doing hard things

Calling something easy doesn't make it easy

I see a lot of people (especially disabled people hate themselves for struggling with things that they think of as easy, often along these lines:

  • Person: I need to do this thing. 

  • Person: It’s not hard. This is so easy. Why don’t I just do it?

  • Person: I know I need to do the thing. It’s been weeks. What’s wrong with me? This isn’t hard. I need to just do it already.

If you’re having trouble doing something, the thing you’re struggling to do is not actually easy. There is no objective difficulty scale. Tasks aren’t inherently easy or difficult — it depends on the person and the situation. Different people find different things easy and hard. Sometimes you will struggle with things that other people find easy. That doesn’t mean you’re failing to do an easy thing. It means that for you, the task is hard.

Sometimes things that are hard at first become easier with practice, or become easier when you learn new skills. Sometimes things never get any easier. Sometimes solutions that work for people who can do the thing without much trouble will work for you too; sometimes you might need support that other people don’t need. 

Sometimes you might need to find an alternative to doing the thing. Sometimes the only solution is to have someone else help you do the thing or do the thing for you. It doesn’t matter if you think it ’should’ be hard or easy, if you’re having trouble doing something, that means the thing you’re trying to do is hard. (And sometimes, it might mean that the thing is impossible.)

Calling something easy does not make it easy, and you can’t make hard things easy by hating yourself. Hard things become much more possible when you accept that they are hard, stop trying to overcome the difficulty through sheer force of will, and seek out solutions that will work for you.

“Calling something easy does not make it easy” in a graffiti font on a brick wall background.

“Calling something easy does not make it easy” in a graffiti font on a brick wall background.

Uncertain abilities and the right to fail

Being disabled often means being unable to reliably predict what you will and won’t be able to do. Or whether something will be hard or easy. Sometimes this is for physical reasons; sometimes it’s because of how people treat us; often it’s both.

For instance, taking a class might involve uncertainty about any or all of these things (and lots of other things that I didn’t think of):

  • Am I cognitively capable of learning the material?
  • Am I physically capable of doing everything the class requires?
  • Will anyone be willing to do the group work with me in a way that makes it possible?
  • Will I be well enough to come to class regularly?
  • Will I live long enough to get the chance to apply what I learn in the class to my work?
  • Do I have the executive functioning to do this when I’m also doing other things?
  • Will the class material be so triggering that I dissociate frequently and miss a lot of what’s going on?
  • If I miss material for disability-related reasons, will there be a way to make it up?
  • Will I be able to get into the classroom?
  • Will I be able to stay in the classroom safely?
  • Will the teacher want me there?
  • Will they get me accessible materials in a timely manner?
  • Will they teacher have the skills to figure out how to teach me?
  • Will they allowed to be flexible in the ways I need them to be?
  • Will I have to fight for what I need? Will the fight be successful?

Disability typically involves a lot of uncertainty. It means that it’s often completely unknowable whether or not you will be able to do something. This means that the risk of failure is often much higher than it is for people without disabilities. If we try new things, we’ll usually fail at more of them than people without disabilities.

Sometimes people take that to mean that we should only be allowed to do things that are definitely within our abilities, to spare us the pain of failure. Or, to spare them and us the pain of having to notice that we’re disabled and that there are things we can’t do, no matter how hard we try.

This has disastrous consequences for children in special education and adults who live in the system, who may never be allowed to attempt anything harder than preschool curriculum. And, when we’re allowed in mainstream settings, we’re often terrified that failure may mean that we’ll be kicked out and sent to segregated settings.

When we’re not allowed to fail, we’re also not allowed to succeed. Because for all people, success rests on a lot of failed attempts. And because disability typically involves uncertain abilities, we usually need to make a lot more failed attempts than nondisabled people as we figure it out. Watching our peers succeed at things we fail at can be painful. So can trying really hard and finding that something we wanted to do is not possible for us. So can finding that something is dramatically more difficult for us than anyone else we know. That pain is real; it’s also bearable. We can fail and be ok. We can bump up against our limitations and be ok. We don’t need to live in cages full of easy tasks to avoid these things.

Tl;dr Being disabled means we often can’t reliably predict what we can and can’t do. (Or how hard something will be.) Finding the things we can do well often involves trying and failing at a lot of things.  The only way to find out is by trying things. Sometimes people try to prevent us from ever trying anything because they think that the pain of failure is unbearable. When we’re not allowed to fail, we’re not allowed to succeed either. We need space to fail without shame or punishment, so that we can find the things that we can do. It’s ok to be disabled. It’s ok to not know what you can do. It’s ok to try things that you might fail at. It’s ok to fail and keep trying, or to give up and try something else. It’s ok to decide that it’s not a good time to take those kinds of risks. We all learn to calibrate when to take these risks and when not to, and these are decisions that we need to be allowed to make.

