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Independence: DIY and the differently abled

Many of us are discovering the joy of being able to make something ourselves, instead of just buying it. We know how a fruit grown from seed in our own yards tastes different than one purchased at a supermarket. We ascribe meaning to a gift beyond its material value and focus on the nature of the exchange itself.

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 do have strong legs. My parents gave me the genes, my mom took me to gymnastics lessons when I was four, my dad taught me how to ride a bike when I was six, and my aunt gave me this road bike a few months ago. And my friends like to exercise and eat well. Then there’s the part that comes from me, of course. My morning bike ride is a convergence of all these factors. (Not mention the roads we maintain with our tax dollars.)

Mia Mingus writes about our false notions of independence from the perspective of someone who is disabled. She explains,

It is from being disabled that I heave learned about the dangerous and privileged “myth of independence” and embraced the power of interdependence… As a disabled person, I am dependant on other people in order to survive in this ableist society; I am interdependent in order to shift and queer ableism into something that can be kneaded, molded and added to the many tools we will need to transform the world. Being physically disabled and having mobility needs that are considered “special,” means that I often need people to help me carry things, push my wheelchair, park my car, or lend me an arm to lean on when I walk. It means that much of my accessibility depends on the person I’m with and the relationship I have with them. Because most accessibility is done through relationships, many disabled people must learn the keen art of maintaining a relationship in order to maintain their level of accessibility.

To be independent of things (or too many things) is a noble goal. To be independent of people is an illusion and for most of would only lead to depression. There is art, as Mingus points out, to learning just how to craft healthy, useful, fulfilling relationships. We talk a lot about this at N.O.T. Like an OT’s “activity analysis,” we deconstruct the activities we engage in and ask just what is required of us to complete them successfully. And by successfully, I mean with joy and no harm and because it strengthens our ties to one another. The reason to home school or create your own rituals or bake your own bread is because it strengthens the bonds of interdependence among us.

Editorial Notes: Glad to see that new old traditions is getting going again after their summer break. -KS

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