Saturday, August 10, 2013

Preusming competence: Not just about what I *can* do

 This is a cross post from Radical Neurodivergence Speaking.

As a disabled person, I have experienced failure a lot in my time. I have experienced the kind of failure that can be turned into success by fine tuning the failure. I have experienced the failure that comes from being sabotaged by low expectations or unreasonable demands. And I have experienced the kind of failure that comes from just not being able to do what I am trying to do.

What does this have to do with presuming competence?

Well, the first part of presuming competence is presuming capacity. Presuming that the ability to learn and understand and do new things is there. This is good. I like this. Please, keep believing that I can do things, or at least should be able to give them a good honest try before doing them for me or moving on and putting it in the permanent failure pile. Assuming what you are asking of me is possible here in reality land (deciding to not have a seizure in face of triggers doesn't fall in this category, FYI. And is the inspiring events, plural, for this post), let me try it. I want to try it. I want to fine tune it. Probably.

So, presume I can learn. If I tell you I can do something, or may be able to do something but I need to try it first, run with that. Allow me to try. Help me fine tune if I'm close but not quite. Rephrase. Demonstrate. Whatever. If I think it's in my eventual capacities, and you support that, that is presuming competence and is good.

But. I have failed a lot in my day. There are things I just cannot do. It doesn't matter that I can speak usually or can do a backflip or follow complicated written down chemistry lab instructions or calculate gymnasts' trajectories preternaturally fast, I still cannot hold more than 2 auditory directions in my head on a good day. I still can't read a map in any useful fashion. Whether I can make food without setting it on fire is iffy. I cannot just block sounds out. I cannot sit still and think at the same time. I cannot always make decisions without substantial field narrowing. I cannot always write a thing on demand without significant scaffolding. Et cetera.

When I tell you I cannot do something, presume that I am competent to understand my own limitations. I am not being lazy. I am not manipulating others into doing things for me. I have legitimate support needs. I have workarounds for most of the things I listed above. Slow, ponderous, time and spoon consuming workarounds, but workarounds nonetheless. But the truth of the matter is there are things I cannot do and I know that I cannot do them.

Assume that when I tell you something is not in my skillset and never will be, that I know from experience, or am making an educated guess. If you want me to cross an unfamiliar city on transit using nothing but maps and paper timetables without getting lost? You are dreaming. That is not going to happen. Have I tried this in recent memory? No I have not. But I know:

-I cannot read a map in realtime
-I am significantly time agnosiac
-My ability to navigate places I know very well is pretty iffy, much less new places
-I know the above well enough to struggle deviating from any initial plan, even if the initial plan deviates from me.

So it isn't a stretch at all to say that this is a thing that is not going to happen. This is an educated statement based on my knowledge of my skills and skill holes.

If I say I cannot do something, I do not need to prove to you, and myself, yet again, that I cannot do it. To demand that I show you my inability is presuming incompetence: you are telling me that I am wrong about my inabilities, and my ability to know them, until you determine otherwise. This undermines both my own agency and the ideal of presuming ability. We all have inabilities. It's ok to have inabilities-unless, it seems, you are disabled. Acknowledging a difficulty is not the same as presuming global inability. It's part of seeing me as a whole, really real person. Really real people are allowed to not be able to do things.

Proving yet again that I cannot do something so that you can say you presumed competence, even when I told you something is not a thing I can do doesn't do wonders for me, either. The chances of me waking up one day with that set of skills in infinitesimally small. Forcing me through that particular failure above rather than meeting me somewhere or giving me detailed written directions for several options? That's anxiety attacks. That is an anxiety attack squared, because being late makes me panic, not knowing where I am makes me panic, and plan changes that I have no good way of dealing with? Those are near inevitable, and also make me panic! Putting me through that because maybe I magically obtained abilities heretoforth unprecidented? That's actually really mean. Don't do that. It sucks.

The ideal of presuming competence is lovely. I am all for it. But one of the skills we need to develop, and have acknowledged, is knowing where we struggle, where we fail again and again. Do not undermine this very important skill by telling us we are able to do everything but describe our own inabilities. That's not presuming competence. That's something else.

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