Being disabled often means being unable to reliably predict what you will and won’t be able to do. Or whether something will be hard or easy. Sometimes this is for physical reasons; sometimes it’s because of how people treat us; often it’s both.
For instance, taking a class might involve uncertainty about any or all of these things (and lots of other things that I didn’t think of):
- Am I cognitively capable of learning the material?
- Am I physically capable of doing everything the class requires?
- Will anyone be willing to do the group work with me in a way that makes it possible?
- Will I be well enough to come to class regularly?
- Will I live long enough to get the chance to apply what I learn in the class to my work?
- Do I have the executive functioning to do this when I’m also doing other things?
- Will the class material be so triggering that I dissociate frequently and miss a lot of what’s going on?
- If I miss material for disability-related reasons, will there be a way to make it up?
- Will I be able to get into the classroom?
- Will I be able to stay in the classroom safely?
- Will the teacher want me there?
- Will they get me accessible materials in a timely manner?
- Will they teacher have the skills to figure out how to teach me?
- Will they allowed to be flexible in the ways I need them to be?
- Will I have to fight for what I need? Will the fight be successful?
Disability typically involves a lot of uncertainty. It means that it’s often completely unknowable whether or not you will be able to do something. This means that the risk of failure is often much higher than it is for people without disabilities. If we try new things, we’ll usually fail at more of them than people without disabilities.
Sometimes people take that to mean that we should only be allowed to do things that are definitely within our abilities, to spare us the pain of failure. Or, to spare them and us the pain of having to notice that we’re disabled and that there are things we can’t do, no matter how hard we try.
This has disastrous consequences for children in special education and adults who live in the system, who may never be allowed to attempt anything harder than preschool curriculum. And, when we’re allowed in mainstream settings, we’re often terrified that failure may mean that we’ll be kicked out and sent to segregated settings.
When we’re not allowed to fail, we’re also not allowed to succeed. Because for all people, success rests on a lot of failed attempts. And because disability typically involves uncertain abilities, we usually need to make a lot more failed attempts than nondisabled people as we figure it out. Watching our peers succeed at things we fail at can be painful. So can trying really hard and finding that something we wanted to do is not possible for us. So can finding that something is dramatically more difficult for us than anyone else we know. That pain is real; it’s also bearable. We can fail and be ok. We can bump up against our limitations and be ok. We don’t need to live in cages full of easy tasks to avoid these things.
Short version: Being disabled means we often can’t reliably predict what we can and can’t do. (Or how hard something will be.) Finding the things we can do well often involves trying and failing at a lot of things. The only way to find out is by trying things. Sometimes people try to prevent us from ever trying anything because they think that the pain of failure is unbearable. When we’re not allowed to fail, we’re not allowed to succeed either. We need space to fail without shame or punishment, so that we can find the things that we can do. It’s ok to be disabled. It’s ok to not know what you can do. It’s ok to try things that you might fail at. It’s ok to fail and keep trying, or to give up and try something else. It’s ok to decide that it’s not a good time to take those kinds of risks. We all learn to calibrate when to take these risks and when not to, and these are decisions that we need to be allowed to make.