disability is real

You can do more when you remember that you’re disabled.

People with disabilities are often taught the anti-skill of pretending to ourselves and others that we have no disability-related limitations.

Most people (disabled or otherwise) have the related anti-skill of assuming that everyone present has pretty much the same physical and cognitive abilities. (Or, in other words, that no one present has a disability that significantly affects physical or cognitive functioning.) This often leads to the assumption that people who aren’t doing a task either haven’t been told what to do, or aren’t sufficiently motivated to do it.

These two anti-skills can make it very, very hard to solve problems when something goes wrong for disability-related reasons.

This kind of conversation tends to happen a lot:

  • Someone: You need to do the thing.
  • Disabled person: I’m having trouble with the thing.
  • Someone: “Can’t you just do the thing this way that sounds reasonable but is actually impossible for you?”
  • Disabled person: “You’re telling me it’s possible in tones of absolute conviction and are making me forget that I won’t be able to do it that way. Ok, I’ll do the thing from now on.”
  • The disabled person, predictably, fails to do the impossible thing.
  • Someone with an entirely reasonable need for the thing to get done: Why didn’t you do the thing?!
  • Disabled person: I don’t know. I’m sorry, I’ll try harder, I’ll do it from now on.
  • This, predictably, doesn’t work either. 
  • The task doesn’t get done, because it’s impossible to do things that way.
  • In these situations, disability is neither acknowledged nor accommodated, and things end badly for everyone.

Or, to give a less abstract example:

  • Aubrey has severe ADHD. She’s been fired from several jobs for failing to keep track of things and missing key deadlines, and she’s on thin ice at her current position. Blair, Aubrey’s boss, is running out of patience for the problems caused by Aubrey’s overdue work.
  • Blair: Aubrey, you’ve missed several deadlines, and it’s causing serious problems for the team. What’s going on?
  • Aubrey: I’m having trouble keeping track of everything.
  • Blair: Most of us here use to-do lists on our cubicle whiteboards. I’ve noticed you don’t have a to-do list on your whiteboard. Can you do that from now on?
  • Aubrey (who has never, ever used a to-do list successfully): Ok, I’ll start using a marker board and meet my deadlines from now on.
  • Blair believes that everyone can use to-do lists, and has never thought of the possibility that anyone might not be able to.
  • Blair is making a suggestion that from his perspective is completely reasonable and possible. 
  • Aubrey responds to Blair’s certainty, and forgets that her limitations will prevent that from working for her. 
  • She believes, in the moment, that if she tries hard and takes enough responsibility, she’ll be able to use the to-do list and meet her deadlines this time. 
  • Even though that’s never worked before, and there’s no real reason to believe that it will work any better this time.
  • Trying hard doesn’t make disability go away, and it doesn’t make impossible things possible.
  • Aubrey, predictably, fails to use the marker board, because that strategy doesn’t work for her. And she, predictably, gets fired, because the tasks need to get done and she’s not doing them.
  • From Blair’s perspective, Audrey was given a lot of patience, guidance, and multiple chances.
  • Blair has a legitimate need for the work to get done.
  • This is probably going to keep happening, so long as Audrey tries to rely on willpower to solve problems rather than honest assessment of her capabilities.

When others expect us to do impossible things, it can be hard to remember that they are impossible. Particularly if we’re told that they’re easy or that everyone can do them. Especially if we are surrounded by people who are successfully doing the thing.

All of this can be very disorienting, especially if someone whose opinion we care about is angry or disappointed. It can be surprisingly difficult to keep in mind that disability is real.

It’s also crucially important. Agreeing to do something impossible that “everyone” can do doesn’t magically give us the ability to do it. It just sets us up for failure.

We are all much better off if we face reality and spend time doing things that are possible. Everyone else does. It’s well-known that expecting people to do impossible things is counterproductive and demoralizing. Only exceptionally unreasonable employers expect people to lift 300lbs, sprout wings and fly, turn lead into gold, or decrypt 128-bit encryption keys in their heads.

It’s just as unreasonable to expect disabled people to do things that our impairments make impossible. One limitation we share with everyone is that pretending that something is possible won’t make it possible. We are much better off acknowledging reality, working with our brains and bodies rather than against them.

This is hard. Remembering the truth often requires us to fight through shame and disorientation, or to violate serious taboos. No one succeeds at this 100% at the time, but it does get easier with practice. It’s also really, really worth it.

Whenever you are able to stop trying to do an impossible thing through sheer force of will, it makes it more possible to do things. You don’t have to overcome disability to do things that matter. You just have to find things to do that are actually possible, with the abilities you actually have. The things that you really can do are worth doing.

Drugs, crutches, and other tools

Psychiatric medication is highly stigmatized, and so is physical disability. One way that this comes out is that people say pejoratively, “medication is a crutch.”

Why is “crutch” an insult? What do people think is so terrible about using crutches?

I think that it’s a kind of ableism where people don’t understand that disability actually exists. They believe that anyone can do anything, if they put their mind to it and work hard. When people with disabilities can’t do something others can, they assume that we are just being lazy. They assume that about moving, they assume that about moving, and they assume that about thinking.

They believe that if they push us to try harder, then we will learn to stop being disabled. They think that if we stay disabled; it’s because someone’s giving us permission to be lazy. They’re constantly on guard against the possibility of a disabled person getting away with something.

They are aggressively hostile towards any visible adaptive strategy. When they see crutches or medications or whatever, they are terrified that we are getting permission to be lazy.

Sometimes, they think it’s ok for us to use these things, but only if we fall into a very narrow category of people think think have real disabilities. For instance, they might think wheelchairs are ok for paralyzed people, but have no respect for wheelchair users who can walk. Or they might think it’s ok to use medication if you’re trying to stop, but have contempt for people who need medication long-term and have no plans to stop taking it. Or whatever other combination of things. People have a lot of really weird ideas about disability, and just about any prejudice you can imagine exists.

Crutches are a tool. There are other mobility tools. Medications are several different tools. There are other mental health tools. They all have advantages and disadvantages, and everyone has to figure out what works best for them. Every strategy is stigmatized, because ableists expect us to think our way out of being disabled. But crutches aren’t actually bad things, whether they’re literal or figurative. We all find the ones we need.

tl;dr People with disabilities need adaptive strategies to work around disability-related limitations. Ableists think that we’re just being lazy when we use adaptations such as mobility aids or psychiatric medication. They often pejoratively say “you’re just using that as a crutch,” as though using adaptive equipment is the worst thing you could possibly do. But actually, there’s nothing wrong with crutches. We all find the ones we need, and that’s a good thing.