“Can I go to the toilet?”

Please miss, can I go to the toilet?

Remember asking this as a kid and getting a lecture about the difference between “can” and “may”? My teachers would often feign incomprehension and say something like “Well, I’m sure you CAN go to the toilet…” and then wait for the luckless kid to get halfway to the door before finishing the sentence with: “…but I didn’t say you MAY go to the toilet.”

(“Things that confused me as a kid but make sense now” has been a theme of this blog recently, but now I’m branching out into “Things that confused me as a kid because they actually make no sense.”)

The teacher’s differentiation between “can” and “may” is based on the false premise that ability and permission are two completely separate things. But they’re not. Our ability to carry out a task is contextual. How much training and practice have we had? How much cognitive resource do we have left? Are we getting encouragement or discouragement? Are we getting help, or are obstacles being put in our way? Ability is not intrinsic. The social model of disability is a reaction to the false idea that disability is entirely intrinsic; just take that idea a tiny bit further and it becomes clear that ability is not intrinsic either.

Even with the seemingly simple example of going to the toilet, ability is not intrinsic.  Social and institutional permission intersects with how we relate to our bodies. I could give countless examples, but staying with the toilet theme: “shy bladder” and “shy bowel” are both about the intersection between “natural” urges/abilities and social/cultural permission. With both conditions, the sense that you “shouldn’t” go becomes an actual physical inability to go.  (They are not medically recognised conditions, but they are very real to the people who suffer from them.)

The harsher the institutional power structure, the more energy it puts into trying to control our bodies and how we relate to them. That’s why it is incredibly disingenuous for people who have power within institutions to pretend that ability is innate and separate from permission.

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