Respect the “can’t”

People with disabilities and chronic illnesses will often say we “can’t” do something when technically, we can, but not without severe consequences we’re not willing to pay. Since, in my experience as a person with chronic illness and disabilities, explaining that yes in theory I could do the thing but the cost-benefit analysis does not work out for me usually results in people trying to pressure me to do the thing despite me just explaining what it would cost, I try to shut down that line of pressure by saying “can’t” instead of “shouldn’t.”

Doing this is not dishonest. I can’t do the thing, in the sense that abled people are thinking of. I can’t just pound it out and move on to the next thing. It will take too much out of me. If I do it, my day is basically over, and maybe my next few days or weeks will be wasted in recovery.

But, abled people, when they find out what I meant by the “can’t” get outraged at it, and seem to think I’m lying about my abilities. And then my can’t backfires, because they take every can’t as a “shouldn’t.” Alternatively, abled people who fall into the “The only disability in life is a bad attitude!” camp will take every “can’t” as a “shouldn’t” just on principle. That’s when the trouble begins.

Because then they start viewing every “can’t” as an obstacle to be bulldozed over. “I can’t go to that party, there will be too much smoke.” “Oh, come on, an hour can’t hurt!” “I don’t want to have an asthma attack.” “Can’t you, like, premedicate or something? You said you do that before exercise.” “That’s different – exercise improves my asthma control. Smoke will only worsen it.” “How do you know? You might get desensitized from it. And besides, it’s only an hour.”


Any reason I give, no matter how well-evidenced, is hand-waved away dismissively, and challenged with two or more “reasons” I should do it that are often not supported by anything except they want me to do the thing.

If you do this, there are two major problems with your conduct: Firstly, you’re assuming you know more than a disabled or chronically ill person about their disability or chronic illness. Unless you’re a leading expert in the field of their illness or disability, that’s is vanishingly unlikely – most people with disabilities or chronic illnesses have to become self-taught experts on our conditions, because medical professionals often think they know a lot more than they actually do about us and we have to be on our toes to challenge bad ideas (like putting a severe asthmatic on the lowest possible dose of Flovent because when well-medicated and between flareups, my PFTs are quite a bit better than average. No, the fact that I’ve lucked into avoiding permanent lung damage so far despite a long period of brittle asthma as a kid is not a argument for reducing my med load so drastically that I’d get that permanent lung damage. It’s an argument against it).

Secondly, you are not respecting the person’s boundaries and agency. They think doing the thing is a bad idea and they don’t want to risk it. Respect that. If, frex, they’re unfamiliar with the fact that the person holding the party is getting their place cleaned and making it temporarily into a non-smoking zone for the non-smokers in the party, by all means bring that up. “Oh, there won’t be smoke there! [Host] is going to clean their carpets and wash everything down and make people smoke outside so you don’t get hit by it. Would that work, or will there still be too much smoke in the upholstry for this week?” is a fine way to bring up info. Not fine is turning that info into a guilt trip: “Oh, so I guess [Host] cleaned their carpets and washed everything down just for you for nothing, then. I’ll tell [Host] they wasted six hours. God, you’re so ungrateful.”

But lacking a situation where the PWD does not have perfect information, respect their “can’t.” You don’t know what’s going on in their body this week. Maybe their allergies are really acting up, and with [Host]’s cat, they’re guaranteed to be up all night coughing. Maybe they have arthritis which is flaring up and [Host] lives on the third floor of a place with no elevator. Maybe they’ve been up every night this week dealing with complications of their condition or disability, and really just need a good night’s sleep.

You don’t know. So respect the can’t.

5 thoughts on “Respect the “can’t”

  1. richmonde says:

    You don’t have to give reasons. (Especially not if they’re all going to be “waved away”!) You can simply say “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I can’t do that. I have my reasons. You know I have health problems”. There’s no need to go into details, because they will always have a counter-argument.

    If pushed to discuss, you can say “I don’t want to go into details”. They should (should!) respect your wishes. They may not understand that “I don’t want to” means “I am not going to”.

    Bossy and dominating people are not used to being stood up to. They tend not to hear the phrases “I will”, “I won’t”, “I don’t like”, “I like”. They don’t much like hearing other people say sentences starting with “I” at all. But that’s their problem. 😉

    • ischemgeek says:

      Sometimes I can do that. Other times, I can’t, either because someone pressuring me into doing something I don’t want to do is very anxiety-provoking in certain contexts and standing up to them so bluntly makes anxiety worse (stuff that feels like peer pressure because of bullying, and stuff that feels medical because bad OT), and other times because they are my superior at work or something similar which is liable to get me fired.

      I will stand up like that when I have the spoons for it, but I won’t risk a meltdown over it (especially not if I’m in a public space), nor will I pick a battle I’m not certain I have the energy to fight – IME, if I say no at first and then give in, that makes people more likely to push me hard than if I’m able to withstand the pressure.

  2. Tyro says:

    An excellent point, and well put. Thank you for writing this.

  3. It continues to baffle me that people are so invested in what OTHER PEOPLE do…or do not do. I “can’t” understand it. I’ve always thought other people’s choices were their own, and am consistently amazed by how my choices – and I mean those such as the example you give of the party, not choices that actually impact others in significant ways – hold weight for others. Maybe I am just…autistic 😉
    Thanks for this,

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