Dear disability professionals,
I’m not sure why, but I keep encountering disability professionals who try to deny that disability exists, or to downplay its importance.
It’s so extreme that disability professionals often try to convince people with disabilities that we are just like everybody else. Even when our differences are the reason that you have a job.
We are not just like everyone else. We are alike in that we are all human, with the same basic needs and capacities that go along with humanity. We are also different, in that we have disabilities and most people do not.
Disability exists. Disability is important. People with disabilities are different from most people people in ways that matter. And we need those differences to be speakable.
Our bodies are different. We can’t make this go away by smiling, being brave, and trying hard.
The differences in our bodies matter. Most people can do things that are physically impossible for us. Most people can do some things easily that are excruciatingly difficult for us. The specifics of which things these are depend on the person and the disability. They always exist. That’s what disability means, it means having a different kind of body, a body that can’t do certain kinds of things easily or at all.
For everyone, with and without disabilities, understanding the limits of what our bodies can do is a key life skill. Everyone’s safety depends on understanding that they do not have wings, and that they can’t fly. My safety also depends on understanding that I have impaired vision, motor coordination, and executive functioning. Understanding these things means I have chosen not to drive, and that I have found adaptive strategies that enable me to cook safely.
From my perspective, the fact that I don’t concentrate hard and try to drive isn’t so different from the fact that I don’t flap my wings and try to fly. All I’m doing is acknowledging physical reality, and making choices that fit with my understanding of reality. Some of the physical limitations on what my body can do are the normal limits that apply to all human bodies. Other physical limitations come from my disability. They’re all just physical facts, they’re all just things I need to take into account when I make decisions.
But as a person with a disability, I learned young that only some limitations are ok to talk about. If I say “I can’t fly”, no one contradicts me. If I say “I can’t catch”, people say “just keep trying”. Both are physically impossible for me. Trying hard will not make either possible. Neither will being brave, smiling, or believing in myself.
For some reason, many disability professionals seem to believe that honesty about our limitations will somehow destroy our self esteem. Actually, the opposite is the case. They want us to believe that if we just smile and keep trying, we can do anything that we put our minds to. But it’s a lie, and we get hurt badly when we believe it.
When professionals refuse to accept our limitations, they force us to attempt impossible tasks over and over. There is nothing positive about this experience. We try and fail, and we watch others our age succeed at the same tasks. If we believe that we can do whatever we put our minds to, then we feel like it’s our fault for not trying hard enough.
It hurts when people yell at us for failing, and it hurts when people plaster on smiles and urge us to smile and keep trying. “Come on, you can do it!” doesn’t sound like encouragement when you know that you will fail. It feels like being told that you’re somehow screwing up on purpose, and that if you would just decide to be a better person, you’d suddenly be about to do it. This kind of thing can go on for years, and it leaves scars. We often come to feel like we are unworthy people, and that there’s something deeply flawed about who we are.
It’s very, very important that people with disabilities understand that we are disabled. We need to know that our bodies are different, and that some things that are possible for most other people aren’t possible for us. We can’t stop being disabled through an act of will. Our bodies limit us. That is not a moral failing. It’s just a fact of physical reality. And it needs to be speakable.
Our bodies and our disabilities are nothing to be ashamed of. We don’t have to be different to be good enough. We don’t have to be nondisabled to do things that matter. We don’t have to do impossible things to be worthy of love and respect. We’re people, and who we are is ok.
And for professionals - please understand that when you refuse to acknowledge disability, you are teaching people with disabilities to be ashamed of themselves. This is probably not your intention, but it’s an inevitable consequence of making disability unspeakable.
It is much better to tell the truth. It is much better to support us in understanding who we really are, than to push us to believe in an impossible dream. I could dream of flying or playing baseball, but it wouldn’t get me anywhere. By living in the real world and working with the body I actually have, I can do things that matter. And so can all of your clients. There is no need for silence, evasion, or shame. Disability is important, and it’s much easier to live with when we can face it honestly.
All of this is why I try really hard to be straightforward with my students. I know how it feels to hear the Try for Try’s Sake speech, and I hated it.
When my kids say, “I can’t do this” or, “I suck at this,” I try to say, “I can help you do it ” or, “Let’s see if we can use what you’ve done.”
Disability professionals police language because the narrative is that if a disabled kid gets into the habit of thinking “negatively” about their level of ability related to a particular skill or subject, they will lose the motivation to attempt it, and because accessible education does not keep pace with the attitudes of disability communities about what we as members believe is reasonable about supporting full and equal access to education, we are often forced to police attitudes because we as professionals can’t be seen to “enable” a disabled person’s “failure” by not pushing them to try.
In no way do I mean to imply that this attitude is healthy or positive. It is not. But, until the narrative about supporting disabled people changes to more accurately reflect the attitudes of actual disabled people instead of abled people who think they speak for us, we’re stuck with this.