Guest Post: “Can’t” is Actually Important

Today’s guest post was written by Alyssa Hillary of Yes, That Too and has been reprinted with permission. 

All these thoughts were brought up again in the context of sports, because one of the coaches for my ultimate team said that we weren’t ever supposed to say “I can’t,” at practice. I’m fairly sure that was supposed to be empowering, and I’m just as sure that for me (and probably for a whole lot of other disabled people) it’s actually terrifying. Thankfully, I was able to explain to the coach and have her understand why no, Ireally do need that sentence in my vocabulary, and I need it taken seriously when I use it. Bad things happen otherwise.


This is the part where “differently abled” is a technically accurate description of my abilities, and the existence of societal factors putting values and expectations on certain abilities is why I still refuse to call myself differently abled. I wrote a post about that a while back.

However, this is mostly the part where the failure of my easy, hard, and impossible to line up with that of anyone else means that my abilities are apparently incomprehensible to a significant portion of the world. The idea that I can do calculus but not organize my own locker (not actually related skills in any way, shape, or form) or that I can be decent at Ultimate but not able to jump such that my feet leave the ground together and land together (therefore not actually a prerequisite skill, but I can at least understand why people assume so) is apparently incomprehensible.

This means that when I say I can do one thing, but not another, people are too busy being confused to accept this, and cognitive dissonance leads to my can’t getting ignored.

That is, my abilities vary over time, and hugely so. Speech is the big example here, that on my best day I can win a face to face debate in class without preparation by explaining why my opponents evidence actually supports the position I was assigned, and then there are also times when I can not speak at all. There’s also a huge amount of middle ground, where I spend most of my time. That middle ground includes things like how much I can say that’s not scripted, how quickly I can get words from my head to my mouth, how obvious it is that my prosody is weird, and whether or not I can initiate a conversation.

The way my abilities get prioritized also doesn’t match with that of most people, so the way my ability variation happens can confuse people. For most of my classmates, the ability to concentrate on graph theory homework or measure theory assignments would go long before speech did. For me, I have repeated evidence that speech goes long before my ability to pay attention in class, write papers, or do homework does.

This one is common. A person has an access need. I have an access need. We all have them, but sometimes when they’re statistically less common, the fact that it is a need is ignored. No, I can’t depend on always being able to speak. That’s why I carry pen and paper, and that’s why I carry the iPad. No, I can’t tell people apart by their faces. That’s why it takes me so much longer to learn people’s names. No, I can’t organize my own locker or desk or room independently. That’s why I need help organizing my space. No, I can’t consistently remember to eat three meals a day without reminders. That’s why I need some sort of reminder system.

For some of these “can’t”s the access need is that I have a work-around and just need people to get out of the way while I use it. However, when the people or institutions around me refuse to recognize the “I can’t” as legitimate, either because can’t is generally not accepted (hi, sports coach who had no clue what kind of disability issues sat around the issue of “can’t”) or because the specific inability is one that I’m not allowed to have for some reason.

When I was in school, some of my teachers recognized that I actuallycouldn’t independently keep my locker organized and not full of piles of papers. So, once in a while, they’d pull the trash and recycling bins from their classrooms after school, sit down with me next to my locker, and help me deal with the mess. Together, we were able to get my locker back to a semblance of order.

I also had teachers who thought I just didn’t care, and if they were smart about choosing the consequences I’d magically get my locker clean. This ranged from sitting me down and telling me I couldn’t leave until it was done (ended with my crying in the middle of a pile of my stuff in the hall until one of the teachers who had figured out it was a couldn’t found me) to having my enrollment in an appropriate math class held hostage to my “getting organized.” That one ended when my eighth grade teacher finally realized that this clearly wasn’t working, and that this was not an acceptable consequence to use anyways. It turned out that there actually was no appropriate class to enroll me in at the middle school, so they gave me an independent study that year. The idea was that I’d use the independent study to learn what was left of geometry and to do whatever math-related things caught my interest, and that I’d test out of ninth grade geometry when I got to the high school, taking Algebra II with the tenth graders instead. I actually tested out of two years of math and took Precalculus with the eleventh graders — even when they realized that an appropriate math class meant grade-skipping me, they underestimated how far ahead I really was.

And remember, this is me getting off easy. No one hit me. No one tried to prevent me from accessing the mainstream curriculum (the mainstream just happened not to be appropriate for me in one subject.) No one decided I wasn’t really ready to be a legal adult. I was “only” left to cry it out and I “only” had the stuff I could do held hostage to the stuff I couldn’t do.

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