Not so lucky

The other day at the college I was waiting for an elevator (lift). It’s rather slow, but a sleet storm was heading in and I was especially achy. Just a few feet away was a bulletin board for a program the college runs, including a series of non-credit weekend classes for people with Down’s and other developmental or cognitive disabilities. One of the things thumbtacked to the board was a yellowing newspaper clipping. The photograph showed a young man busy in his kitchen, with his father standing nearby, watching him. The article began by mentioning how lucky the young man is because he has resources to help him learn to live independently, to get his own apartment, to get a job to support himself, and other important things.

He is lucky.

“Lucky” is one of those stock newspaper words that seems to be required in stories about disabled people. It’s right up there with “amazing”, “inspiring”, “challenged”, “journey” and a dozen other terms that I’m blanking on just from sheer nausea factor. (I’m sure you can think of several others.) I finished reading the story by the time the elevator moseyed up to the top floor. By the time I descended three levels, I had gathered up a fair bit of annoyance.

I am beginning to hate the word “lucky”. It is misleading. It conflates different meanings together and glosses over problems.

Although the young man is fortunate to have these opportunities, he did not get them by random chance. The job training, the job placement, the housekeeping skills, the acquisition of an apartment, all of these things were thought up, initiated and followed-through by numbers of people working together across town. Not only do these efforts require people to work directly with him, they require funding and personnel to coordinate and maintain such programs for others with similar needs.

Furthermore, if he is “lucky” to have these opportunities, then that is obliquely referring to the fact that his is an exceptional case. Although some of these supports are in place, they are haphazard, irregularly funded, inconsistently applied, and highly scattered in availability.

When media stories talk about how “lucky” someone is, there is frequently a heavy implication that the fortunate event happened through some kind of random chance. It is as though the newsworthy quality resides in the propitious combination of “deserving needy person” and “unexpected good fortune”. Some of it fulfills an inner child-like need for the universe to be fair and for good things to happen to those who need them.

But another, more important chunk of it is that it quietly absolves most of society from responsibility. Things just happened by luck. Some folks are just lucky, and others just aren’t. That’s just the way it is. (Maybe if you are sincere enough and use the right charms, you can be lucky, too!) I don’t believe in “luck”. Random chance permeates all existence, but there are no quasi-magical good or bad forces or dæmons of Luck.

But think about all this, about all the things that have taken place for these needs to have been fulfilled. People worked together to make this happen. They built new social structures, working against the cultural inertia and resistance from others’ prejudices. Those structures need to be maintained and enlarged. Many more people with similar difficulties need those supports, and do not have them. As noted by the mere existance of this “astounding” newspaper article, the young man is indeed fortunate to have been one of the few who has these services available.

Luck has nothing to do with it.


  1. qw88nb88 said,

    25 February 2008 at 2:33

    That is indeed what I was meaning, Andrea Shettle.

    Lurker, I agree that such beneficial events did not just happen randomly. And I think we all agree that there is a dearth of such beneficial arrangements for many people.

    My point in writing this post about the wording of that article (and many other, similar articles) is that the use of the word “lucky” does frequently carry unwanted baggage. The fact that such additional meanings are sometimes unintended, or at best, simply unconsidered, does not remove the additional meanings. (Good intentions plus bad results still equals bad results.)

    What happens is that the inconsistency in the availability of such programs becomes an “okay” thing socially, because society has attached the random qualities of “being lucky” to those who get them. The media who continue to use words like “lucky” simply perpetuate such misconceptions.

    We all recognise the efforts on many peoples’ parts to make them happen (that’s not random chance). But assigning some of the causality for such events to random fortune removes much of the social responsibility for making them happen more consistently.

    For a completely different analogy, it’s just random misfortune that a tornado destroys a number of mobile homes in a trailer park. (Despite jokes, tornadoes have no special affinity for such.) It is not, however, random chance that the residents of the trailer park are in such mortal peril because there is not enough room for everyone to hunker down in a concrete shelter. Saying that some people lost their lives because they were “unlucky” does not fully distinguish the social responsibility.


