Berkeley synagogue opens school for children with motor disabilities

A highly successful physical therapy for motor-disabled kids, which was developed by a Jewish doctor in Budapest, has found a new home at the offices of Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom.

The founder of conductive education, Dr. Andras Peto, developed the method during World War II while hiding from the Nazis in the home of a Hungarian family.

At the Conductive Education Center, which is set to open this week, youngsters with motor disabilities will learn to run, jump and do other activities their able-bodied peers take for granted.

Peto spent his time in hiding observing the family's daughter, who had cerebral palsy. The doctor conceived of the basis for the method by closely watching the girl's movements.

Gleaning techniques from other physical therapies and combining them to speed up learning, conductive education departs from traditional physical therapy by teaching disabled kids in a group setting, rather than a one-on-one clinical atmosphere.

While most physical therapists aid their patients by physically guiding them through the movements, a conductive education practitioner gives only verbal and visual cues, allowing the child to move independently.

"It's the attitude that's different," noted one parent. "It treats them as if they don't have a problem."

Netivot Shalom agreed to house the nonprofit center at its Berkeley Way offices last October when a synagogue member, Edward Gold of Berkeley, asked for a rent-free space. Gold's son had been born with cerebral palsy.

Nothing was more devastating than the news that his child was disabled, Gold said.

Baby Sam Gold's first years were anything but bouncing. He required a full schedule of weekly physical therapy, aquatherapy and visits to specialists and special schools.

"This changed every aspect of my life. I began to wonder whether or not our home would ever again have some form of normalcy," Gold said, noting that none of the therapies seemed to do much for the boy.

Things changed dramatically for Sam in the fall, when his father discovered conductive education on the Internet. Gold arranged for two instructors from the Peto Institute in Budapest to travel to Berkeley and teach Sam and five other youngsters in the Golds' home.

"Sam made more improvement in two months than the entire two years of therapy [he had before]," Gold said. "The kids spur each other on. They see what other kids do and they want to do the same thing."

By the end of the class, the 2-1/2-year-old was able to sit unsupported for 10 minutes, better control his physical movements and use the potty. He appeared happier and became more vocal, Gold said.

When Sam sat up for the first time and stretched, Gold recalled, the boy smiled.

"He is excited by what he can do."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.