Disability Horizons Deputy Editor, Karen Mogendorff, explores the negative impact of the ‘yes you can’ mentality. Does it put undue pressure on disabled people to achieve more than they’re able to?
Many disabled people are raised to be as independent as they possibly can. To hold firm to the belief that they can achieve almost anything in life, if they put their mind to it. On the upside, strong emphasis on independence and achievement can help disabled people to realise their dreams. But on the downside, with this strong focus comes high societal pressure and personal costs.
This article investigates the shadow side of the societies’ obsession with independence – it may not always be in the best interest of all disabled people.
Is the ‘yes you can’ mentality best?
Let me start by saying that there is nothing wrong with striving to be as independent as possible – up to a point. Most disabled people want to lead ‘normal’ lives and are very creative in achieving their dreams and goals.
However, the strong emphasis put on the acquisition and maintenance of personal and economic independence as a lofty goal, and it does in itself have a decidedly dark side. For starters, disabled people who are not financially or personally self-sufficient tend to be depicted by the media as lazy, not trying hard enough, or even as fraudsters.
The optimistic belief that everyone can be a success if they work hard puts the blame of failure squarely on the shoulders of those who do not reach a socially acceptable level of independence. But this mindset completely ignores physical and social barriers – from inaccessible transport to disablist attitudes. There are many practices that may hinder disabled people in achieving what they want, or even living life as they wish.
To be successful it is not enough to be able to do things, one needs to better than others
The ‘yes you can’ mentality also ignores the fact that in a capitalist society one needs to do things better than one’s peers to get a job or be recognised. It is often not enough simply to be able to do something, nor is it sufficient to be good at something. One needs to be better than one’s competitors.
The competitive nature of our modern world means there will always be perceived ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Those with jobs and careers, and those unable to find employment. Those getting married and having families, and those still searching for love. The success of one is always the loss of many others.
Given that ‘have-nots’ are an inevitable part of our economic and social system, society has developed a way to take care of its ‘losers’. This often comes in the form of welfare benefits, a way to seemingly soften the negative impact of a capitalist society.
Decreases in welfare benefits are associated with the ‘yes you can’ doctrine
Disability scholars maintain that the ‘yes you can’ mentality massively affects welfare reform policies. Disability benefits have been increasingly substituted with so-called return to work benefits. This shift is believed to be informed by the idea that most disabled people should be able to get a job, if they try hard enough.
Those who do not succeed run the risk of being branded as lazy, passive or fraudulent. But employment statistics consistently tell a different story – most disabled citizens are not able to acquire gainful employment, regardless of their motivation.
The personal cost to disabled people
The ‘yes, you can’ mentality doesn’t just affect disabled peoples’ socioeconomic position, but may also cost them personally. Many disabled people have difficulty with conducting basic tasks and activities due to their chronic conditions. If you live with an impairment, day-to-day tasks, such as household chores, may cost a disproportional amount of energy or time, even if you do have all the right assistance in place. But just because some people can complete certain tasks, it doesn’t mean they should to their own detriment.
This doesn’t only hold true for household chores. For instance, someone who walks with a limp can walk, so the ‘yes you can’ mentality would assume they should walk as much as possible. However, walking with difficulty taxes disabled people much more than their able-bodied counterparts, so they need to be more selective about when they walk and when they, for example, use a wheelchair. They, and only they, know their own bodies.
Completing tasks without the use of aids, such as a wheelchair or cane, is also favourably regarded in society. This puts a negative valuation on disability aids, which leads disabled people to postpone the use of them as long as possible, even if they may help them to avoid pain and fatigue.
Moreover, aids may help disabled people to preserve energy and hold onto their functional abilities longer. But using aids and pacing oneself also violates the ‘yes you can’ ideal.
Can’t we all ‘win’?
We might all ‘win’ life if less emphasis is put on independence when it’s not actually helpful in our society in general and disabled people in particular. Independence is good as long it remains a means to an end, not a goal in and of itself.
By Karen Mogendorff