Count on the Counterintuitive

Posted: February 24, 2010 in Disability Deliberations
Tags: , , ,

By Mark E. Smith

Among disability’s most intriguing aspects is in its capacity of proving counterintuitive – often to a point that makes one rethink human potential. See, the definition of counterintuitive is when we recognize that something is the opposite of what we expected – and that’s disability experience at its core.

Disability has a way of demonstrating one’s exceptional strengths among presumed weaknesses – and does so in ways that can seem so counterintuitive that they are mind-blowing. Literally, it’s often the case with disability that those who appear as the weakest are actually the strongest, where those who appear as the most downtrodden are actually the most empowered. Indeed, there’s a counterintuitive element to disability that turns common-sense perception upside-down.

Many would assume that an individual in a restaurant, who was using a wheelchair, fed by others, uncommunicative, with no facial expressions, strikingly incapacitated, might be an “invalid,” to the point that most waitresses wouldn’t likely even address the individual directly, probably assuming that the individual lacked cognitive abilities. Yet, through the amazingly counterintuitive nature of disability, that individual – using a wheelchair, fed by others, uncommunicative, with no facial expressions – could be among the most brilliant individuals in the history of mankind: theoretical physicist, Dr. Stephen Hawking.

While Dr. Hawking maybe an exceptional – albeit, perfect – example of the counterintuitive nature of disability, it can be part of all of our lives. In fact, in living our best with disabilities, our lives should demonstrate the counterintuitive nature of disability, much like Dr. Hawking’s does, where beneath the seeming obvious physicality of disability resides the extraordinary nature of human potential. While our lives with disability may appear on the surface to be all about what we can’t do, our lives at a more core level should be about what we can do, proving strikingly counterintuitive in their successes – even surprising ourselves, at times.

A common thought process is that as our bodies lack abilities, our entire lives likewise degrade. However, again, disability proves amazingly counterintuitive, where when we fully utilize our intrinsic capacities, it often demonstrates that the less physical abilities we have, the more capable we are, where the weaker our bodies, the stronger our other assets – mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Disability as counterintuitive truly goes to the root of adversity, where intuition tells us that adversity defeats us, where in actuality, it uplifts us, where the more we face adversity, the stronger we become – that is, when we harness our fullest potentials.

A friend of mine recently asked me about the counterintuitive nature of my life. “How is it that, as a guy with cerebral palsy, bundled up in your power wheelchair, you have all this stuff going for you,” he asked? “You work like a maniac, you’re in better shape than anyone I know from working out, you’re always there for your daughter. Meanwhile, there are all these people with no physical issues, who don’t seem to do anything. It makes no sense.”

Of, course, from my disability perspective, the scenario that my friend presented makes perfect sense: It’s not how much we have, but what we do with what we have that counts, where the counterintuitive nature of life proves that if we have less, we can accomplish more. During his first two years as a student at Cambridge, Dr. Hawking wasn’t by any means a distinguished student; however, it was when his condition, Lou Gehrig’s disease, set in and progressed dramatically that his success in academics grew exponentially. Quite literally, rather than Lou Gehrig’s disease hampering Dr. Hawking’s education, it inspired it – as he seemingly had less in life, he accomplished more.

I’m always intrigued – sometimes amused! – when those without disabilities note the counterintuitive nature of our lives. I was waiting for some friends at a bar, and a woman next to me struck up a conversation. Surely, she had already had a few drinks in comparison to my absolute sobriety, and she quickly warmed up to me. After a few minutes of conversation, she noted that she had slept with many men in her years, and her all-time best lover was a gentleman who was a quadriplegic. “He seemed to somehow understand the power of physical intimacy more than any other man I’ve known, even though he had very little feeling from the chest down,” she shared.

I was certainly a bit blushed by her so candidly sharing her experience with me, but what she was really expressing was her recognizing the counterintuitive nature of disability, where someone with limited physical abilities can prove among the most skilled lovers. Again, what initially seemed like a deficiency, she shared, actually was a proficiency beyond all others – proving completely counterintuitive.

In our own lives, the counterintuitive nature of disability can often engage others, not only enlightening them, but inspiring them, as well. It can change the way they see themselves and the world around them for the better. Disability often unleashes the extraordinary potential within all of us, and when others witness the results, it’s inspiring to all.

Yet, it’s not so important that others universally recognize the counterintuitive nature of disability experience. After all, not everyone will have the insight to look beyond the superficial facade of disability in its most blatant physical form. However, it is vital that we, as those with disabilities, embrace the counterintuitive nature of disability, where we don’t merely focus an any negatives, but recognizing the corrilating positives and potential in our lives that also come with disability. This process is accomplished by recognizing that our physical limitations are always mirrored by positive potentials, and by focusing on counterintuitive nature of disability experience – that is, the positive potentials that are inherent within us all – our lives flourish.

Make no mistake, the fact that disability routinely adds more to our lives than it takes seems at odds with common sense. Yet, when we look around at those with severe disabilities living empowered, successful lives, where among the most challenged prove as among the most successful, the counterintuitive nature of disability experience proves the seeming impossible time after time: When we truly apply ourselves in living with disability, weakness strengthens, defeat empowers, and challenge elevates. Indeed, based on its intrinsic counterintuitive nature, disability doesn’t have to limit us – it can liberate us.

Comments
  1. Carol Anne Cherry says:

    What an insightful article and absolutely the truth! I remember being with one of my kids (who lives with a disability) in a standard issue therapy session at a children’s services centre and she asked her “if you had three wishes what would they be?” She was struggling with an answer so the therapist asked me what my three wishes would be adding that “of course the first one would be to not be in a wheelchair”. I was absolutely stunned by this and told her so. It would have never occurred to me to include that as one of my wishes….health and happiness of my kids, ok, same for me, ok. I informed this therapist that I was ok in my own skin and that my disabilty, while presenting me challenges at times was just part of who I was….and I was happy with who I was…..resiliant, stubborn, joyful, almost unflappable. Come now the dissaproval and “how can you say that” from the therapist, believing that I must be really crazy. What a silly woman and worse, what a terrible attitude to project on kids with disabilities just beginning their journey. Fortunately, my kid after the session proclaimed “what a moron” re: the therapist….but still it troubled me. Mark I am the happiest person I know….everyone who knows me says the same….I wouldn’t trade places with anyone. My disability is part of what makes me me…..and at 47 I wouldn’t change a thing. Are there challenges and pain…sure but that wakes me up to the good stuff and helps me see the blessings and miracles all around me. Thanks for reminding me of this.

  2. Chuck Spilman says:

    Mark, my SCI has sharpened my abilities to the point that I now undertake responsibilities and projects that heretofore would not be in my realm of possibilities.

    My focus is more laser-like and as a wood carver, my minds is so full of artistic projects that it seems it will burst. My hope is that I can live long enough to see most of them through to completion.

    Great insightful piece , Mark.

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