurely. They were so fragile they were wrapped in cotton wool and fed by medicine droppers. During the next two years the girl’s condition did not improve and the medical prognosis of the time was bleak. Somehow they both survived but tragedy struck shortly after their 8th birthday. The girls developed whooping cough and the weaker of the two passed away. Paulette was a survivor right from the beginning. She went on to be a true pioneer, who inspired a whole generation of Cerebral Palsy people to follow their dreams.

Margaret Thomson attended Paulette’s funeral and she writes.

“Paulette’s death in September 1984 came as a bit of a shock – having lost touch over the latter years. I guess I was involved with my studies and other activities. That special teacher relationship had simply slipped away unnoticed. Her funeral was at the Purewa Chapel in St Johns. A recording of the song “I Did It My Way” ended the short service. I remember thinking as I walked away, Paulette had lived a very full life. In spite of having Cerebral Palsy, she had a way of reaching others through various activities. Perhaps her greatest legacy was her determination to push the boundaries to show that people with CP have the ability to achieve their dreams.”

Please note the pages numbers after quotes in this chapter are directly related to Paulette’s book “The Challenge of Cerebral Palsy – A short study of its implications for teachers and parents” (1958)

Other quotes are taken from past issues of the Cerebral Palsy News.