Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Special needs adoption from a Jewish perspective.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

More about potential

I seem to have sparked something over at Kimchi Latkes.....

Overall, we are saying the same thing -- that all people, whether "typical" or "disabled" -- have strengths and challenges, which need not be quantified, and which do not detract from personal worth.  All people ultimately have infinite potential, and can be treasured for their individuality. Yes!  I totally agree!

But I think that this part is misguided:

If most of us had one arm and were not neurologically wired to do math, the world would have developed to favor those characteristics. 

I would say that most people think of themselves as "not wired to do math".  As a math teacher, this math-phobia is a constant struggle for me in my work with students of all ages (and their parents!).  Does this mean that we do not see mathematicians as having extra potential in this area? People do not not have the ability to fly, and we fantasize about superheroes with this ability! If a person were born with this ability, would it not be universally recognized as added potential?

Also, if in fact no potential was lost with disabilities, then why would we bother with medical, therapeutic, and technological measures to restore it?  I am extremely nearsighted.  If glasses had not been invented, I would be functionally blind, and my potential would definitely be diminished.  I could not drive or do most sports, participation in an ordinary classroom would be nearly impossible, and even ordinary tasks would be challenging.  With glasses, I am considered able-bodied.  One of the things that I find so exciting about T21 is that progress has been so rapid in the restoration of lost potential that we have no idea of how much further we will be able to go.  This is a good thing!

I also believe that this is not limited to people with "disabilities".  As we agreed earlier, all people have strengths and weaknesses. The struggle around how much to put into "normalizing" the child comes from the same parental headspace as how much to push a child into sports, music lessons, extra enrichment etc. vs. "letting them just be kids".  To what extent do we try to "maximize our children's potential" vs. celebrating them "just the way they are"?

Getting back to those balloons.  I think that what these "potential balloons" really represent is a combination of our abilities and our self-image. As parents, we try to inflate our children's balloons as much as we can without popping them.  We want our children to have the greatest potential they can. As adults, we can sometimes continue inflating our balloons. Usually though, we go in a particular direction and hit the latex. This may or may not be related to a "disability", but it is always a struggle.

In general, when faced with an area of struggle, we have three choices.  We can look for ways to overcome the difficulty, either alone or with education/medicine/technology. We can accept our level of performance in that area and focus on other areas where we have strengths.  Or we can redefine our standard to whatever our level is and try to get society to accept our definition.  All three of these strategies have their place!  There are definitely areas where society's definitions impose limits which deserve to be shattered, and doing so will improve society.  But the first two are the means to improving ourselves.


  1. I think there is a difference between medical issues that can be treated, and the disability. There is some overlap, of course, but the distinction is important.

    I for one, have a very difficult time with the new research going on to "treat" T21. While I think that it is worthwhile, I think it is very easy for others to see my child as wholly defined by his genetics and see him as something to fix. I want my child to be healthy, but I have no interest in taking away that extra chromosome. You'll find this as well, in the Deaf ccommunity, for instance. Medical advances have created cochlear implants, but many individuals reject their use, instead choosing to embrace their difference.

    If you did not have glasses (and I'm not suggesting you throw them away), I'd argue that your potential would not be diminished one bit. There's nothing about you being able to see that would lessen your ability to impact, better, and thrive in the world.

    More to my point is that I think this is a very dangerous discussion when it comes to disability. It is easy to think of potential as mainly quantifiable with disability/ability, but this is the very logic that people like Collin Brewer will use to justify why those with disabilities are not worthy of life, rights, services, etc. Some people would very quickly assert that because an individual has too much disability, they're not worth life, and that kind of logic begins in the assertion that an individual's potential is compromised by their disability.

    Sorry about the not linking. Sent you an email. Thanks for sparking the discussion. :)

    1. Oops. Sorry, that should be "there's nothing about you NOT being able to see..."

    2. I think that the problem is with conflating "potential" with "value". We have value as human beings. Religious folk might say that we have value because we are made in the image of G*d. Atheists might say that it's our common humanity. "Potential" refers to what we envision as possible for ourselves. I see myself having the potential to do many things that I can't do at the moment (fly a plane, speak Korean, or juggle more than 1 ball....) but not the potential to do others (leap over tall buildings in a single bound, spin straw into gold, etc.). Some things I have the theoretical potential for, but not the realistic potential: Running a 4-minute mile, speaking Korean without an accent (I have a very poor ear for accents, and still have an accent in English after living here since age 9) or becoming President (I was born in NYC, so citizenship is not an issue, but it's still not realistic). None of these have any relevance to my value or worth as a human being.

