Ability is complicated.

Most people have some ability to improve some of their physical or cognitive skills. The limits on this are different for different people. Sometimes trying hard over a long period of time makes things possible. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes all it takes to be able to do something is to be willing. For instance:

  • People who have unusual speech (eg, a CP accent) are often ignored.
  • Most people who aren’t listening, could decide to listen.
  • Often, willingness to slow down and listen is all it takes.
  • (Not everyone can do this — there’s no shame in being unable. Sometimes disability is like that. The problem is that a lot of people who *could* understand relatively easily, or could learn how, don’t bother to listen)

Sometimes gaining the ability to do something takes significant effort over a sustained period of time:

  • For instance, most people could not decide to wake up tomorrow and run a marathon.
  • No matter how willing or determined they were, they would fail, because it’s not an ability you can gain overnight.
  • Many people can get the ability to run a marathon, by training over time.
  • Most people who can run at all can get better at running, up to a point, whether or not they ever gain the ability to run a marathon.
  • Getting better at running takes a lot of disciplined effort over time.
  • People don’t just decide to run fast, they practice and keep pushing themselves until they get better at it.

Another aspect of running ability:

  • There is a limit, and the limit is different for everyone. Discipline and effort only take you so far.
  • Very few people will ever be able to run as well as olympic runners — no matter how much work they put into trying.
  • Bodies have absolutel limitations, and they can’t be overcome by sheer force of will.

On the other side of things, flying:

  • No one can flap their arms and fly, because it is physically impossible
  • No amount of determination or disciplined effort will make it possible for a human being to fly by flapping their arms.

It’s not always obvious which category something falls into, even for nondisabled people:

  • Sometimes limits are predictable.
  • Sometimes you can’t tell until you try.
  • Sometimes things that feel impossible turn out to actually be easy once you try.
  • And vice versa: sometimes things that feel intuitively like they should be easy turn out to be impossible.
  • Sometimes things that feel impossible at first become possible with sustained effort over time.
  • Sometimes they stay impossible.
  • Sometimes the effort they take turns out not to be worth it.
  • Ability is complicated and can be unpredictable, for everyone.

It’s often even more confusing for disabled people, for a number of reasons:

  • For many disabled people, walking is like flying — flat out physically impossible, not happening.
  • For some people, it’s like running a marathon — possible, but may or may not be worth the amount of time and effort it requires.
  • For some people, it’s similar to a failed attempt to become an olympic athlete — some progress towards the goal is possible; but it’s still not achievable.
  • It’s not always at all obvious which category something is in.
  • And that’s true of a lot of skills, in a lot of disability categories. (Including cognitive skills.)

In addition, honest discussion of what you can and can’t do is often taboo for disabled people. We’re often expected to say that we’re just like everyone else, even when we’re obviously not. We’re often expected to believe that we can do anything if we try hard enough, even when it’s obviously not true. We’re often prevented from trying anything hard that we might fail at — in a misguided attempt to spare us frustration and the pain of noticing our limitations. All of this can make self-assessment even harder.

Ability is complicated. Most people can improve some of their physical, emotional, or cognitive skills. Willingness makes some things possible. Sustained effort over time makes other things possible. Some things stay impossible no matter how hard you try. Sometimes it is clear which category something falls into; often it is not.

This is even more complicated for people with disabilities. Research and rules of thumb developed by experience with nondisabled people can give misleading results. No one can do everything, and that’s ok. Most people make mistakes about what they can and can’t do, and that’s ok too.

Being dependent on vs being limited by

This isn’t quite the right concept but… these things are different:

  • being dependent on something
  • being unpleasantly or destructively limited by something

Being dependent on something can be really good. It can make things possible that weren’t before it. We’re all dependent on technology in one way or another (for instance, heating and air conditioning. Shoes. Large-scale agriculture.).

Sometimes people object to dependence because they think it will impose an unpleasant limitation. Even when it would actually make more things possible. 

Like, someone thinks they (or someone in their care) shouldn’t use a wheelchair because then they’ll only be able to go where a wheelchair can go. They won’t be able to use stairs and such anymore. And sometimes this is true.

But often, this can mean that someone can only go as far as they can walk, and can only stay out for as long as they can stand. So they have trouble leaving the house, or going places for long periods of time. And are much more limited than they otherwise would be. Dependence isn’t bad, if it makes you able to do more things. 

AAC can be like this, too. Verbal speech is more flexible, in principle, all things being equal. But all things aren’t equal, even for people who have some verbal speech. The important thing is for someone to have as much communication as possible. For people who get more communication from relying on things other than speech, dependence isn’t a bad thing. It’s good. It makes life better.

Getting more ability to do stuff you care about should be the goal. Not a particular way of doing it. Not judged against a theoretical ideal. Judged against what actually works best for you (or your child).