Monday, June 12, 2017


It struck me immediately.

I was cleaning the sink and cabinet in the bathroom. An ordinary task, but I was enjoying it. The area needed cleaning and it was one of those times when you can see, immediately, the effect of your work. Suddenly it hit me. I haven't done something like this for 10 years. Earlier I had put stuff in the freezer in the kitchen. I hadn't done that for 10 years either. It felt amazing.

We were, of course, in the new accessible apartment and getting it ready for the move this week. I had been hesitant to go up with Joe on Sunday because, what could I do? In our present apartment I can't get into the kitchen, save for a small corner of the counter. I can't get my wheelchair into the bathroom so I have to stand at the door, and wall walk carefully, in. No sink cleaning possible there.

It was a clear demonstration to me about how ability is sometimes determined by the environment. My apartment now makes it impossible for me to do simple tasks. Now the word 'can't' enters into the vocabulary, and since people's attention span can be quite short when talking about barriers to accessibility, it slowly stops being a 'can't' with an explanation and just becomes 'can't'. I at least had had the experience, before disability, of doing these things and therefore knew I could. Others, not so lucky may think 'can't' means 'can't' no explanation sought.

I then wondered about what happens when the barriers aren't physical. What about when people and their attitudes, are the barrier? What about people with intellectual disabilities who 'can't' cook a mean because they aren't allowed the experience, do they know that their 'can't' is a qualified one? What about disabled people who are placed in transfer chairs for the convenience of staff? I once heard a staff with a person in a transfer chair respond to the question why the woman in the chair wasn't in a manual chair. The answer? "We don't want her wandering off, she has a tendency to want to roll around and visit people, we could never find her." Judging by the look of defeat on the elderly woman's face, it seemed that she had come to think that she just 'can't' do it any more.

Now I'm no pie in the sky, 'everyone can do it' kind of person. Hell no! I don't like the 'if I can do it you can do it,' kind of presentation that is so tediously common. Phrases like ''Can't isn't a word in my vocabulary.' Well, it's in mine. There are things I can't do, of course there are, I'm good with that (though sometimes it may really frustrate me).

But 'can't' isn't always 'can't'.

Is it?


Unknown said...

Can't does imply that something has been attempted, and that the person failed. Can't = not capable. And it sounds as it is is intrinsic in the person who lacks the capacity to complete a task.
More often, 'can't" is due to external forces - the bigotry of low expectations, excessive concern over safety instead of valuing autonomy, lack of opportunity to attempt the task, and the ways that the person who 'can't' has always been told that he/she 'can't' so often that it seems a universal truth.

Stifling a person's sense of self efficacy by taking away chances to try and fail is an abuse - psychological abuse - and the phrase "it's for your/his/her own good" as justification for rules is a red flag. In parenting and in care settings.

I'm glad the new apartment is a space for "I can"!!

ABEhrhardt said...

So incredibly sad that often 'can't' isn't due to the person, but to the person's parents or caretakers (I won't say 'staff' when they have that attitude).

I know of disabled people whose parents made them far more disabled than necessary by doing everything for them - and then died and left them with no skills. It is tragic, because they also left them with the attitude that the world should cater to them, as the parents did - and the world doesn't care.

Sometimes can't is just physical - and a different way (a new apartment!) must be found. But when the barriers aren't necessary, just convenient for someone else, that is incredibly sad.

Ettina said...

I have experienced this, too. With the use of smartphone apps, I've gotten to the point of reasonably consistently doing things I thought I couldn't do.