Ableist versus Assumption of Competence

Ableist versus Assumption of Competence.

I am going to share, what I think, are two competing ideas that have me so confuzzled. I am hoping my friends in the autism community can help explain things to me, please.

First, the definition of Competence:

This is from one blog post about it: “If you assume competence, you are giving a person the opportunity to succeed.  Does it mean that he or she will always achieve the desired success?  Not necessarily.  But isn’t it more damaging to not provide him or her with the opportunity at all? “

This is another definition: “The principle of “presuming competence,” is simply to act as Anne Sullivan did.  Assume that a child has intellectual ability, provide opportunities to be exposed to learning, assume the child wants to learn and assert him or herself in the world. To not presume competence is to assume that some individuals cannot learn, develop, or participate in the world.  Presuming competence is nothing less than a Hippocratic oath for educators. It is a framework that says, approach each child as wanting to be fully included, wanting acceptance and appreciation, wanting to learn, wanting to be heard, wanting to contribute.  By presuming competence, educators place the burden on themselves to come up with ever more creative, innovative ways for individuals to learn.  The question is no longer who can be included or who can learn, but how can we achieve inclusive education.  We begin by presuming competence.” from this about Helen Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan.

And now.. ableism.

From dictionary.com: “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.”

And another: “Ableism is a form of discrimination or prejudice against individuals with physical, mental, or developmental disabilities that is characterized by the belief that these individuals need to be fixed or cannot function as full members of society (Castañeda & Peters, 2000). As a result of these assumptions, individuals with disabilities are commonly viewed as being abnormal rather than as members of a distinct minority community (Olkin & Pledger, 2003; Reid & Knight, 2006). Because disability status has been viewed as a defect rather than a dimension of difference, disability has not been widely recognized as a multicultural concern by the general public as well as by counselor educators and practitioners.” quoted from here: Laura Smith, Pamela F. Foley, and Michael P. Chaney, “Addressing Classism, Ableism, and Heterosexism in Counselor Education”, Journal of Counseling & Development, Summer 2008, Volume 86, pp 303-309.

Okay, so ‘splain to me how my sharing an article (link to article) to someone who wanted to know WHY people were refusing to be her friend, WHY people would “throw her away”, etc. is ableist? I wrote a comment on the article posted on my timeline that stated:

(Names removed): take this with the intent I mean and not wrong. EVERYONE has traits that can annoy others or drive others away. Reading this, I recognized myself and you two on some of these things (none of us lack empathy, tho). So I thought y’all could benefit from the reading as well.”

Benefit from reading = understanding the WHY.

How am I being ableist by sharing this article with friends who have specifically mentioned this being a problem and wanting to change it?

You see.. here’s my dilemma. If you presume someone CAN control their behavior (or learn how to), you are using the presumption of competence. However, if you do presume competence, you’re an ableist. Why? I don’t get it. Please, someone help me.


4 Responses to “Ableist versus Assumption of Competence”

  1. September 8, 2014 at 11:42 pm

    Not knowing you or the person the link was sent to, all I can say is that I myself tend to find terminology like “toxic behaviors” really off-putting, if not outright offensive, when applied to people who are not neurotypical.

    I presume that article was written with a neurotypical audience in mind, because it certainly reads that way to me. The author gives no indication that they understand that changing these “behaviors” may not be equally easy for all people.

    Whether you meant to insinuate that this should be the case or not, (and it seems clear to me you didn’t, simply because you wrote this post) the author of the article seems to believe so, and I think that means it’s safe to say that this author is ableist, even if it is by omission.

    The worst thing in it I see is the statement that people with fewer “toxic behaviors” are “more evolved, balanced, and aware”- that sentence there is straight-up offensive to anyone who struggles to relate. I could be ten times more aware of what I am doing than a person who is naturally extroverted, and still have trouble. And even if I am not always as aware, how does that make me less evolved? It doesn’t, and that’s why that sentence would be offensive no matter what the rest of the article says.

    I would guess, if your friend is also autistic, or else maybe OCD or other similar neurotype, that seeing obsessing treated as a “behavior” in this article could be offensive, even though it does specifically mention “obsessing over negative thoughts”, not just obsessing.

    That section could also be seen as denying the reality of clinical Depression!!

    It would certainly be ableist to expect someone with a neurotype that tends toward obsession to control this tendency to the same extent as someone who does not have that neurotype.

    Simply telling a person to be aware that the tendency to obsess could be off-putting to neurotypicals is not ableist. It’s the neurotypicals who always expect us to adapt to them instead of the other way around who are ableist.

    The article mentioning a lack of empathy, to me, would be a big red flag, too!

    The sentence “An inability to manage your emotions is toxic to everyone around you.” could be seen as saying a totally legit meltdown is something you should have been able to control.

    That article definitely has a tone of acting like all people have an equal ability to change the way they think. Most of us probably have some ability to do so, but it won’t all be equal. Some of us will have very limited ability to do this.

    • September 9, 2014 at 6:57 am

      I truly appreciate your help here and all that you listed above. From that perspective, I can see why one would find the tone of the article insulting. So, my larger question…if we assume the competence of someone, as I’m told we should presume, are we not then being ableist? Presuming someone CAN do something?

      • September 10, 2014 at 7:32 pm

        That’s the kind of thing I’m wondering a lot about too, whether for others, myself, etc.
        (because I do even think you can be ableist against yourself, mostly internalizing what others say.)

        Yeah, that’s definitely the type of article I’ve had sent after saying I’m depressed or whatever. And I just kind of roll my eyes, mostly, rather than get mad because I assume anyone who is not a known enemy (or giving other evidence of malice like insults) means well. 🙂

        I guess one question is since everyone is at least competent at something- how competent should one assume people in general to be, but I don’t know how to know that!

  2. September 10, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    I agree with you on that last point, Kathleen. I guess the safest course would be to ask the individual in question directly, where possible.

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