Poetry may be used as a vehicle for self-expression with individuals who have developmental disabilities, even with those who may be only minimally verbal. Poetry by well-known poets may be used to illustrate concepts and to enhance the creative experience. Then, through strategic questioning, participants' ideas are recorded in poetic form. The results may be therapeutic in many ways as well as powerful expressions of human experience.

Where the voice that is in us makes a true response,

Where the voice that is great within us rises up,

As we stand gazing at the rounded moon.—Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens (1979) wrote these words about the poet's voice that is in all of us when we contemplate the great things of life. One does not have to have poetic talent, nor even the ability to read and write, to find this great voice. Voicing thoughts in poetic form can help adults with developmental disabilities to express their memories, hopes, and dreams in a form that can fill them with pride.

Poet Kenneth Koch (1970) helped children and older people (Koch, 1977) to find the poetry within them. Marc Kaminsky (1974) combined life review and literature appreciation in his work with older Jews at an Upper West Side senior citizens' center, writing about his work and their poetry.

In 1981, not yet having read these books, I was caring for patients with dementia in a nursing home and discovered that they sometimes seemed to speak in poetry. I formed weekly adult education classes, reading great poetry to these older patients and taking down their dictated words to create dozens of fine poems.

In 1999, I began a similar process in several therapy groups I run in group homes and day programs for adults with developmental disabilities. Some of the group members spoke fluently, could even read and write. More of them spoke little, and some were completely nonverbal. Yet each one was able to take home a completed poem.

So many men and women with developmental disabilities cannot speak clearly, or when they speak, they are not really heard. Too often, therapists who work with this population are called in only when there are behavior problems and tend to zoom in on “fixing” these problems, without enough regard for the underlying needs. Often, I find, the greatest need is simply to be heard.

I agree with Blotzer and Ruth (1995) that a primary objective in doing therapy with people who have disabilities should be

struggling to capture or articulate a feeling, an experience, or idea, rather than simply achieving a straightforward behavioral goal, or correcting a distorted attribution or belief. The uniqueness of the disability experience, contrasted with collective assumptions of our culture, may require extra work and patience. (p. 10)

It does not necessarily require a trained therapist to really listen, although therapists are among the few who are trained to listen: family members, friends, caring caregivers at all levels—anyone can listen. All we have to do is ask a few questions and wait for the answers. All we have to do is really hear the answers, instead of correcting or “redirecting” them, to hear words in their natural toughness and beauty; to look into their eyes as we listen to them, and feel the power of their gestures without always trying to tame them. When a person who has had so little voice can see and hear his or her own language memorialized in a poem, especially a poem that is then copied and displayed and given as a gift or even published, is an experience of real power. When I asked many of my group members what they most enjoyed about group, “writing poems” was the most common answer.

Almost anyone can learn to help people with developmental disabilities to make poems. It helps to have an ear and an eye for the sound and the shape of poetry, but this is not required. My suggestions here, as well in as in the books previously cited, include ideas that can be a jumping-off place for anyone with a love for poetry and the daring to try something new.

On the other hand, there are experienced writers who do similar poetic exercises with groups that are open to anyone (e.g., in community adult schools or in noncredit college courses). In an ideal situation, people with disabilities would also be welcomed into these groups. With a volunteer to help record their ideas on paper, they could experience real inclusion in an artistic setting.

Using the creative arts, including poetry, as a part of therapy is not a new idea; but helping people with developmental disabilities to write poetry is, I believe, rarely considered because these men and women may seem to have such limited verbal skills. Yet so many of them speak naturally in poetry.

What makes poetry, anyway? Neither rhyme nor formal structure, surely, is required, though both may please the ear. Webster defined poetry as “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound and rhythm. (Mish, 1989, p. 907)

I know that the people in my groups were making poetry because each one had a unique awareness and unique imaginative skills. Their words often created an emotional response through their meaning alone. With help, they were able to choose their words carefully. I simply arranged them on the page and helped to structure rhythms and push forward the imaginative process through the questions I asked.

I began each session by reading a poem or two to the group. I selected poems that were relatively easy to understand but did not rule out poems with “big” words or “big” ideas; the music of the language is at least as important as the meaning of the words, and ideas can reach people on many levels. I chose many of the poems from the collection Talking to the Sun (Koch & Farrell, 1985). This is a volume of poems created to help introduce children to poetry as opposed to childish “children's poems.” Its illustrations from the Metropolitan Museum of Art make it particularly appealing. I also culled poems from volumes by e. e. cummings, Audre Lorde, and Walt Whitman.

