I Can’t, A Polarizing Phrase

by Clint Berger 

I’m 25 years old, and I can’t tie my own shoes. It’s not because I never learned, or because I haven’t tried; It’s because I have hemiplegic cerebral palsy. It never fails, when someone without a disability sees someone with a disability struggling with something and giving up, they will likely say something to the effect of “try harder” and the person with the disability is likely to say “I can’t do that”. When someone like me says “I can’t”, no doubt, someone will say “you can do anything you put your mind to.” People have tried to teach me to tie my shoes ever since, as well as other similar mundane-seeming tasks that require two hands. The calls of “try harder” or “don’t give up” never cease. Sometimes it’s best to be the bigger person, to admit when you need help. That doesn’t mean people with disabilities should feel defeated, it just means we know our limitations.

Perhaps the worst thing about these people with the “everything is possible” attitude is the moment when they finally realize that they were wrong. They will still try to motivate us to no avail, but then they will also begin to tell us that we can’t do something. It can be simple everyday things like “you can’t lift that box” or something as big as “you can’t be a parent.” Either way, they are attempting to use motivation as a form of control. If they wanted to make their point in one sentence, it would be “You CAN’T be independent.” Part of independence is knowing when to ask for help.

As I’m writing this, there is an infomercial on TV for the “Insanity” workout, similar to P90X but it’s a 60-day program. This is a perfect example. I can’t do this workout. Try to motivate me all you want, I don’t have the physical capacity or ability to do these exercises and I know I’m not alone. I know people with disabilities are not the target audience here, but it does help me explain how people push us past limits that they don’t acknowledge in the first place until it is convenient for them to do so. People tell me all the time “just push yourself a little more every time; you’ll eventually be able to walk ten miles.” How do you know I will be able to do that? Do you know how my body works? Do you understand the pain I feel from living with osteoarthritis every day? Most likely, the people who say things like this have absolutely no idea what my limits are, nor will they know the limitations of anyone with disabilities.

Saying “I can’t” is not admitting defeat, it’s not admitting weakness, it’s admitting a natural limitation and being logical. When someone without a disability says they can’t do something, provided they are over the age of, say, ten, people will believe them. People without disabilities are allowed to have limitations but we are not, apparently. We have to be the extremely optimistic, inspirational story for everyone to gawk at and say “look at them, they didn’t give up, you shouldn’t either.” I am not that guy. Don’t look at me and say that I never gave up, because I have. I say “I can’t”, and that phrase will never leave my vocabulary like some people believe it should. What I encourage is that we try, and that we realize when something is impossible or when we need help to accomplish something. I do encourage everyone to try to exceed their limitations, but to do so safely. I encourage you to stand up and say “I can’t” too, but don’t feel defeated by it, feel accomplished that you have tried. It is a very powerful phrase though. I recommend that you only use it as I do, when your options have been exhausted and your limit has been reached. Say it like you mean it, and only WHEN you mean it. I hope I am not the only one who has this view of “I can’t”. I am who I am, and I have limitations. I try not to let them stop me, but they will, so maybe it’s better to say I like to keep the effect of my limitations to a minimum.

Perhaps the best way to end this post is to say I can’t have people in my life who don’t accept this part of me.


Previously written for Clint’s personal blog.


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