On Fleas, Bees, and the Presumption of Competence

If we put fleas into a jar with a lid, the fleas will, at first, jump as high as they can. But as they hit their heads on the jar lid, they will learn to jump only as high as the lid. After the lid is removed, even when the fleas are free, they will continue to jump only as high as they could before-and will never make their way to freedom.

I first heard this story about fleas 15 years ago, at a National Association of Blind Students meeting. Since then, I have met too many disabled people who have been trapped in metaphorical jars. People who have given up on their dreams, or who let others control their lives. Disabled people of all ages. Sometimes, they are still trapped under the jar lid when I meet them; other times, the lid is gone, and sometimes can’t even be named, but its effect remains strong.

This is one of the most heartbreaking things to watch. And, I think part of what makes it so heartbreaking is that these people were born with the ability to jump high. Someone, somewhere beat them into complacency. These situations are entirely preventable.

Sometimes the jar lids are made out of misplaced love or compassion. We may lower the academic standard for students with intellectual or learning disabilities out of a desire to shield them from failure or not “stress them out.” We may say we need to be “realistic” so we set limits on ourselves and each other. We might not let a person live independently or cross the street out of fear for their safety. Or, more blatant ableism may play a role. We may assume the person with a communication impairment won’t understand what we are talking about, so we exclude them or speak for them. We might discourage someone from doing a job thought to be impossible. And, in some instances, more nefarious abusive dynamics are what hold the jar lid in place.

Too many disabled people learn helplessness. But, that helplessness is not permanent. The human instinct to jump high, and the potential to do so, still remain intact. When we are nurtured out of the jar, we can learn to jump high again.

Perhaps the most powerful example of this I see is in the stories of disabled orphans adopted into loving families. I hear of parents adopting disabled children overseas from orphanages or other institutions. The children often come home with significant developmental delays from the poor living conditions and lack of attention provided in an institution. A child might come home unable to independently move or communicate. But, within a few months of coming home, through a lot of love, nurturance and targeted education, the child is moving around, using language, and beginning to control their environment. Although it may take years for these children to fully “catch up” to their potential, they often show much better outcomes than one might suspect.

How do we lift the “learned helplessness” that too often plagues those of us with disabilities? A key part of the answer is in the idea of “presuming competence” or “the least dangerous assumption”

When working across ability lines, there is often uncertainty about where a person’s capacities lie-as in the case of the developmentally delayed, newly adopted child whose potential most likely lies far beyond their present levels of functioning. When we aren’t sure what capacities a person has, we can “presume” that they are competent, or we can “presume” that they are not. If we presume competence, and it turns out that the person is unable to meet our standards, we can always adjust the standards or supports to accommodate this. However, if we presume incompetence and don’t give the individual a chance to show what they can do, we are placing a tight lid above their heads-a ceiling on their potential. That is why presuming competence is less dangerous than presuming incompetence-it’s the “least dangerous assumption”

Presuming competence is at the heart of the Disability Wisdom philosophy. When we allow disabled people to communicate for themselves and listen to what they have to say, when we respect privacy and dignity needs, when we use ordinary language, and when we treat people as experts on their own needs, we are presuming their competence. In an educational context, presuming competence means setting learning standards at a point far enough above present levels that the student is challenged, but not so high that they break. In the literature, the terms “presumption of competence” and “least dangerous assumption” are often associated with communication disabilities, such as autism, and educational settings. However, presumption of competence can apply to all disability types and all life stages. An employer who trusts an applicant’s resume, instead of questioning how they can do all the job tasks they have obviously done before; a doctor who directs questions to a disabled patient instead of their caregiver even if they are nonspeaking; and a relative caring for a 90-year-old with dementia, who respects that individual’s privacy and dignity, are all presuming competence.

“Presuming competence” does not mean forcing someone to meet nondisabled standards, or denying supports. In fact, part of presuming competence is trusting expressions of “I can’t.” That “I can’t” may be a permanent limitation (e.g., “I can’t see the blackboard”) or a temporary one (e.g., “I can’t stay in this room because my senses are overloaded”). In either case, presuming competence means trusting that individuals understand their own limitations as much as their own capacities.

The bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly-based on commonly accepted assumptions about aerodynamics. Such beliefs might parallel the conventional wisdom about disabilities often spouted by medical professionals. Yet the bumblebee is unaware of human models and equations limiting its ability. By continually flapping its wings, through an alternate aerodynamic process, the bumblebee is in fact able to fly. By the same token, it is often through a combination of internal determination and external support that disabled people will far exceed the expectations of others. We may use different means, but we can achieve the ends we want for ourselves.

As I consider my brothers and sisters trapped in their jars, and my own jar too, I see the latent potential, in each and every one of us, to start acting like a bumblebee. We can all find our way out of captivity and start flapping our wings as we determine how to get to the places we want to go. To make this happen, we must consider a cultural shift in which we presume each other’s competence always, regardless of the abilities or disabilities we see. Only then can we create a world where all of us can fly free.

To hear a high-energy song that reminds me of the bumblebee’s dance, check out Bumble Bee by Zedd & Botnek.

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