What those with special needs can teach us about overcoming limitations

How dare we ever say what someone else can or cannot achieve?

Jessica Meins wrote a beautiful piece on her blog yesterday about ‘What the Paralympics can teach us all about limitations’. As a father who has a daughter with a chromosomal disorder, Jessica’s story about her sister who has special needs was emotive and inspiring. I loved in particular this that she said after watching her sister complete a craft race recently:

My tears were half disbelief and half pride, but mostly they were because these humans had smashed the limitations that others (and maybe themselves) had put in place for them.

After reading this, I found myself thinking about that word ‘limitation’. It sounds so definite. So black and white. So unchangeable.

To further drive home this point, here are some related words I found when looking up the word in the thesaurus:

Restriction. Curb. Restrain. Hindrance. Obstacle. Barrier.

So often we set limitations on those with special needs. We tell them what they will or won’t be able to do. We define on their behalf what is and isn’t possible.

‘You’ll never be able to do that.’

‘You’ll always have to struggle with this.’

Then I switch on the TV. And it’s the Paralympics.

And, almost immediately, I find myself asking: how dare we? How dare we ever say what someone else can or cannot achieve?

Limitations are there to be smashed. Barriers are meant to be cleared. Obstacles are supposed to be overcome.

This isn’t any of that, ‘we can achieve anything we want if we just put our mind to it’ nonsense though. None of us, special needs or not, can do anything and everything we want. Some limitations are set in stone no matter how hard we try or how positive our mindset.

But we have to be careful we don’t deprive people of the chance to thrive in life solely because we set debilitating expectations about their potential.

Eloise earlier this summer.

For my daughter, Eloise, I have to make sure that, just because she has 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome, I don’t end up inadvertently quashing her own sense of potential. It’s all too easy for me to lazily accept certain things because ‘that’s what happens with people who have 22q’.

I don’t want to be blind or blasé about legitimate limitations resulting from Eloise’s condition, but neither do I want my expectations to hold her back.

And there’s a message here for all of us. It’s not simply about making sure our attitudes don’t become an additional obstacle for those whose special needs have already given them enough of their own. It’s also about drawing inspiration from those who, with far greater barriers to overcome than we’ll ever face, have refused to accept what others told them was possible.

Maybe we’ve accepted a limitation that others told us we have, or maybe we believed it for ourselves. But not every limitation is black and white. Some limitations are not meant to be accepted. Some limitations are designed for us to smash through.

And, wonderfully, those with special needs are often the best at showing us how to do this.

Already, even though she’s only seven years old, Eloise inspires me in so many ways. Most people don’t see the day-to-day struggles she has and the pain she’s often in when they see her happy, smiling face. She just keeps going, refusing to let it stop her.

In the privacy of our own home she has her moments, of course. The tears flow. The pain feels harder to ignore. It can all seem overwhelming.

And it seems so unfair.

Why does she have to battle so much harder through life?

But battle she does. And as her dad it makes me so, so proud.

Proud because she is already inspiring me. But proud too because I know she’ll inspire countless others through the way she smashes limitations throughout her life.

100 not out

Reflecting on my summer of fiction