      My potential to "impact, better, and thrive in the world" would absolutely be impacted if I had a significant visual impairment with no glasses, braille, or other accommodations. I would not be able to access the means of education and communication, or I would be able to do so with great struggle. I could still love and be loved, etc. and my value as a human being would not be diminished, but my potential absolutely would be impacted.

      I am not talking about "taking away the extra chromosome". I am talking about surgery, orthotics, speech therapy, educational modification, and on and on, all geared to overcome the challenges posed by specific "medical issues": Heart defects, low muscle tone, auditory processing issues, etc. What I find amazing is how, when these "medical issues" are addressed, people who might have been "written off" by society are able to express themselves fully -- and "impact, better, and thrive in the world".

      "Ido in Autismland" shows the same kind of relationship. Without the appropriate technology, there was no way for a severely autistic person to interact with others. When the communication gap is bridged with an iPad app or its equivalent, both the autistic and neurotypical people benefit from the expanded possibilities.

      Potential is not the same as value.

  2. I think we may end up agreeing to disagree on this. I think your potential would be impacted if you became blind only in that we live in a very ableist world that allows very limited room for PWD. I guess I would agree with a more precise statement, that wearing glasses only expands your potential to see with your eyes. General potential to "impact, better, and thrive" in the world? No, I truly don't think you'd have any less potential there.

    I do agree with you though, that there is an overlap between what I see as simply difference, and good health. We chose to give my son synthetic thyroid medication because we didn't want him to feel tired and awful, have uncomfortable skin issues, etc. I don't want his brain to be damaged either, but like I said, I realized that I was focusing on something that wasn't worth my focus. And honestly, had his brain been damaged, I don't think he would have any less potential as a human being. I do think there are more sticky ethical areas, and I ponder those quite a bit. And yes, I very much agree with you that technology has done quite a bit for PWD, but there is a very important question as to how much technology should be used to bring PWD into what is "normal" (hate that word), and how much we should focus more on simply celebrating difference.

    I also have issue with some of the surgeries, therapies, etc that are offered to (and sometimes pushed upon) those with disabilities. I think there is a place for them, but for me personally, I wouldn't describe my desire to participate (limited as it is) as a desire to "maximize potential". I really do think that potential is infinite no matter what. Our current world just has narrow ableist, capitalist-centered ideas as to what defines potential.

    I do think I understand what you are saying. I recognize the whole point of your original post was to reaffirm each individual's value. I am understanding that you are trying to draw a distinction between potential with value, but I think that is where we must shake hands and logically part ways on this topic.

    1. If in fact you see "potential" and "value" as referring to the same thing, then in fact there is nothing further to discuss on this topic.

      I'll give it one more chance, though. You say,
      "I guess I would agree with a more precise statement, that wearing glasses only expands your potential to see with your eyes."

      My potential to see with my eyes also impacts my potential to do anything that relies on -- or is made easier by --vision. I would not be able to drive, recognize people or objects at a distance, appreciate 2-D visual art, or read anything that hadn't been printed in Braille. My potential to do those things in turn impacts my potential to do anything that relies on, or is made easier by them. Which covers a lot of human endeavors.

      If I were blind, I would probably hone my other senses, and develop skills that do not depend on vision in order to participate more fully in the world. So yes, I could then "impact, better and thrive in the world" in other ways, but that does not change the fact that many ways to do so would have been blocked off -- not because the world is ableist, but because the actual ability to do those things would not be there. I explained this in the post: With any struggle (such as poor vision), I can find a way to compensate (wear glasses); or develop myself in other ways (find a niche for myself where vision is not crucial); or change society (mandate use of Braille and other accommodations). We need to do all three in different contexts. All of them increase human potential. They are worth doing because all humans have intrinsic value and are worth investing in their potential.

      That's also why I gave the examples of extra-ordinary abilities, whether exceptional performance of regular activities, or an imagined "superpower" like flight or x-ray vision. People who have such abilities have the potential to "impact, better and thrive in the world" in ways that the rest of us cannot. They do not have greater value -- just greater potential. "With great power comes great responsibility"... We have all seen people with great ability waste their lives, or abuse their abilities in the service of evil. Once again, their potential does not give them any extra measure of intrinsic human worth.


      (btw, what does capitalism have to do with it? Do you prefer the way that communist nations treat PWD?)

  3. Sorry, I'm not sure what I should say here. If that is how you choose to see potential, so it is. I don't agree with it and I think it is a slippery slope to stratify ourselves based on our abilities, future or current. I could go through your last post and respond to each point, but honestly, I'm not sure how productive it'll be and I do think that you and I agree on most of this topic. Which is good, right? ;)


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