Squeaky Wheels: When “Elbow Grease” Will Not Cut It

Hello, readers,

For most of us, January 2nd means back to work after the holidays. I don’t return to work until tomorrow; I have a couple teacher workdays, and then I begin student-teaching high school English, may the Lord have mercy on me and the kids. But today is, for me, back to work in the blogosphere. Today’s topic: people with disabilities and the phenomenon of effort.

Now, yes, I know that for a person with a disability, some tasks others take for granted do require extra effort. For example, in college, I would buy half-gallons of milk because I don’t trust myself to lift and manuever a full gallon. Some clothing items take me a few seconds longer to get into. And I have to put effort into anything that involves minute visual detail, such as playing my favorite hidden object game online. There is nothing wrong with effort; in fact, most of the world would do well to take their cue from people with disabilities–and others–and put a little more effort into what they do. (Congress, I’m looking at you; why do you guys think you still can’t balance a darn checkbook after what, five years?) And effort often reaps great rewards. But what if it doesn’t? And what if, as sometimes happens, effort is counterproductive?

This happens sometimes for people with disabilities, and it happens more than you think. In many cases, it’s due to sheer ignorance of the disability’s nature. For example, I have had people who know nothing of CP say to me, “Can’t you exercise and make it better?” No. Yes, exercising does loosen my muscles, which is good, but my own efforts will not make me “better.” The underlying assumption there is, “You could be cured if you tried” and “You just don’t want to try/do anything.” That’s so laughable it’s maddening. Nothing could be further from the truth. And even when you explain this, some people still persist, stewing in their ignorance. I guess for them, it really is bliss.

But that’s the easy part of the question, “Can’t people with disabilities just try a little harder?” Other versions of this question exist, and they are more harmful than the one based in ignorance of the disability’s nature. The other versions of this question are more tied to specific manifestations of a disability. For example, let’s say we have a child with a disability named, hmmmm, Beth. Beth is supposed to be learning to overcome her speech impediment in speech therapy. She’s made progress, but her speech is not perfect. Her parents, though loving, push her even more at home. Everything, even things that are fun, like games, becomes an opportunity to “work on” or “practice” what she’s been learning. In fact, Beth is sick and tired of hearing the word “practice.” She practices a lot, but her speech is not perfect, and it’s gotten to the point that she feels valued only for what comes out of her mouth. Yet, the pervading message, from parents, teachers, the therapist, and even friends, has become “Try harder.”

Or let’s say we have an adult with a disability living under the same scenario. We’ll call him Campbell. He’s been told over and over that he needs to “practice” riding the bus, or doing laundry, or what have you. But frankly, Campbell thinks he’s doing okay at these things and would rather be doing things other men his age do. (Despite the fact that some men really could stand to spend the day in the laundry room, the great majority of them do not).

You get the idea. Pushing, to that extent, may backfire on you. And it’s likely that your loved one will come to see him or herself as a machine, programmed to practice, over and over, but never “get it.”

Now, a few cautionary notes. Yes, absolutely, people with disabilities, especially children, often need to be pushed. Otherwise, they may not reach their potential, may shut down, or may start using their disabilities as excuses–like any person tends to do if he or she is never required to stretch beyond a comfort zone. But there’s a big difference between gentle pushing that says, “I want you to try; if it works, great, if not, we’ll keep practicing or try another way” and pushing that says, “Try harder. You have to do this or you will never be able to ___.” And as you’re pushing, you need to be able to effectively communicate, “This is not a punishment. I’m asking you to do this because I know/think you can. No matter how this task turns out, I love and value you.”

The next cautionary note involves when to stop pushing. Yes, as much as we all, myself included, hate this, there are points in a person with a disability’s life that it may be better to give up on the mainstream way, and try another one. Let’s go back to Beth. If, despite her best efforts at speech therapy, it’s clear she would do better and be happier with an assistive technology device, there is nothing wrong with getting her one. It doesn’t mean she’s not “normal” or that she’s been given up on. The only thing anyone is giving up, at that point, is the idea that Beth will succeed only if she talks the “normal” way. Remember, modifications were invented, not so people with disabilities could “take the easy way out,” but so they could have a truly level playing field. Now, when to stop pushing will look different for every family. Sometimes, the person with a disability will tell you when to quit, and in most cases, it’s a good idea to listen. But sometimes, you need to use your own discernment, which I hope is rooted in love for your loved one, and a desire to see them succeed in whatever way that involves.

Yes, “elbow grease” is valuable. But it does not have infinite value. So let’s stop blaming people with disabilities for having little squeaks, and let’s stop telling them, “If you tried, you could get over it.” Instead, let’s educate ourselves, listen to the people in our lives, and realize that squeak may be less of a big deal than we thought.

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