I have heard of great expectations before, but when I listened to an interview on NPR recently, it gave the whole concept a new twist for me.

Bob Rosenthal is a research psychologist. Early in his career, he went into his lab and put signs on his rat cages. Some of the cages he labeled “smart rats” and other cages he labeled “stupid rats.” All the rats were average rats he bought from a research institute.

He had his graduate students run all the rats through a maze. The ones that were labeled “smart” did more than two times better in the maze than the ones that were labeled “stupid.” Based on those results, he figured out that the expectations that the experimenters had in their heads subtly changed the performance of the rats. The ones that were labeled “smart” were touched more often and handled more gently than the rats that were labeled “stupid.” So how does this translate to people?

Carol Dweck is a psychologist and researcher at Stanford University. She says that “You may be standing farther away from or not make eye contact with someone you have lower expectations for. It is not something you can put your finger on, but it is there.”

Research has shown that the expectation of a teacher can raise or lower his student’s IQ scores and the expectations of a mother can affect the drinking behavior of her children in middle school. When I heard all of this in an interview on NPR, it made me wonder how the expectations of others translate to people with disabilities. One answer is apparent in a man named Daniel Kish.

Mr. Kish says he has keen memories of climbing out of his bedroom window when he was two and a half years old so that he could explore the backyards of his neighbors. When he was 8, he would ride his bike to the top of a steep hill near his house and yell “dive bomb” as he let go of the brakes and gathered speed. These days, he hikes in the wilderness for days at a time, is an avid swimmer, a talented dance partner and successfully maneuvers his mountain bike through heavy traffic as his primary mode of transportation.

Daniel Kish has been blind since he was a toddler.

He was born with a rare form of cancer called retinoblastoma, and in order to save his life he had surgery to remove his eyes at thirteen months. He doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t “click” as a way to navigate the world around him. He calls the skill “flash sonar” but it is more commonly known by it’s scientific name, echolocation. It’s the same skill used by bats and dolphins, and Kish has mastered it to such an extent that he can tell the difference between a car, a pick up truck and an SUV. He can even tell how far a car is from a curb and detect a building 1000 feet away. In the interview with Mr. Kish on NPR, his mother made some comments as well. She said that soon after his surgery, Daniel’s grandmother suggested to her that she wrap him in cotton so that he was protected from the world. His mom made a decision at that point. She wanted her son to have a life that was as typical as possible. She never dissuaded him from using echolocation. Many people find “clicking” socially unacceptable, but she knew it was an essential tool for her son to know what was around him. His precision with it grew as he got older. In high school with a near perfect grade point average, he was voted most likely to succeed. He eventually graduated college with two Master’s degree’s, one in developmental psychology and the other in special education. He never intended to teach echolocation to others, but eventually he was drawn to it.

“Young people are especially hard hit,” Kish says. He recalls visiting a school for blind students where young children were guided everywhere they went, and people that were sighted brought their food to them. It makes sense to him, given that background, that some people who are blind run into walls when they are trying to get themselves around. He wants to teach echolocation to other people who are blind he says, because “running into a pole is disappointing, but not being given the opportunity to run into a pole is a disaster. Most blind kids hear a lot of negative talk,” Kish said, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t move. No, here, let me help you. The message you get if you are blind is you’re intellectually deficient, your emotionally deficient, you are in all ways deficient.” Daniel Kish says “That psychology becomes inculcated in the blind person, absorbed and translated into physical reality.”

My belief is that sometimes that psychology becomes inculcated in society as well.

I met my friend Kelly in 2007 when she was Ms. Wheelchair New Jersey. She was diagnosed with Juvenile Arthritis when she was two, works full time for the state and has spend her life as a tireless advocate. She is an ANRF Board Member, and they named a grant after her a few years back called The Kelly Award for Juvenile Arthritis. She has written a book called Juvenile Arthritis: The Ultimate Teen Guide (It Happened to Me) and she got married last July, becoming a step mom to active four year old twin boys. Kelly is one of the most accomplished women I know.

A few days ago, she posted on Facebook about a recent experience she had. An older man came up to her when she was out and about in her community. He asked her to give him a high five, which she did, even though it was difficult for her given the arthritis in her hands. After that he handed her a lollipop and walked away. For real.

It made me wonder what was going through this man’s mind about who Kelly is. Did he assume, because she is a wheelchair user that she had the intelligence of a child? And even if he did, what made him think it was appropriate to give a lollipop to an adult who was a stranger? Would he have done the same thing if he had passed someone on the street who was walking without assistance? And if Kelly’s family had the same expectations of her as this older man did, would she have been able to accomplish all that she has?

It makes a difference when someone has people around them who believe in what they are capable of.

A few weeks ago I set some goals for this year. I plan to lose thirty pounds and write an ebook about how to successfully hire and manage a team of caregivers. I think I can do it.

What do you expect?