Independence, Interdependence and Disability

admin September 14th, 2010

From “These New Old Traditions” a lovely essay by BlueJay:

There is a theme that reverberates throughout the writings of DIY’ers, off-the-gridders, and the like—it’s the notion of independence. There is a sort of pioneer spirit that drives us to train our bodies and minds to be able to go it alone. Some take pride in leaving jobs where they were beholden to other co-workers and bosses and now “work for themselves.” Others build their own shelters, ditch cars for bikes or till their own soil.

In school, I am learning about how to work with those who are disabled. There is a tool in occupational therapy called “activity analysis.” In this exercise, the occupational therapist (OT) breaks down an activity into parts in order to see exactly what skills are required to successfully wash the dishes, for example. There are motor skills required for standing at the sink and lifting plates and cups. There are cognitive skills required for knowing how to order the stages of the task. There are sensory and perceptual skills required for balance and regulating water temperature. There may even be social skills required if you are washing dishes with someone else. If you are like me, then you wash the dishes many times a day, without much (conscious) thought to how you are employing all of these skills simultaneously.


But there are other activities I do that are more of a challenge. Sometimes, when I haul my bike up two narrow flights of stairs or hang the laundry from a line hooked to the ceiling in my apartment, I think about how hard my body is working to support my “independence.” Then there are the multi-step, far more complicated tasks I do, am learning to do, or want to learn to do such as canning fruit or earning a professional degree or building a cabin. I often take it for granted that my body will carry me through these tasks and that my mind will be flexible and receptive.

So much of what I need in order to achieve these goals is invisible to me. To ride my bike I need strong legs. To hang the laundry I need to be confident in my ability to balance on a step ladder. To earn the degree I need to get to school, I need to use the machine to buy a metro card, I need to sit in class for six hours a day, I need to take notes. I feel like I do a lot of these things on my own, but it’s not really true.

I think this is a really important point.  At one of the talks I gave in Charlottesville last week, a woman stood up and observed that what I was talking about doing sounded too hard for her, that she and her husband in their 60s just didn’t want to work that hard.  And my observation is that sometimes my work is hard - just as everyone sometimes has to work hard.  But what I like about my work is that there’s a place for everyone in it - when Eric’s grandparents lived with us, they certainly couldn’t chop wood or carry water - but they didn’t need to.  They could rock babies like nobody’s business, shell peas and keep me company while I tended the babies.  Meanwhile, I could help them with the things that were hard for them.  One would imagine that a woman with three children under 5 and two elders, one seriously failing, the other with probably the average limitations of someone in their 80s would be more work - but it was less, or perceptually less in  many ways than my working alone with no company but the children.

I hear all the time the idea that one doesn’t want to be dependent on other people - the idea is expressed in our society by the idea that we should all save a lot of money, invested in the stock market, to make us “independent” if we get old, or less than perfectly able bodied.  But of course, the stock market makes us dependent too - dependent on markets and governments and other people to invest where we have.  People talk about independence as emerging from their ability to pay people to help meet physical needs if they become old or disabled - imagining that an employer-employee/resident-caregiver relationship is inherently more equitable than a family dependency. 

But there is no escaping dependency in the greater scheme of things - we depend on systems that break down sometimes whether in our bodies or out in the world.  At times in every person’s life, unless you are one of those rare folks who drops dead in full health (but that has its downside too) we will depend on another - sometimes for short periods when we are temporarily ill or disabled, sometimes for whole lives or for long parts of one.  Coming to terms with the idea of mutual dependency may be as essential as learning to be independent of institutions we deplore.

I say this often.  Every one of us will be dependent at one or more times in our lives.  Every one of us will probably need to give and offer care, and also to learn to accept it.  Learning to come to terms with this is simply a part of our lives, a part of our human condition.  Embedding ourselves in systems of reciprocity, kindness and respect is the only possible answer - there is no escaping the reality of needing others.


13 Responses to “Independence, Interdependence and Disability”

  1. Glenn says:

    We have all been dependent. We were in the womb, entirely dependent on our mothers, then we were born and were mostly dependent on our mothers, then we were children, dependent on our parents to a smaller and smaller degree as we matured. Most of us don’t remember, or choose not to remember that dependence.
    In our (contemporary industrial USA) society we tend to farm out the dependence of our elders to institutions we don’t see or don’t tend to deal with personally unless we work there. My in laws have taken care of both of their mothers and are currently caring for an older sister and a cousin who are “in the waiting room”. I fully expect that my wife and I will do the same for them (her parents) when the time comes.


  2. Eleanor says:

    You are quite right, that there are times when we are dependent on others, or they are dependent upon us. And you never know when that might change. For example, my husband was unexepctedly disabled by a severe head injury only 2-weeks after we were married (almost 20-years ago now). I never thought that he would be so dependent upon me for so much, especially not at such an early age.

    Some times it is very difficult to just get through the day. And I am very thankful for his oldest sister, whom we now live with. In a lot of ways, I am dependent upon her for support, freely given, that helps me get done what must be done. And also his other big sister, who came for a weeks visit, just to help us get some of the big jobs done, that had been waiting for months. Our lives are blessed by them, and I am so very thankful.

    And the thing is, you might be the next one to become dependent. Hopefully you won’t. But you never know the future.