  2. 25 February 2008 at 1:41


    I think Andrea’s point here is that the reporters are trying to say that the person in the story is lucky to have an OPPORTUNITY (without which the “success” would not have been possible). And that it shouldn’t be a matter of “luck” that such opportunities be available to people with intellectual disabilities. The same type of opportunities should be available as a matter of course. It shouldn’t be a lucky few getting those opportunities while others with the EXACT SAME CAPACITY FOR THE EXACT SAME LEVEL OF SUCCESS never get that chance and, instead, are left locked up or otherwise in a less than optimal living situation that would never be tolerated if it were perpetuated on a person without disabilities.

    And I understood (hope she’ll correct me if I’m off base) her as saying that using terms like “lucky” perpetuate the idea that it’s acceptable for these kind of opportunities to be available to only a fortunate few rather than routine. (If a non-disabled reasonably educated adult of 25 gets a job and starts renting an apartment, we don’t call them “lucky” because, *gasp* someone offered them a job, and *gasp* someone allowed them to rent an apartment. Nor do we call it “lucky” for them that the government actually decided to *gasp* do their jobs by making a very large-scale, concerted effort to stimulate the economy so more jobs would be created in the first place, including in the particular sector that a particular individual is working in. Instead, the focus there would be on, “The economy is getting better because blah blah, and one of the more recent beneficiaries is so-and-so who got a job when this company opened up a new branch in Someswheres ville; So what is it like, Joe, to be finally no longer unemployed?”)

  3. lurker said,

    24 February 2008 at 4:12

    I don’t see how splitting hairs over how someone describes a success is necessary. Just because it is described as luck doesn’t mean it is implied that it happened randomly. Maybe there is an idea that the luck is from there being concerted efforts out there to make the success happen, with the success being the intent in mind of those who did the efforts, considering these resources aren’t available to everyone afflicted. How success is reported is seldom the problem. Worrying about the lack of efforts to make things better and the false attempts to do so should be up for condemnation.

  4. 23 February 2008 at 19:13

    Lucky vs fortunate, whareverr that just word manipulation

    If you have ever experienced the total perspective vortex or extrapolated 42 from a piece of fairy cake you will realise that Hobbes notwithstanding maybe Calvin the lesser was right, forsooth as Auda abu Tai (who bore an amazing resemblance to Antony Quinn) said

    “It was written”

    The vast irony of this never escapes me, for firstly, David Lean wrote it, but could not have done so had not El Aurens reconstructed his history before, not that El Aurens had any choice in the matter either for perhaps his bastardy in those times did dictate no less a progress of exception than it did for Shakespeares Edmund, any more than Rick Mayall would have assumed the simulacritical mantle of a wayward MP had be been born in alternate times.

    It’s not our genes that determine what we shall become, but sommat way more complex to the degree that even Heisenberg because of his neurology, his historical accident and his social interaction could not have written other than he did to provoke speculation about feline indeterminacy.

    Any more than you can predict that if a Pylon falls in California, Bishop Berkeley will not be evoked by me, because how could it ever be otherwise?

    heck I could do with a bit of free will just so I can end this posting and get back to the more serious point pertained in it, in that I see in you inconsistency in linguistic usage (inevitable probably (probably here being a trope more than a mathematical instance) …) (bloody nesting brackets again)

    Well the point is we who think our selves the paragons of logic are no less prisoners of our cognition and linguistic convention than anyone else, for how is it you and I can be autistic, but that a trisomist can be described as a person with Down’s notwithstanding the semiotics of this “freudian” slip.

    Bin ich ja glucklich aber vergift und veileict vergiftig auch :)

  5. andrea said,

    23 February 2008 at 18:25

    So “lurker”, what part of this post did you not understand?

  6. 23 February 2008 at 17:33

    Why wouldn’t it be for a just reason, when she’s just explained the just reason that she is angry about it for?

  7. lurker said,

    23 February 2008 at 3:01

    I’m not sure why you are so angry about it, but I doubt it is for a just reason.

  8. 23 February 2008 at 1:06

    If we were at a meeting house, I’d be yelling ‘amen sister, amen’ … I can’t agree more, thanks for pointing this post out to me.

  9. madam ovary said,

    22 February 2008 at 18:26

    Awesome post, beautifully written. I feel “fortunate” to have found it.

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