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.

“I can’t” is an important phrase

A reader asked:

… I think it’s more empowering to say “I decided to stop” than to say “I can’t”. It’s OK to stop when there’s still a tiny chance that you might have been able to succeed.

realsocialskills answered

There are different reasons why people decide to stop doing things.

One reason is that they reach the conclusion that they probably aren’t capable of doing the thing. Probably

That’s different than reaching the conclusion that they don’t want to do it, or that it’s not worth doing, or that they’d rather do something else.

Actually this reminds me of something I’ve seen – often disabled kids who can’t do something will pretend that they’re refusing to do the thing. And that they’re refusing to do the thing on purpose in order to provoke the teachers. When everyone involved thinks that’s what’s happening, things can get really bad really quickly.

(Particularly if the thing is something like a kid going nonverbal and pretending that they’re refusing to speak and are just making animal noises to be rude).

Inability to do things is real, and it’s important for people to know their limits and take them seriously.

Acknowledging limits makes it much more possible to do things than pretending not to have any.

Ignoring reality isn’t empowering.

And it’s legitimate to say “I can’t” when what you mean is “it’s possible that I might technically be able to do it, but it’s risky and dangerous, and I couldn’t function if I took that kind of risk routinely”.

(This is in fact a meaning of “can’t” used by people without disabilities all the time.)

“I can’t” vs “I decided not to”

When people say “I can’t” I’ll sometimes encourage them to say “I decided not to” or something instead. Nobody can predict the future, so maybe nobody can know for sure whether somebody would be able to do something if they tried some more times. However, a person has a right to decide to stop. They may judge that it’s so unlikely they would succeed that it’s not worth trying; and doing it may not be worth a tremendous amount to them. I also have a right to my opinion that maybe they can.
realsocialskills answered:
You have a right to your opinion, but you don’t have the right to have them respect your assessment of their abilities. You especially do not have the right to have them take your opinion into consideration when they’re deciding what they can and can’t do.
Inability to do things is real. And yes, I may sometimes be wrong about my inability to do things, but taking it seriously when I think I can’t do something matters. Even if I’m wrong.
There’s a difference between deciding I don’t want to do something, and deciding that I think I am incapable of something, or that doing the thing is unacceptably risky for me.
Even if other people think I’m wrong – I still have the right to assess what my limits are and act accordingly. And even though I will sometimes mistakenly think that I am unable to do something I am actually capable of, “I can’t” is still a vital part of my vocabulary.
There’s a difference between not wanting to do a thing, and reaching the conclusion that I’m probably not capable of doing the thing and that trying is hurting me.
I need to be able to acknowledge that I have limits in order to manage them correctly, and do what I can instead of pretending that enough willpower makes everything possible.
So does everyone else. In particular, people with disabilities who have been taught that we’re not allowed to take physical limitation seriously. But being disabled and physically limited isn’t a moral failing. It’s just a fact of life that sometimes needs to be accounted for.

The power of “I can’t”

People will try to tell you that you can do things you can’t do.

It’s hard to insist that no, you can’t do them. Or that you can’t do them safely. Or that you can’t do them without using up all your spoons and losing the capacity to do things that are more important.

They will tell you that this is giving up, or being lazy. They will tell you this with their words and their body language. And by pretending that you have not said anything, and just refusing to take into account your actual abilities.

They will tell you this with hate. They will tell you this with good intentions. They will tell you this as concern trolls and terrified parents. 

Sometimes, in that situation, it’s easy to feel like you aren’t allowed to say no until you’ve run yourself into the ground trying, or until you’ve tried and failed and things have gone badly wrong. Because people won’t believe you, and will put pressure on you in all kinds of ways.

The thing is, they’re wrong, and you don’t have to believe them or comply with their demands.

It helps a lot to be confident in your ability to judge what you can and can’t do. Sometimes you have to say no over and over. 

Knowing ahead of time that something won’t work for you and insisting on planning accordingly isn’t lazy.

It’s being responsible.