  3. Jennie says:

    How do you escape the cries of “Socialism!!” that inevitable follow when you bring up the notion of mutual support and dependence?
    “I don’t want to work hard just to give my money to those that won’t work.”
    Replace money with time or food or whatever.

    It’s very frustrating.

  4. risa b says:

    We’re in our 60s. I have permanent lumbar strain, arthritis, don’t see well, and am deaf in one ear and half-deaf in the other. Beloved has that Plantar’s thingy that means “no inserts, no walk.” We thought we knew all about disability. It was us, not the people around us.

    Then: only one of our kids lives nearby — he’s high functioning autistic, but strong and steady at 27. We were beginning to rely on his strength more and more — and then he did something to his back while pumping iron.

    My gosh, one minute there’s someone there to help you stack the wood, the next, they can only watch you stack the wood, and offer to go get you a beer. This stuff can happen to anyone at anytime. My friends in wheelchairs think of the chair as the equal-opportunity disability, because you can’t know who’s going to wind up in one.

    The folks who scream “socialism” have an agenda. They don’t want the government to do for them or you, they want the “church” to do it. But their churches (the ones they seem to be espousing) ARE a kind of “socialism,” just one that gets to work around a lot of the protections we’ve worked so hard to build into this society. It can do good things, but in the end it feels to me like mainly an effort to shore up patriarchy.

    I’d love for my family to be able to step in and relegate me to shelling peas and rocking the babies when the time comes. But without TEOTWAWKI, I don’t see it. So I’m grateful for such public safety nets as we still have.

  5. Jennie says:

    Oh yea, the church always comes up in these discussions. “Let us continue our charitable giving in our church, don’t FORCE us, we’re THE MOST charitable people IN THE WORLD.” *sigh*
    I want to ask them, What about the poor/disabled/needy that don’t associate with your church?

  6. Brad K. says:

    Sharon, if nothing else, we need someone as we learn a vocation or avocation. Faith, for sure, is an expression of dependence, both on our G*d, and on those that introduce us to that faith.

    It may be that service, the better part of community, is the essence of civilization, maybe?

  7. Gardenatrix says:

    I have always been far more interested in what Wm. S. Burroughs used to call an “enlightened interdependence”. Our myth of rugged self-reliance discounts an awful lot of barns raised and casseroles shared in the process.

    (L’shana tova, by the way!)

  8. John Andersen says:

    In reply to Jennie,

    What is working for me is to ignore the stock comments about socialism or the churches take care of people.

    I’m learning at a relatively late stage in life (48 years old) that I don’t need to respond to stupidity; just do the work that I become aware needs to be done, and let that work speak for itself.

    You may well have long been at that point of thinking.

    I’m just writing this because I personally struggled for decades trying to explain these things to people around me to no avail.

  9. Jennie says:

    Thanks John,
    I’ll consider your words.
    I wish Americans actually learned how to think and debate instead of mouth the latest sound bite. I don’t have nearly as many problems with people who don’t agree with my thoughts but can intelligently articulate reasoning behind that dissent. Common ground can usually be found with such people. But the ones that only know the party talking points, it’s impossible to have ANY sort of rational discussion.

  10. Mary says:

    I’ve done my first canning over the past two weekends, and been surprised by how much easier even very unskilled help makes this work. Mom was probably not overestimating my helpfullness when I was 8-13 years old. I’m Tom Sawyering this task to the max, but still wishing that the 10 yr old next door might be enticed into service.

  11. Beth says:

    We moved from the city to the country about 5 years ago. In that time, we have gone from a suburban family-as-island existence to one that is highly interdependent: we barter with friends and neighbors, we share childcare; we ride-share; we press apples, garden and can together; we vacation together; we have even home-schooled together. This interdependence has allowed for greater financial independence: fewer trips to the market; low to no childcare/education costs; lower entertainment costs (potlucks instead of cable TV); etc.

    But, more importantly, knowing that we have a true community around us gives us the sense that we are both dependent and interdependent.

    We also have a child who is considered “disabled.” Even at age 12, she plays a vital role. In the web of community, she is quite able.

  12. Steven Earl Salmony says:

    Out of the mouths of babes….

    DARWIN LYRICS by Low Anthem

    Charlie Darwin

    Set the sails I feel the winds a’stirring
    Toward the bright horizon set the way
    Cast your reckless dreams upon our Mayflower
    Haven from the world and her decay

    And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin
    Fighting for a system built to fail
    Spooning water from their broken vessels
    As far as I can see there is no land

    Oh my god, the waters all around us
    Oh my god, it’s all around

    And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin
    The lords of war just profit from decay
    And trade their children’s promise for the jingle
    The way we trade our hard earned time for pay

    Oh my god, the waters cold and shapeless
    Oh my god, it’s all around
    Oh my god, life is cold and formless
    Oh my god, it’s all around

  13. Michelle says:

    I have discovered quite a bit about what you describe as “Embedding ourselves in systems of reciprocity, kindness and respect is the only possible answer – there is no escaping the reality of needing others.” I’ve been laid up for almost 2 weeks with… something… and without the aid of neighbors, friends, and family, I couldn’t have cared for myself, my children, or my livestock. I’ve been very, very grateful to have the help of community, and I hope that everyone’s willingness to help me is an indication that I’ve done right by them in the past (and will continue to do so in future). Thanks for reminding us of this truth - we can be interdependent, but nobody is truly independent.

Leave a Reply