magical thinking

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.

Why I'm suspicious of optimistic doctors

The Uninspirational wrote a reply to my post on how disabled kids learn to be suspicious of optimistic teachers. They point out that the same dynamic happens with doctors:

This pattern, where somebody in a position of power expects their actions to somehow rescue a person they’re supposed to help in some way, is something I’ve experienced a lot as a patient within the healthcare system. Mostly with doctors but also with psychologists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists. It goes something like this…

I’d recommend clicking through and reading the whole thing. It’s a good post.

Acceptance is the opposite of giving up

I’ve seen a disconnect between parents and self-advocates when we talk about disability acceptance:

  • Advocate: Disability acceptance is really important. Disability is part of who I am.
  • Parent: You mean I should just accept that my kid is suffering and can’t do anything and not even try to help them?!
  • Or, even worse: Yes, it is. My kid is my special little pillow angel and I love her just the way she is. It’s great having a kid who will never grow up.

By acceptance, we do not mean either of those things. What we mean is more like this:

  • Kids whose development is atypical get treated like they’re failing before they’re even old enough for kindergarten. (See all those checklists that say “by the time your child is 2, he or she should be…”, and think about what it’s like for a child’s earliest memories to involve adults thinking they were failing)
  • Being disabled isn’t a failure, and it shouldn’t be seen as one. There is no should in development, and there is no should in bodies.
  • Childhood isn’t something you can flunk
  • Magical thinking will not help, and neither will centering your life around searching for a cure
  • Children with disabilities who live to adulthood usually become adults with disabilities
  • They need to be prepared for disabled adulthood, not encouraged to think that if they work hard enough they will be normal
  • It is ok to be a disabled child, to develop atypically, and to become an adult with a disability
  • You can have a good life and be ok with your actual brain and body
  • Imagining that you will have a fundamentally different body one day makes everything harder
  • Life gets better when you accept yourself and work with your body and brain rather than against it
  • Shame is not a cure
  • Disability is not an emergency, and panicked intense early intervention will not make disability go away
  • Early education can be important, and kids with disabilities need appropriate support and care, and in many cases medical treatment
  • But their life needs to contain things other than treatment; people with disabilities need to do things besides be disabled and get therapy
  • Their life is already worth living and they don’t need to be cured to be ok
  • Don’t panic

tl;dr Acceptance isn’t about denying that some aspects of disability can be awful, and it’s not about categorically rejecting medical treatment. It’s about working with yourself rather than against yourself, and pursing life now rather than waiting for a cure.

It's important to care whether you and others are ok

In some groups, people are taught to follow rules. And told that, if they follow the rules, things will be good. And that following the rules is the only way things can be good.

And then… the consequences of the rules aren’t actually what people say they should be. People get hurt. And then, people who get hurt are pressured to think that nothing is wrong. And that’s bad.

Because you matter. Everyone matters. And if the rules are hurting people, there’s a problem with the rules. Magical thinking won’t make the rules work better, but it will prevent people from fixing them.

Some examples:

Religion:

  • If you’re in a religious group that has rules and,
  • Following the rules as your community requires is causing you serious problems, and…
  • …everyone tells you that if you just keep following all the rules, pray harder, and have more faith, everything will be ok…
  • …something is seriously wrong.
  • (Common examples: gay men being told to pray harder and date women, women being told to pray harder and accept that they shouldn’t have as much power as men because God gave them a different role)

In social justice space:

  • If you don’t feel safe in a Safe Space
  • Or you have reason to *think* you’re not safe in a Safe Space
  • And everyone is telling you that the space is definitely safe and that you’re just imagining the problem…
  • …something is seriously wrong, and you’re allowed to care that it’s wrong and seek to fix the problem (whether within the space or by finding somewhere else to be)