The magic of healing

After a severe car accident, magician Kevin Spencer knows what it is like to be disabled; At the Tzamid Festival for artists with special needs, he will showcase the healing powers of his craft.

Kevin Spencer (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kevin Spencer
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We all feel out of sorts from time to time, physically or emotionally, and sometimes we experience a sense of wonder when we recover from those dips. One could describe that feeling as magical – and Kevin Spencer would agree.
For more than three decades, the 52-year-old American has been earning his crust by performing magic tricks all over the US and abroad – and now he will be one of the major attractions at the ninth annual Tzamid (Special Needs) Artists Festival, which runs from May 27 to June 7.
Spencer is well-suited to the job. Not only is he an ace entertainer, he also has personal experience with severe physical disabilities. In 1988, the award-winning illusionist suffered a closed head injury and a lower spinal cord injury as a result of a near-fatal car accident. He spent several months in physical and occupational therapy, aware that he might never perform again. It was a frustrating time for the usually active young man, but it was also an enlightening and formative period of his life, and he continues to convey the lessons he learned from it to audiences the world over.
“Within three years of my accident, I had fully recovered and had no residual effects from the accident, which is remarkable given the seriousness of my injuries,” he recalls. “The biggest difference in my life today is that I’ve become more aware of the struggles that people with disabilities face every day of their lives. Not just the physical challenges, but also the ones that are posed by a society that isn’t as ‘inclusive’ as it claims to be. There are still many people who look at individuals with disabilities as though they are ‘less than’ someone they consider to be ‘able-bodied.’ I think that’s very sad.”
That hard-earned epiphany has left him with a far greater appreciation of his blessings, and of how precious and fragile our lives and health can be.
“Throughout my rehabilitation process, it was important to keep a good attitude and stay motivated to do the exercises required by my therapists. I think now – as a result of my accident – I take very few things for granted. I’m much more appreciative of the little things in life, the ability to do simple tasks that many of us don’t even think about. As a result, my perspective on life is very different. At any moment, tragedy could strike anyone and have a major impact on the way we live and function in our world. I’ve become much more accepting of people with different abilities and less tolerant of those who are quick to judge them.”
An integral part of the remedial process was the discovery that magic could also act as a rehabilitative instrument.
“As a magician, I knew that there were specific skills that are required in order to perform a magic trick,” he notes. “You need to be able to manipulate the objects used in a trick, and through practice, you may be able to regain the skills lost as a result of an accident, debilitating injury or illness.”
Spencer says the craft comes with other benefits as well.
“One of the great things about magic is how motivating it is – who isn’t intrigued by a magic trick? Therefore, using magic as a therapeutic tool makes good sense. As a person learns to perform a magic trick, they voluntarily spend much more time working to acquire a complex and sequential series of motor skills.”
That can infuse the process with a fun element that can be sorely lacking in the more conventional physical healing regimen.
“In more traditional forms of therapy, they [patients] might simply tolerate these activities rather than become fully engaged in them,” he says.
“But most importantly, by learning and performing a simple magic trick, one can transfer the skills they learn into activities of daily living and make a huge difference in the way one lives out life.”
There is an important social factor, too, he continues.
“Magic really works on three different levels: dexterity, motivation and social engagement. As I said, you need to be able to manipulate the objects used in a magic trick; through practice, you can improve gross motor coordination and fine motor dexterity. And because magic is so intriguing, people are highly motivated to practice the trick.
[But] magic doesn’t exist in a vacuum – once you learn the trick, you instantly want to share it with someone else. That can be such a tremendous boost to people’s self-esteem. And that’s the social component of magic.”
The fact that two of the three workshops Spencer will be giving here involve educator audiences – one with students at the David Yellin College on the last day of the festival, and another with practitioners – is not accidental. He wants to help professionals to help their own clients.
“I believe that rehabilitation specialists and therapists are always looking for new and exciting ways to motivate their clients to become more involved in the therapy process. Education is the key to getting that message to the right people,” he says, adding that he invests great effort in imparting that message to practitioners. “I have developed a continuing education workshop for rehab therapists, to teach them the theory and practice of using magic tricks as a treatment tool. In this workshop, they also learn several different magic tricks and the therapeutic goals that can be achieved by learning them.”
That approach has also impressed the authorities: The American Occupational Therapy Association has endorsed the use of magic tricks as an authentic method of achieving therapeutic goals.
Spencer – whose third workshop will be for people with various special needs – says he has high hopes for what he plans to leave with his audiences here, and is impressed with the way Israelis exploit the arts as an effective curative medium.
“My hope is that we will expose an entirely new group of medical professionals [in Israel] to this wonderful, arts-integrated treatment modality. Israel has embraced the power of the arts to challenge, inspire, transform, and build community. I believe many of those who work in the disability community will understand the power of simple magic tricks to make a difference in the lives of individuals with different abilities. I am looking forward to working with healthcare professionals and educators to show them how the art of magic can be used in new and exciting ways.”
Tzamid also works with community centers and professionals, as well as other nonprofits, all around Jerusalem. The two-week festival program features shows involving disabled artists, including a wheelchair-bound dancer at the First Station, and various collaborations with special-needs artists from east Jerusalem. It will also include events at the Jerusalem Theater, the Yellow Submarine, the Jerusalem Cinematheque, Cinema City, Beit Mazia and Beit Shmuel.
For more information: TargetAudience/Residents/CommunityAffairs/Tzamid