5 Things You Should Probably Do When Someone Says “I Can’t”

Is someone in your life a Negative Nancy? Do they prattle on about their limitations, always saying stuff like “I can’t make new friends because of mental illness stigma” or “I can’t get a promotion because less qualified men keep getting picked over me”, or “No seriously, I can’t go up these stairs, do you literally see my wheelchair.”

Well, Positive Pete, here are 5 easy things you can do when someone says those two words that so inconvenience your ears: “I can’t”.

1. Shut up.

Did you know it takes a dozen muscles to smile and say “Of course you can?” What if I told you it takes even fewer to purse those love limbs and think to yourself “Gosh, maybe they said ‘I can’t’ because of societal barriers at work, or because they have something they need to express that they haven’t felt safe expressing before, or because, I dunno, they can’t.”

2. Listen

Hands up if you’ve ever said the words, “You’re selling yourself short” and the response you got was “My GOD you’re RIGHT, I never thought of it that way, all my problems are SOLVED!”

Didn’t think so. Just shh. Listen. More will be revealed than you knew was there.

Because ok here’s a weird thing I learned today: You aren’t me. Absurd, right? It turns out, and this is the really fucked up part: I’m also not you. I mean holy tits, one might almost think I have a better idea of what my limitations are than you do and vice-versa.

God (or in layman’s terms, “evolution”) gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason: So we could listen and talk at a 2:1 ratio. And hear predators/positivity police coming.

3. Say “I believe you.”

In 2002 the BC Liberal Government spent 5 million dollars auditing 62,000 people living on disability assistance to see which of us cripply cripples were lying liars.

They found 0.6% of us were committing fraud. Not. even. one. percent. They could have literally just given all of us 4 million dollars to split amongst ourselves and they would have saved a pile of money even with the fraud. Or they could’ve just trusted poor folk, but they’re rich white people, they…choose not to. *ahem*

A little infotainment for ya: The rate of welfare fraud in Ontario is, interestingly, about the same as the rate of false reports of sexual assaults Canada-wide at 3%. And yet we talk about both as though it’s more or less fifty-fifty.

Lesson: Humans are actually trustworthy people. Even when shit hits the fan. Now, say it with me again: “I. Believe. You.”

4. Apologize if your first reaction to “I can’t” is disbelief.

Look, when you tell your four-year-old to pick up their toys and they say “I can’t”, they probably actually can, unless they’re playing with a bench-press, in which case be sure their spotter is at least seven.

Still, though, listen to kids when they say “I can’t.” How in the sweet polka-dot hell are kids going to learn the value of consent if their own ability to consent isn’t respected?

“I can’t” is always rooted in at least some truth, for kids and adults alike. Even if someone says “I can’t” and you don’t quite believe it, and even if your feeling of disbelief is well-founded, it should be unsettling to you if disbelief is the first place your brain goes to when it hears “I can’t”.

Really think about that. When someone says “I can’t” do you listen for underlying reasons or immediately cast doubt? Hands down the person who said “I can’t” has had to deal with others doubting them, so apologize when you doubt them. You have nothing to lose in apologizing and they have everything to gain in being vindicated.

Also consider that the solution to an “I can’t” might be removing a requirement entirely rather than trying harder to crowbar the person into meeting it.

5. Commit yourself to disrupting ableism and considering axes of oppression you yourself might not experience.

The reason no one likes Negative Nancy is because of rumours spread by Ableist Andy.

Ableist Andy says employment barriers don’t really exist for people with disabilities, that people on welfare are lazy, and people with mental illnesses are soul sucking and dangerous to be friends with.

Ableist Andy doesn’t recognize that structural and social barriers exist, which make “I can’t” really more of a call to action than an exclamation of self-defeat. Ableist Andy is a dick who votes Conservative and watches Sun News used to watch Sun News. Don’t be an Ableist Andy, be a Compassionate Carrie. Or a Mindful Miranda, you get the idea.

And that’s it. Practice self-care, of course; it’s okay to have a limit where you listen for a while and then go “Ok, love ya bud but you have way more sex than I do, you can get laid”.

Other than that, yeah listen good and things.


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