"it's easy" can make scary tasks scarier

When people are struggling or afraid to try something, well-meaning people often try to help them by telling them that the thing is easy. This often backfires.

For instance:

  • Kid: I don’t know how to write a paper! This paper has to be 5 pages long, and we have to do research! It’s so hard!
  • Parent: Don’t worry. 5 pages isn’t that much. This isn’t such a hard assignment. 

In this interaction, the parent is trying to help, but the message the kid is likely hearing is “This shouldn’t be hard. You’re failing at an easy thing.”

If something is hard or scary, it’s better to acknowledge that, and focus on reassuring them that it is possible. (And, if necessary and appropriate, help them to find ways of seeing it as possible.)

For instance:

  • Kid: I don’t know how to write a paper! This paper has to be 5 pages long, and we have to do research! It’s so hard!
  • Parent: It’s hard, and that’s ok. You can do hard things.
  • Parent: What are you writing about?
  • Kid: Self-driving cars. But I can’t find anything. 

And so on.

This isn’t unique to interactions between parents and children. It can also happen between friends, and in other types of relationships.

tl;dr If something’s hard for someone, telling them that it’s easy probably won’t help. Reassuring them that they can do hard things often does help, especially if you can support them in figuring out how to do the thing.



Pride in disabled accomplishments vs inspiration porn

I think sometimes people with disabilities get caught between a rock and a hard place regarding pride and inspiration porn.


When people without disabilities choose to do hard things, they usually feel proud of accomplishing them. And they usually have people in their lives who notice the hard things, and who respect them for doing them. Doing hard things is something that people generally respect. 


People with disabilities are often totally excluded from that kind of respect, when the thing that’s hard is hard for reasons related to disability.


Sometimes the difficulty of being disabled is acknowledged, or at least referred to, but in a way that’s utterly devoid of respect. That can take the form of condescending and degrading praise, eg:

  • “Wow, you are a person with a disability in public! You’re not even in your house! You are doing a thing! That is so inspiring!”, or:
  • “Hello, fellow parents at the conference. This is my son. I never gave up on him, so he’s going to play the guitar badly for us. See what our special kids can accomplish if we believe in them?!”, or:
  • “Wow, you sure are good at driving that wheelchair that you have been using every day for the past ten years.“
  • “Wow, really, you’re autistic? I never would have known! I don’t see you that way at all. You even talk to people and everything.”

And then there’s the other side, where everyone just completely ignores difficult things that people with disabilities accomplish when the difficulty was disability-related, eg:

  • Learning, through considerable focused effort, to speak in a way that others can understand (nondisabled people are allowed to be proud of their communication skills)
  • Preferring to walk and putting in a lot of effort to retain the ability (nondisabled people are allowed to be proud of their ability to run)
  • Bearing hate and breaking into a profession that’s hostile to people with disabilities
  • Learning to read even though it’s cognitively difficult (nondisabled people are allowed to be proud of learning to understand something difficult)
  • Learning how to recognize facial expressions
  • Figuring out a way to do calligraphy even though your motor skills are awful (nondisabled people are allowed to be proud of mastering a difficult artistic skill)
  • Explaining your reality to someone who you need to understand it

When people don’t acknowledge this kind of thing, it’s degrading in a different way:

  • Doing things that are easy for most people can, genuinely, be a major accomplishment for us 
  • Our struggles aren’t acknowledged very much, and almost never in respectful terms
  • And our disability-related accomplishments aren’t often celebrated, except when they’re being used as a way to shame nondisabled people into being less lazy or something 
  • Having the difficult things we do go completely unacknowledged is also degrading
  • Disability-related accomplishments matter just as much as accomplishments not related to disability

Or, in short, these things are very different:

  • Being exhibited by someone else as you play the guitar badly, while that person implies the the audience that this is the height of what you will ever accomplish
  • Having messed up hands, deciding to try to learn to play guitar anyway, getting to the point where you can coordinate well enough to play a few songs badly, and being proud that you’ve come so far

It’s ok to be proud of doing things that are hard for you, even if they’re easy for most people. It’s not a failure of acceptance. It’s not the same as pushing yourself to be normal at all costs. Your accomplishments deserve respect.