When “can’t” is about power

Listen to this post: 

I heard someone say this once:  “I can’t do that anymore since my brain injury.”
And the person she was talking to said:  “Don’t limit yourself. You can do absolutely anything. Anything is possible.”
And the someone was like:  “No, really, I can’t do that anymore.”
And I was like (in my head):  “Are they even having a conversation? Or is it two people who happen to be talking one after the other?”

The person with the message that anything is possible meant well, very well. He intended to inspire and motivate the person with a brain injury. He wanted to make sure she doesn’t give up or see herself through the lens of I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

But he missed something extraordinarily valuable. You see, “I can’t do that anymore” is not scientifically proven to be a statement that you should banish from the kingdom of your mind or else.

“I can’t do that anymore” might, in fact, by a very proactive statement. It could be self-advocacy.

When you let someone know your limits, then the situation becomes clearer and likely even easier to handle.

And anything is possible? I’m not quite sure how that works, to be honest. This person with the brain injury? See, she can’t do that thing anymore, as she mentioned. Because she’s not able to. Because of a disability from the brain injury. All the wishful thinking in the universe won’t make that thing return just because she wants it to and believes it should. Perhaps it will return with time and effort, or perhaps not. But it wasn’t going to return in that instant. To tell her that anything is possible when she just said it wasn’t possible isn’t helpful. It’s shutting her down. It’s telling her she doesn’t know herself that well. Maybe it’s telling her: “I don’t like listening to you complain. So please stop saying those things.”

What would have been cooler?

The someone: “I can’t do that anymore since my brain injury.”
The other person:  “Oh, is there something I can do to help?”
Or “If you had some accommodations, could you do it?”
Or “Is there something else you want to do instead?”
Or even “Bummer. Next topic?”

These four made up answers each have a different level of compassion and interest in the person’s situation. But no matter what, I hope you can see that all four options validate that someone’s assertion that she can’t do that thing anymore since her brain injury. None of those four made up answers tell her–openly or in a hidden way–that she’s actually wrong about her own perception of her own self.

I see people talk about the need for disabled people to be empowered. But if they don’t like how those disabled people assert their empowerment, their power, their personal needs and wants, then it seems to easy to dismiss it.

I know some people who despise the word “can’t.” One person demands that people around her say, “I’m not able to” in order to get the utter negativity of “can’t” out of your mind and your spirit. But do you see the difference between that and the person who disagrees and says “anything is possible” in response to the word “can’t”? One is about not wanting to be triggered by a certain word. The other is bright-siding, invalidation, and deflection away from a genuine topic of conversation. And the truth is that our imaginations might be limitless, but our society puts up enormous barriers, especially if you are not a white, straight, non-disabled, middle class male. And that someone I mentioned before? She’s not that completely privileged person.

If you’re interested in disabled people and people with disabilities having power, empowerment, and control over their own lives, one great place to start is by accepting what they say. You don’t have to love it. You might wish it was different. But if you don’t start with that acceptance, then you’re introducing a conflict when there kind of wasn’t one before. And you’re telling the person you don’t view them as empowered enough to speak their own truth. These are things we can change! There is a whole darn lot that is possible.