A “group poem” is often a good way to begin the composition process. I select a theme, with or without help from the group. It is often a good device to repeat a phrase at the beginning or end of each line. The following holiday poem suggests the varied cultural backgrounds of the individuals living in this particular group home:

Christmas Smells

Christmas smells like turkey in the oven

Christmas smells like sleet and snow

Christmas smells like stuffing and sweet potato pie

Christmas smells like seven fishes

Christmas smells like sweet pine needles

Christmas smells like hot chocolate

Christmas smells good!

Using a repeated phrase is a simple way to generate song-like rhythms. Another way is to ask a repeated series of questions. One of our most successful group efforts was created by asking each person to select a “Feeling Card” from a deck showing various facial expressions. Then I helped each person create metaphors for their chosen feelings by asking,

“If happy were a color, what color would it be? If happy were a fruit, what kind of fruit would it be? And what does that taste like? What if happy were an animal? And what does that animal do? And now, tell me about a time when YOU feel happy.”

People seemed to feel free to contribute to, and accept, one another's line suggestions, so the following poem is a true collaboration.


Surprise is purple like jelly beans!

Surprise is fruit cocktail.

Surprise is a cat at Harriet's house.

Surprise is a visit from Harriet!

Happy is light brown like a brown dog.

Happy is a soft peach.

Happy is a zebra at the zoo eating Cheerios.

Happy is when somebody asks me out for dinner!

Scared is yellow like bananas.

Scared is blueberries in cream.

Scared is a cat chased by a dog.

Scared is when I see a spider down there!

Sad is dark green like flowers.

Sad is a black banana.

Sad is a dog howling at night.

Sad is when people don't like me and I feel bad.

Laughing is green like a car.

Laughing is a cantaloupe that I eat for breakfast.

Laughing is a brown horse eating hay.

Laughing is when I'm happy at Tower Street

because I like work!

Calm is red like a STOP sign.

Calm is a red crunchy apple.

Calm is a water buffalo swimming fast.

Calm is when I'm sleeping,

dreaming about my mommy and daddy.

The following individual poems were created by asking group members to express memories in terms of their five senses. I asked, “What do you remember seeing when you were a child? …What sounds do you remember?” I wrote down their responses using large print so they could see it right away. If the person answered with only one word, I would repeat their word and help them expand it: “What color were the dandelions? What did the pool smell like? What does ice cream taste like—soft or hard? Sour or sweet?”

When someone was nonverbal I would ask others in the group, “What does Kathy like to listen to?” or in the case of two older brothers who both lived in the group home, “What do you think your brother liked to smell when you were both little boys?”

I took the completed poems home and typed them. Copies were given to each poet and placed into the three-ring folders each group member had created. Each person's folder had a Polaroid snapshot of the writer glued to the front. The notebook also included autobiographies and collages created by each group member.

Barbara, who passed away last summer, was 83. She spoke slowly and with great difficulty but with powerful feeling. She always seemed to hunger for someone to listen. Though it took enormous patience for her to produce a complete sentence, she never gave up and rarely showed her frustration at our difficulty in understanding her. She took great joy in reminiscing:

Barbara's Memories

I remember when I came here

I saw people—I looked at them,

that's all I could do.

I remember the sound of music

in the workshop—somebody

singing and dancing to happy music.

I remember when I was home

I lived close to the swimming pool—

it smelled like Clorox.

I remember my Mom's applesauce.

It tasted cold, and I liked it.

I remember feeling my mother's dress—

it was soft and cool.

John, who died not long after Barbara, had few words but strong feelings. His brother Jenkins created this poem for John by telling us about

John's Memories

I remember watching my mother cook.

She made rolls—they were nice and brown.

I remember the sound of people singing in church.

I remember the smell of my mother's rolls baking.

I remember apples—

they tasted sweet and crunchy.

I remember rolling my toy truck

all day long—it felt rough and rusty!

Jenkins himself preferred to talk about using his senses in the present, though the mention of smell evoked a memory from his Southern boyhood seventy-odd years ago. His personality comes through loud and clear in this poem:

I like to look at the girls —

They look all right!

I like to listen to all kinds of music

—it makes no difference.

I like Patti LaBelle.

I DON'T like the smell of horses

in Atlanta, Georgia!

