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.