“Attitudes are the real disability.”
“The only disability is a bad attitude.”
“You just need to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.”
“A bad attitude can block love and blessings from you.”
“A positive attitude gives you power over circumstances.”
“Success is the result of a great attitude.”
Y’all, if I hear one more inspirational quote about attitude, I think I may scream.
It’s not that I disagree with sentiments like this. I completely get what people are saying. Your attitude does influence how you look at life, and no one wants to be around a person who is negative all the time. However, I think “attitude,” and sentiments about it, have been and are being used in an ableist way. We need to expose it and talk about it.
What do I mean? Well, let’s take a look at the first two quotes on my list since they’re the ones that pertain directly to disability. When most people say, “Attitudes are the real disability,” they’re talking about those who discriminate against PWDs. They’re talking about a worldview that says, “The world is wired for the temporarily able-bodied. If you don’t fit that category–and everybody worth anything does–then you need to stay out.” In that situation, the quote is true.
However, a lot of people use this quote on PWDs, too. In those cases they mean, “Your attitude stinks and is stopping you from what you want to do. If you just had a better attitude, you would be able to do ____” (whatever the goal du jour is). Or, “If you had a better attitude, you’d have friends/a job/a life.”
Or how about, “The only disability is a bad attitude?” Okay, again, I get that. Bigoted speech and behavior is a lot more disabling than CP, Down Syndrome, deafness, whatever. But again, this quote is also used to shame people with disabilities. For example, a person with a disability may say, “I can’t do this.” The TAB person with them says, “Yes you can; the only disability is a bad attitude.” This causes the PWD to feel shame, or to attempt to do whatever was being discussed with varying levels of success, which just causes a vicious cycle. Or, the PWD may take the attitude quote to heart and say, “You’re right, I can do this.”
What does the TAB person do in response? Well, best-case scenario he or she gives sincere encouragement. But sometimes he or she says,
“Okay, then that just proves your disability is not a big deal/you’re lazy/you have a bad attitude.”
Really, people? Really? Once again, PWDs can’t win. Once again, you’ve put them in an emotional and mental position that only benefits the temporarily able-bodied. Your intentions may have been good; everybody should cultivate a positive attitude. Yet the way you chose to convey those intentions fell flatter than a pancake.
While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about some other sentiments regarding attitude, such as that a bad attitude blocks blessings or success. This is yet another twisted truth often used against the community of persons with disabilities. Many people use it as a theological weapon, as in, “God cannot bless/does not love those with bad attitudes.” And let me just say, that attitude makes me want to slap people to kingdom come. Read your Bibles. If your sentiment were true, God would not have blessed Hannah because she was “discontent” without children. He would’ve sent Gideon home from battle in disgrace because he was afraid. God also would’ve decided that Paul, who had the definition of a rotten attitude toward Christians, should simply fall off a cliff or get hit by a bus (or the Biblical equivalent of a bus) and go straight to hell. Stop using attitude as a weapon, and stop using it as your personal excuse not to bless people. That person with a disability who you think has a bad attitude? Yeah–maybe that’s because he or she knows that you, who could’ve been a friend and part of a support system, sees him or her as garbage.
Finally, I’d like to challenge the perception, both in and out of the disability community, that it’s all about attitude. Whether they mean to or not, doctors, therapists, clergy, and loved ones often send the message that if you are joyful and grateful, your disability will not matter. Some of them even send the message that joy, thankfulness, and faith will cure disability on an emotional if not physical level. Both suppositions are wrong, and they are harmful.
Yes, living with a disability is a lot easier if you inject humor into your life, express gratitude, treat others with kindness, and find joy in your life. You can choose joy, even when you can’t choose happiness (and yes, there is a difference). I’m not disputing any of that.
What I am disputing is the idea that constant optimism will “make it all better.” I don’t know where we got that idea, although I partially blame Pollyanna (who, by the way, lost her eternal optimism after falling out of a tree and sustaining a disability, which was later conveniently cured). Whatever gave us this idea, I think we got the message garbled. Yes, a good attitude helps you deal with disability. But a good attitude must also be balanced with honesty and sometimes, vulnerability.
People with disabilities need to be told, every day, that it’s okay to express themselves any way they want so long as no one is being hurt. They need to hear that it’s okay to say:
“I can’t do this.”
“I don’t want to do this right now.”
“I need help in this area.”
“I want more than what is being offered to me in school, leisure time, my work, etc.”
“I need support and encouragement. I need empathy.”
Instead, what they’re too often being told is:
“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
“You need an attitude adjustment.”
“You should be content where you are/bloom where you are planted.”
“Don’t whine but shine/you are your biggest obstacle/no one will want to be around you if you don’t shape up.”
On this blog, I talk a lot about the discrepancies between how PWDs are treated vs. how people without disabilities are treated. The expectations placed on persons with disabilities are paradoxically much higher and much lower than the expectations TAB people give themselves or have placed on them. This attitude issue is no different. Instead of blaming everything on attitude, let’s try to listen to the PWDs in our lives. Let’s adjust our own attitudes. After all, if you were having a “bad attitude day,” or had to live with a permanent condition like a disability, what would you most want to hear? Would you want to hear the above statements?
I think not. How about:
“Take a break. Take care of yourself.”
“Thank you for trying/doing this task. I know it’s hard.”
“You are so tenacious and smart; I admire you.”
“You are kind, fun, and a pleasure to be around.”
“I am here when you need me, for whatever reason.”
If we say these things I think everyone’s attitudes will improve.