They smelled terrible!

I like meatloaf—it tastes

hot and soft and it tastes good, too!

I like to touch animals—

they feel soft and fluffy.

Glenn's poem was created combining my own guesswork, his occasionally relevant one-word responses, and ideas from his housemates and staff members. Glenn, also in his 80s, usually seemed angry and confused, but he had a searching gaze and a grip of steel when you offered your hand. His housemates remembered him when his memory was clearer and his skills intact and were able to recreate some of that for him in this poem:

I saw a picture and it made me sad.

I remember hearing myself

play the piano.

I remember the smell of my mother's roast beef


I remember oatmeal—

it tasted hot and sweet and creamy.

I remember my mother's hair—

it felt soft when I touched it.

Robert loved to share his ideas and seemed confident you would stay with him while the words slowly emerged. Some of his memories were sweet ones:

Robert Remembers

I remember the rainbow.

It looked nice and bright!

I remember the sound of a dog barking—

ruff ruff! It was loud and friendly.

I remember my father's aftershave lotion

—it smelled spicy and cool.

I remember eating taffies—

they tasted sugary and sticky and sweet.

I remember riding on a tractor

when I was a little boy.

It felt hard and big and smooth!

Although Kathy could not speak, her eyes expressed worlds of joy and pain. Her poem was created by her roommate Janet and, admittedly, tells more about Janet than about Kathy herself, but it was a proud creation for both of them:

Kathy's “Lovable” Poem

I like to look out the window at the birds

—they come to my bird feeder.

I like to listen to the oldies

and to Winnie the Pooh.

I like to smell Janet's perfume.

It smells good!

I like the taste of pudding

when Janet makes it.

It tastes sweet and smooth.

I like the feeling of Janet's hand

when she holds my hand and sings to me.

Lorraine was better at laughing and hugging than she was at speaking. Yet she was always ready with a single word that said a lot. I needed to prompt her quite a bit for her first poem (e.g., “Do you like to listen to music? Happy music or sad music?” We now know.

What Lorraine Likes

I like to look at the table.

It's tan and big, a rectangle.

It feels nice.

I like to listen to happy music.

I like the smell of cookies baking.

They smell yummy!

I like to eat cake —

it tastes good!

A few weeks later, she had the confidence to reject my offers of further assistance and came up with this short, convincing masterpiece:


I like working.

I'm done!

Doralis was often anxious and hesitant when she spoke in prose, but she surprised me with her flow of natural poetry:

Doralis Remembers

I remember a flower at my house,

small and blue as the blue sky.

I remember the sound of fire engine trucks,

loud and scary

going past my house.

I remember the smell of rain.

It smells good, like the ocean.

I remember eating a mint—

it tasted minty and sweet.

Josie, who was 76, spoke easily about what was important to her: family, friends, memories, hopes:

I wish my dad would live.

Both of them, my mother,

Adeline, my sister,

she smoked a lot of cigarettes

in the nursing home.

Every time when I hear about it

I feel bad in my heart.

Now I live at Ridge Avenue,

that's my home.

I hope someday I'll get married.

Is that all right?

Valentine's Day was the occasion for creating a batch of love poems. I prepared the group for a more advanced technique by reading brief selections from e. e. cummings and Walt Whitman. I showed the students how in poetry one thing can be called another thing: ”who knows if the moon's / a balloon, coming out of a keen city / in the sky…” (cummings, 1977). I then presented an opening line to be used with every stanza, “I love you because you are…” and asked them to think, “What does this person remind you of? If they had difficulty responding, I specified, “What food does she remind you of? What animal?” Again, I used questions to draw out more detail and expand each metaphor. For example, Janet wrote this poem for her beloved roommate Kathy:

Kathy's Poem

I love you because you are

my little sister

and I sing to you

“On the Good Ship Lollipop”

and you clap your hands.

I love you because you are

a red rose, a tiny rose

and you smell good

like roses should.

I love you because you are

a yellow parakeet

whistling and singing

and flying away.

I love you because you are

my sweetheart, my dollbaby,

my little sister.

Marie was blind but her auditory memories were vivid. She also, remarkably, spelled almost everything she said and most of what she heard—“ice cream, i-c-e-c-r-e-a-m.” Her words and letters provided a constant background music for this group! Marie's poem to her sister Nancy spilled out quite flowingly:

I love you because

you are new glasses

that help me see.

