On the topic of degrading things that well-meaning people tend to say to people with disabilities:
- “You have so much potential!”
- “I truly believe in your potential!”
These can seem innocent, and sometimes it can be a benevolent thing to say. But when you hear it all the time, it becomes degrading.
When everyone you encounter is willing to acknowledge your potential, but no one is willing to acknowledge your accomplishments, it’s hard to believe in yourself. When all people see is your potential, it can be as though they are saying “don’t worry, it’s ok that you’ve never done anything worthwhile, you will someday.”
Hearing that year after year from people whose opinion you value is corrosive. It can make it really, really hard to see that you’ve ever done anything or that you have any abilities that count.
But, everyone in this world has accomplished things that are worth noticing. You are not an exception. You have done things, and the things that you have done matter. Even if nothing you do has radically changed the world. Even if you haven’t out-competed anyone. Even if you’re far below grade level, or unemployable, or struggling greatly. Even if you can’t get out of bed most days or at all. You have done things, and you deserve to have them respected.
If you are working with, supporting, or close to someone with a disability, make sure you are acknowledging their accomplishments that they have already made. Don’t just reassure them that they will do things some day. They have already done things, and they deserve to have their accomplishments respected.
And if you are a disabled person, remember that your accomplishments are real even if no one notices them or takes them seriously. The people who have taught you not to value your accomplishments are wrong. You have done things. Honor them.
You should probably just never say this to anyone, I think. About someone, maybe (because sometimes it’s true. It is very possible for people to waste potential) but definitely never TO them.
I’m not even disabled in the sort of way that would cause this kind of behavior (and my mom has the same disabilities that I do so she was always careful to not be mean about it) and i STILL got a fair amount of “you could do anything if you just put your mind to it,” which is especially frustrating when nobody bothers to help you learn how to do those things that they think you can do- they just expect you to figure it out, and you don’t, because nobody is helping you, they’re just lamenting how you COULD do it because you’re just not TRYING hard enough and you’re wasting all your potential-
And then you can’t do those things (for the same reason) and you’re just left feeling like nothing you do is ever good enough.
I mostly agree. The only reason I think it’s ever positive is that I’ve occasionally had good experiences with people showing me that I actually can learn to do things that others have taught me that I am hopelessly incapable of doing.
In the cases where you think someone might be good at doing something that you can (or will be connecting them to someone who can) teach them to do, you can just offer to teach them and saying “I suspect you might be good this, I would be happy to show you how, if you would like to learn” rather than “you have great potential to do this thing”.
I got sick when I was 9. After it started, I got told over and over how I wasn’t living up to my potential, despite the fact that I was actually doing everything I possibly could, and practically killing myself to do so. All I was told was that these things I was doing were amazing, but they knew I could do so much more. I won awards, was published, was in multiple stage shows, was involved in a few different volunteer organizations, and doing peer counseling, but apparently I COULD DO MORE. Which, when i look back on it, makes me even more angry than it did at the time. Realistically I was already doing more than most of those people ever had. All I can figure is that they had decided I had the potential to become a superhero who lifts cars off people and catches serial killers in my sleep.
So yeah… if you are concerned about my, or anyone else’s, potential, FUCK YOU. get a goddamn life of your own and stop trying to live vicariously through mine (or theirs).
We all have potential to do great or terrible things. All of us. If you want to worry about potential, explore your own.
I think you are right to say that “I suspect you might be good this, I would be happy to show you how, if you would like to learn” is a better approach.