So what is potential? Is it a bottle that we fill, predestined to be a certain size at birth? Is it a balloon that stretches and deflates according to our circumstances? What, specifically, are we discussing here? Potential for what? Happiness? Wealth? Influence? Raw ability? What kind of ability?
I hear a lot of talk about potential. I want my baby to develop to his full potential. One of the reasons I was anxious about LP’s sleep apnea and his thyroid was that both conditions, left untreated, carry the very real possibility of causing permanent brain damage. I’ll be honest here and admit that one of the hardest parts about hearing the words Down syndrome was the idea of my child having an intellectual disability. So the idea of him having somehow more intellectual disability due to untreated health conditions freaked me out. The future, his potential, loomed out in front of me, constricting, because I worried that he was losing something he could have had. Lost potential.
I was wrong.
We live in an ableist world that defines potential against arbitrary values that change over time and context. A person in a wheelchair is only disabled because the majority of the world uses two legs to get around. A person who is intellectually disabled is only disabled because the majority of our society values certain cognitive skills and learning styles over others. A person who is blind is only disabled because the majority of society relies heavily on their sight. What modern day societies view as important is how we create our society. Our roads, schools, buildings, are all created with this in mind.
Judging another human’s potential through the lens of their disability is not only a futile exercise, but it creates a hierarchy of worth.
It is dangerous.
This is why new prenatal tests are a vehicle for eugenics, under the guise of medical care. This is why Ethan Saylor’s death was so tragically uncontroversial. He was judged as already so limited in his potential due to his genetic makeup that his death was worth less scrutiny than another’s. This is why parents fight to get their children included in the public school system; children with disabilities are seen as having less potential, less worth, just less. Adults struggle against an employment system that believes their work is worth less than that of their non-disabled counterparts.
If most of us had one arm and were not neurologically wired to do math, the world would have developed to favor those characteristics. Disability and a person’s potential are defined by the world’s ability to interact meaningfully with them, and not the other way around. Potential is simply a mirror, reflecting the world’s biases, but having nothing to do with an individual himself.
So let’s stop drawing lines. We are all disabled, we are all abled. We are all different, we are all typical. Let’s include each life into the web our collective potential, simply because we value human life. No one is born with a smaller bottle or balloon. Potential is potential, simply by living, no matter how we are born or how our life’s events unfold. We are all infinite by our very existence.