Yesterday morning I read an article about an autistic young woman who gave up disability payments in order to get a job at a grocery and within months was the manager of the dairy department. It was quite a nice little story but I didn’t find it as surprising as so many others had that this young woman found herself a niche. Many of the comments called her awe inspiring, but is it really awesome to simply want to work? To find a job suited for your skill set? To be successful at something? Or are people really finding her awe inspiring because they’ve set limitations on what this woman should be able to achieve because she is different?
I would argue that no one would have found her awe inspiring had there not been an expectation that she is reaching beyond the limitations they believe exist for her.
Other commenters attempted to explain autism calling the young woman such things as brain damaged and mentally deficient, because internet experts always know all things, and several commenters praised the management for going out on a limb to hire someone who is so very… limited. One person even praised the young lady for getting a job and not being a victim by “using her autism as an excuse”. This obviously immediately made me want to throw a brick at his head and made me wonder if he believed that all those who are not fully able bodied but aren’t working are therefore “playing victim” and “making excuses”. Many said things akin to “you CAN do anything you put your mind to, this proves it!” A lovely lie because let’s face it, I can’t regrow my leg and no matter how much I put my mind to it I can’t become a one legged, blood disease carrying, GI Jane, special operator because not all things are actually possible. What I found most interesting, however, was the “brave you” attitude toward the author of this short piece for having the character himself to write 150 words about this young autistic woman and the praise others lavished upon him for telling her story.
If I’m completely honest, I bristled at most of the comments that were made because, from my perspective at least, they revealed unintentional ableism and perceived limitations based on that ableism.
Ableism, if you’re not aware, is discrimination or social prejudice against those with disabilities. I think ableism is most often seen when those with disabilities are defined by their disability rather than everything else that they are, and because they’re defined by a disability they are perceived as being victims, making excuses, being whiners and focused only on what is wrong or missing, and being unable to do things for themselves or others. It’s sad, really.
I am not pointing out ableism to be judgmental or to ascribe intent because I am as guilty of it as anyone. I was guilty of it when my husband became disabled and I did things to “help” him, to rescue him, and to make his life easier, better, and more comfortable. I’d rush to his aid when he stumbled or fell, I pushed his wheelchair when he wanted to do it for himself, and I was there all the time to do all things for him because I believed he needed me to be there. I was guilty of it when I’d look at a new student’s paperwork identifying a diagnosis and I’d make assumptions about what they would or would not be or do, could or could not be able do; no matter how logical and rational those assumptions were, and no matter what body of knowledge and personal experience they were based upon, I made assumptions that set limitations on children because of words on a paper. I’m guilty of it when I look at obstacles set before me and I want to give up or ask for help before trying to overcome them on my own first.
I’m pointing out ableism because although it technically applies to the view on those with disabilities I think in a way this term belongs to and can be applied to everyone in how they limit themselves and others based solely on perceived strengths and weaknesses, and trying to define what we are each able to accomplish, be, or do.
We set limits on others based on what we think we know and understand. Logical, rational, reasonable limits (at times), but limits nonetheless.
What is completely without logic or reason is that we place limits on ourselves, hobbling our ability to have happy, healthy relationships in our personal or even our professional lives, as well as limiting our potential success in our life’s endeavors. You see, the problem with limitations is that we have a nasty habit of living inside them.
And everyone, able-bodied or not, is guilty of doing just that to some degree or other.
We all know what it is like to be treated as though we are, told we are, or feel we are incapable, inept, or inferior in some aspect of our lives. We have, and they are the source of limitations. Sometimes we have been able to brush them off but other times we have inexplicably stayed within them. I would wager that in one way or another these limitations are always connected with an idea of weakness or unworthiness:
- I am too weak to ___ because …
- I don’t deserve ___ because …
- Strong men and women don’t need counseling! If I seek help even though my world, my marriage, my life is falling apart, even though I can’t sleep, even though I can’t stop thinking of my friends who died, and even though I drink myself into a stupor every night, I’m weak. If I’m weak, I’m unworthy of my spouse’s and my children’s love, and I’m unworthy of the faith others have placed in me to ___ .
- If I admit that I screwed up with ___ then everyone will know I’m a fraud.
- I’m too old for you, for this job, for this endeavor, for this adventure, for this dream.
- Or I’m too young.
- You don’t know what I did, what I’m really like, all the ways I’ve messed up, what I’m truly capable of doing … .
- If you really knew the real me, you’d never want to be around me.
Every limit we place on ourselves limits not only our ability to be happy and find lasting joy in life, but it also limits those with whom we can have happiness and joy with by shutting them out and limiting their potential as well, whatever that relationship would look like.
Look at how you present yourself to acquaintances and friends, to those you haven’t seen in some time, to those with whom you hope to have a successful business or personal relationship, to people that you think are important personally or professionally, and think about what you say to highlight your strengths and minimize your perceived weaknesses and limitations.
What is the version of you that you present when you want to look your best?
What are the parts of you that you hide because you’re afraid that if people saw that version they would see you “as you really are” and would not want to be close to you?
Be honest with yourself, really honest. Let down the walls you’ve built inside. Where are you limiting yourself? Where are your limits becoming limits you are placing on others? Are you able to live beyond your limits? Are you courageous enough?
I think if everyone began to live a more honest life, being their authentic selves, and not limiting themselves or others based on fear, perceived weakness, or a feeling of unworthiness, no one would find it awe inspiring that an autistic woman is successful as the manager of the dairy department because she wouldn’t be limited by the word autistic.
After all, there’s a lot more to me than my missing foot and my litany of conditions. They are a part of me, but not all of me, and although they do by their very nature provide some limitations, I don’t have to accept the limits of others and I don’t have to create any for myself.