What My Grandfather and His Dog Taught Me About the Fallibility of “Can’t”

I was recently gifted with some old family home videos. Watching them triggered a flood of memories of my grandparents. And I can’t think about my grandpa Dave without being reminded of one strange conversation that lives in infamy inside my mind.

My paternal grandparents, Ina and Dave, lived just a few miles from us, and they provided a lot of childcare for my sister and me. We spent many after-schools and weekends at their home. I often recall my sister being in the TV room with Grandma, while Grandpa and I would sit on the couch in the living room and argue about life.

Grandpa was smart as a whip, caring in his way, but stubborn. He held his convictions tightly. And I-well, I was insatiably curious, highly logical, and some might have called me “feisty” as a child. It took a while for my emotional and practical intelligence to catch up to my book-smarts. And, as you will see in a moment, I took things very literally.

So, Grandpa and I would debate about everything. We went back and forth, but he would always win. He had literally ten times as much life experience as I did, and far surpassed me in verbal reasoning skills. Plus, he held clear authority in our relationship. Regardless of who was right and who was wrong, only one of us could play the “go to your room” card, and it wasn’t me.

So, he always beat me. Except this one time.

It was such a significant life event for me, I remember the date: September 16, 1992. A Wednesday just after I had started the second grade. On this Wednesday afternoon my sister and Grandma were otherwise engaged, and I was on the couch happily cuddled up with my grandparents’ little Yorkie/shih tzu dog, Archie.

For the life of me, I don’t recall how Grandpa and I got on this topic. But, I vividly recall him telling me that “dogs can lick people, but people *can’t* lick dogs.”

I insisted this was untrue. Because, technically, people *can* lick dogs! I explained that humans and dogs both have tongues, and if a human has a tongue, she definitely *can* lick a dog.

Grandpa’s rebuttal was biblical. God created animals and humans separately, he said. God intended for humans to have dominion over animals. Animals and humans are different, so even though animals can lick us, we *can’t* lick them. God said so.

I figured out what I had to do. Believe me, I really didn’t want to do it, because I knew where Archie had been playing out in the yard. And I was terrified of the repercussions for openly defying Grandpa. But, I knew I was right. People *can* lick dogs, darn it. I needed to beat him, just this one time.

So, silently, I leaned down to Archie on the couch. I stuck out my tongue just far enough, and I licked him. For those who want to know, he tasted-well, about how you’d expect.

And then I sat up and braced myself for the scolding, or disciplinary action that would inevitably follow my sassiness. And….Nothing happened. After an agonizing moment of silence, Grandpa changed the subject. Surely, I thought, I’d hear about it later from Mom and Dad. But no, we had a nice dinner that night, with no mention of my unhygienic adventure.

There are several explanations for my victory. Perhaps Grandpa just didn’t see me do it. Perhaps he did, but decided to just let it go. But, I choose to believe that the incident taught both of us a lesson in the fallibility of “can’t.”

A “can’t” statement is like a scientific hypothesis. It is very hard to prove, but very easy to falsify. All it takes is one counterexample, one demonstration of ability, one silly little girl licking a puppy on the couch, to prove that something is possible. That something might be difficult, it might only be possible under certain conditions, it may not always be desirable, it might go against commonly accepted conventions. But, technically, if one person does something, it “can” be done.

The disability world is dominated by “can’t” statements. And some of them are valid. No matter how hard I try, I can’t read the writing on your T-shirt or tell you what color it is. Some people truly cannot walk, speak, hear, or breathe without assistance. Or they can do these things only with great effort or expense.

But then there are so many other “can’ts” that are unnecessarily placed in our way by outsiders. Sometimes, people insist we “can’t” because they’ve never seen a disabled person succeed at the thing, or they lack the imagination to consider how the thing could be done. Others create artificial barriers-physical, environmental, attitudinal, or policy barriers-making our participation in certain activities impossible. Still others simply don’t want to depart from how things have always been done-which, to me, is similar to the biblical argument “because God said so.”

We need to question the “can’ts” leveled at us. We need to examine where they come from, and what factors could turn them into “can” possibilities. We need to not just accept what authorities tell us.

Let’s consider the common statement about how blind people “can’t” drive automobiles. Technically, I “can” drive a car. I did it once in an empty parking lot with a ton of verbal guidance from my dad. Could I drive a car on the highway without crashing? Maybe, but I’m not going to test that hypothesis. Based on how much sighted drivers rely on vision to gauge their position relative to other drivers, I think there is fairly strong evidence that my driving on the highway could be dangerous.

But what I can do is examine what conditions would need to be present to overturn the “can’t.” What would allow a blind person to drive on the highway? In fact, blind people have been asking these questions for a while now. The National Federation of the Blind has developed some ideas of technology that could enable a blind person to drive. Now that autonomous vehicles show some promise, we are in discussions to ensure that such vehicles will be fully accessible to drivers with disabilities.

When I reflect on that long-ago moment with Grandpa and Archie, I think about the experience of all those who committed civil disobedience to fight for the rights I have today as a disabled American. Those people had far more to fear than a time-out from Grandpa. Some of them went to jail, or risked doing so, to guarantee that disabled people could access public spaces. The act of civil disobedience is risky, messy, and uncertain. But when we know we are on the right side of justice, sometimes it’s worth it. In our movement today, we cannot become complacent. We must rely on the younger generations to question what may seem to us like long-accepted truths. Our quest for equality depends on the agitators, or as Grandpa would say, the “smart-alecs” among us. I didn’t like being called a “smart-alec” at the age of seven, but today it’s a label I carry with pride.

There’s one more layer to this story. Grandpa was a disabled man. He had chronic arthritis from age 17 on. He was also the son of Lithuanian immigrants, growing up during the Great Depression, and the first of his family to go to college. Grandpa found a successful career as an accountant that made use of his brain instead of his legs. But, undoubtedly, he was subjected to many “can’ts” throughout his life. Some he overcame, but others persisted. Likely, he was told he “couldn’t” do things that my generation takes for granted. My defiance of authority is a privilege that Grandpa didn’t have in his youth. I wonder what “can’ts” I accept as fact today, that will seem ridiculous when I reach my 70s.

Grandpa died just before I started middle school. I have often wondered what it would be like to have an adult conversation with him. I wonder if he will like my spouse, or approve of my career. I don’t know these things, but I am grateful for the intellectual sparring matches we had in my childhood. I am glad he took the time to engage my mind. And I hope I can use it to make him proud.

3 thoughts on “What My Grandfather and His Dog Taught Me About the Fallibility of “Can’t”

  1. I am glad that I know you and I admire your accomplishments.
    “From something bad, comes something good.”

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