Just Can’t Do

Wheelchair Dancer had a recent post where she was musing aloud about why a neighbor might keep refusing various opportunities “because she is a quad”. WCD and those commenting raised a variety of interesting possibilities to answer that question. It’s both a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, and reminded me of similar issues that I have encountered over the years. (What I am describing may or may not be the same kind of situation as what Wheelchair Dancer’s neighbor is dealing with.)

Granted, we all have limitations. Some of have have more limitations, and some of us have different limitations than most people. And yet, we have all encountered those people who get “stuck” on their limitations, well beyond the whole (initial) phase of learning to accept and cope with whatever the causes and effects are from those disabilities. They keep talking about what they CAN’T DO, not just as a practical reference to “no, that won’t work for me,” but as refutation to suggestions for a number of ordinary or alternative activities.

Trying to earnestly offer suggestions to such entrenched Can’t-Do frequently falls flat in a conversational game of “Yes-But”, leaving one feeling frustrated and eventually rather disinclined to continue offering suggestions.

Once in a while I run into this kind of thing with a tutee or student. It’s hard to tell if the “Can’t-Do” attitude results from general discouragement, from a perceived need to “prove” to others the reality of the issues, from a need for sympathy (no matter how spiritually un-nourishing that may be), from a perceived lack of options, or possibly even a sort of passive-aggressive form of work avoidance where constantly playing Yes-But and being a victim of circumstance is easier than actually getting anything done.

In any regard, after a while I realised that too many conversations end up in those same dreary circles. I was sick of trying to be assertively positive and encouraging the student, and of offering suggestions that kept getting dismissed because of this-that-or the other thing. Not only could I not “solve” their problems for them, they would not let me.

I finally got tired of that routine, and decided to lob the conversational ball back into the student’s side of the court, because after all, the responsibility ultimately lies with the student. In an effort to disengage from the fatiguing interpersonal games, I stepped sideways out of the dance and changed my questions and responses. For example:

“Yes, I understand you can’t do that; you have explained several times. What I need for you to do is to tell me what you can do.”

“Okay, instead of telling me about everything you don’t understand, let’s start back with the part that you do understand, and work from there.”

“You have been telling me about what people have been giving you that doesn’t work. Now, it would be more effective for you to tell me what does work that will enable you to succeed at this.”

Generally the person is so entrenched in their Can’t-Do habits that it takes several rounds of repeated querying to get out of the conversational rut. At some point, the student either begins to rally and start coming up with small bits of positives that can be built upon (lots and lots of baby-steps to break out of that entrenched mind-set), or else one eventually realises that the student is being steadfastly resistant.

At that point, it’s ultimatum time. It’s nothing personal. I just lay out the situation objectively, and explain the choices and consequences.

“Okay, what do you need to do to pass this class?” (Get a concrete, detailed answer related to grades on assignments and tests.) “You can here for tutoring as part of what you can do to achieve those goals. Telling me what you can’t do does not help us get where we need to be. If you want assistance in the material, then you need to work with the various teachers and tutors. I cannot help you unless you can focus on what you do know, what does work for you, and what I can do with you. Okay, for the next text, you need to know these definitions, and be able to answer the questions in the study guide. Where do you want to start?”

If after all that the student still spends the tutoring sessions complaining and not making progress, then I discuss the situation with the tutoring director, who may in turn give the student several options. One of those options may include suggesting revisiting medical or physical therapy services. Another may be scheduling with counselling services, as students who keep refusing to find solutions may not only not pass classes or graduate, but also will have problems with employment and relationships. There are a variety of different reasons why someone would (unconsciously) sabotage their social or work successes, but identifying and resolving those go beyond the world of teaching into the realm of therapy.

The good news is that such resistant students are very rare. Usually when people with various disabilities get stuck on Can’t-Do, they are either repeating the diminished expectations they grew up hearing, or are still in the early part of disability where the level of understanding has not gone beyond Can’t-Do into Do-Differently. Sometimes it takes persistent reassurance and similarly-challenged peers to model that such goals can be achieved.

Whining once in a while may be cathartic, but it won’t get you far — for success you’re gonna need chutzpah*.

* Chutzpah: Yiddish for audacity or nerve


  1. Elizabeth said,

    3 February 2008 at 23:21

    Sorry, mpshiel is Elizabeth from Screw Bronze – have altered account to reflect that now

  2. mpshiel said,

    3 February 2008 at 23:19

    It is interesting because I have been at both ends of this – one the one hand, I tend to be a driven person who tries to find ways to do all that I can, but also (learning late) to accept my limitations. However, I will run into people who have physical impairments, are in wheelchairs and yet the thought of like, going out of the city, or doing any sort of sport of book club is totally alien to them, there is the “Don’t you realize I’m DISABLED!” response.

    Then, of course there are the able bodied rec therapists or integration organizers who kept lobbing ideas and I get more and more frustrated while it must appear that I am actually stuck in a rut of negativity. I will say, “That kayaking, did you say it was FOUR HOURS of kayaking?” Yes, should they sign me up. No. And that rock climbing, that was an ALL DAY event? Yes, sign you up. No. What about the trip to Duncan. I ask if the transport is air conditioned. No, sign you up? No. From my point of view, I have explained my condition twice to this person who just doesn’t get it and if I go on these activities where they are in charge, I know, that I will end up in the ER, and since I have already done 4-6 activities where I went along as a “good sport” and told them my precise limitations which were not really taken seriously and then I ended up in the ER, I became VERY cautious to deal with people who don’t take those conditions seriously.

    But I can see how I would be seen as a person who is just shooting things down, because I came in thinking, “Hey this person deals with all sorts of different conditions, so I will explain my condition and she will help me find an activity within those limits” and instead it seemed there was the 6 or 8 activities which were pushed forward (I assumed to everyone that came) on the basis that they were “adaptive” and that what your condition was isn’t really as important as a positive and willing attitude.

  3. ange said,

    3 February 2008 at 15:24

    This is really tough for me to deal with. My 8 year old is such a people pleaser and so afraid of failure, that he would rather hit, scream, explode to escape even TRYING something. He’s been like this since he was a toddler. It has been a tough road, and is nothing to do with our low expectations… I am finally seeing that our love and encouragement is helping him build his confidence and to take risks and that he knows that if he “fails,” we will still be here, loving him and cheering him on just as much. It has nearly killed me trying to get the school system to see him that way (they saw him as a behavior kid who “knows better” and is attention seeking). As he is getting older and realising that things are more difficult for him, we tell Bubba that his disability (ACC) is a reason why he can’t always do certain things, but it’s not an excuse to not try. We are slowly but surely trying to get “UNSTUCK.”

    By the way, Bubba does well in the regular classroom because there are 20 other kids moving right along. He needs support, but having those models has been very important in his development. I am really trying to get the school to cultivate the other kids to become natural supports … for more than one reason.

  4. wheelchairdancer said,

    3 February 2008 at 5:35

    linked back to you.


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