I love you because

you are cranberry sauce.

I love you because

you are macaroni and cheese pie

that tastes good.

I love you because

you are a big kiss.

Willafay was often filled with anger, expressing herself in cascades of complaints. In this poem, written when we were talking about the recent deaths of our friends Barbara and John, Willafay thought about her mother's life and death, and we learned about the source of her bitterness:

I'd like to go where my mama is.

She'll have her eyes closed like this.

I was happy one time,

but she was drinking so much

she took a big bottle like this.

She loved beers.

I wish I could go up

with my mother.

I'd sit there behind her.

She'd be sleeping.

I'd hold her

like she used to do me.

My mother always went to church,

every Sunday.

She cussed everybody out, boy!

I'd say Stop that! Stand up!

You know what she told me,

“Mind your damn business.”

That's right.

“That IS my business.

You drink too much.”

She's up in Heaven now.

Willafay's softer side came out when she spoke of the people she now loved. She wrote this Valentine poem for her cousin “Pookie”:

I love you because

you are a happy home.

I love you because

your children are tall cliffs

on the highway.

I love you because

you used to hold me when I was a baby

and it felt good.

I love you because

you are a chocolate cake,

a birthday cake

with chocolate icing.

I love you because

you are my family.

Sometimes a situation in the here-and-now can lead to a poem—and a resolution. One evening, the Ridge Avenue group was nearly overwhelmed with anger erupting among several of the housemates. After we sorted out the issues and everyone began to calm down, I suggested we write a group poem about anger. “If anger were an animal, what animal would it be?” They needed only minor prompting to expand the resulting metaphors. I did help to re-construct the poem, changing the order of thoughts and lines to make it more effective. The powerful result:


Anger is like a barking dog.

Anger is like a cat—

biting me, scratching me.

Anger is like a lion roaring.

Anger is like a cow mooing,

when she has too much milk.

Anger is like a pregnant bear

that jumps on you!

She has twin baby cubs being born.

(Bears are always hungry,

and that makes them angry).

Anger feels like

hurting to not have a lot of friends.

Anger feels like a worried hurt inside,

that makes you shaky.

Anger feels like someone hollering at me,

saying “What? What?”

When I help my friend and hug her

then I feel well,

I start laughing again.

Poetry is a nearly universal way to deal with grief. Each person expressed thoughts about death in a way that seemed also to express his or her character. Rachel was the youngest of 16 children. She had recently lost her elderly mother and became quite depressed. When asked for memories using the five senses—her first poem—Rachel remembered Mommy:

I remember looking at my mommy.

She looked like me.

She's my beautiful mommy.

I remember listening to my mommy's voice,

she was singing Rock of Ages.

I remember the smell of mommy cooking fish fillet

when I was little. It made me feel happy.

I remember my mommy used to make

Sloppy Joe casserole with cheese in the middle

and rolls—it tasted great!

I touched my mommy—

she felt soft and light and warm.

I woke up and saw the shadow

and my mommy was there and she waved at me

and she touched me—her hands are light.

The final stanza came spontaneously after questions elicited each of the others. In fact, it was someone else's turn, but Rachel was still moved to tell me her vision.

Poetry is a language that can communicate more than the meaning of its words. It suggests worlds of experience; its music empowers and emboldens the heart. It moves the creator, the listener, the writer, and the reader. It can often be therapy, but it is always art. Surely, helping people with disabilities to find the “voice that is great within us” is an affirming and humane response to individuals whose experience too often remains unheard.


M. A.
Sometimes you just want to feel like a human being: Case studies of empowering psychotherapy with people with disabilities.
Baltimore: Brookes
e. e.
100 selected poems.
New York: Grove Press
What's inside you it shines out of you.
New York: Horizon Press
Wishes, lies, and dreams: Teaching children to write poetry.
New York: Vintage Books
I never told anybody: Teaching poetry writing in a nursing home.
New York: Vintage Books
Talking to the sun: An illustrated anthology of poems for young people.
New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art/Henry Holt
F. C.
et al
Ninth new collegiate dictionary.
Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster
“Evening without angels.”.
In H. Carruth (Ed.), The voice that is great within us: American poetry of the twentieth century. New York: Bantam Books

Author notes

Author:Emily Kahn-Freedman, MSEd, Family Therapy and Consulting Services, 5100 State Rd., Suite 250W, Drexel Hill, PA 19026 ( freedmans@juno.com).