So, what does independence really mean? What is its significance in American culture?
Independence is “freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like, of others.” In American history, independence was primarily a political matter. As a fledgling nation, we wanted independence from the control and taxation of the British Empire. I support this kind of independence. In our Constitution, we have also ensured another kind of independence: Independence from the government, which is manifest in the freedom to speak openly, to organize, to arm oneself, and—all together—the freedom of self-determination. All these are good things.
But I can’t help but think our obsession with independence is a bit misguided. Sure, independent thought and free-will, with minimal governmental obstruction, are foundations of this nation—which I wholly support. But our obsession with independence has gone far beyond that, while at the same time neglecting the basic tenets of our founding beliefs. We focus less on self-determination and more focus on self-sufficiency. The less self-sufficient you are, the less valued you are, and the less respected your legal rights become.
I could write a political post about how government encroaches on independent thought and free-will, and how as a democratic republic we should actively resist. But that’s not the focus of this blog and my past side-steps into politics on this venue haven’t gone so well. Besides, I’m more concerned about the ways we distract ourselves with assumptions of human value based on a person’s independent living status. As if whether or not you can hold down a job, button up your coat, or drive a car are the true indicators of your human worth—rather than a belief that we’ve all been endowed with unalienable rights and we are all created equal.
I’ve been told that this focus on independent living is rooted in our colonial history. If people weren’t independent, they didn’t survive. But is that really true? Granted, I’m a bit removed from colonial days, but as I understand it neighbors actually helped each other back then. That doesn’t sound very independent to me. You need a barn built? Sure, you could take weeks or months and do it yourself. Maybe you could, depending on your access to assistive technologies, such as winches and levers. Or you could pass the word along to your neighbors and get a bunch of people together and get the barn built in a day. Which do you think they did? I’m sure some people made rudimentary barns and houses without help, but when help was available they used it. Why? Because life is better when you can and do get the help you need, whether it’s from technology, other people, or both
I believe in independence. I believe people should be empowered to do the things they can do, and that often means providing them with technologies and education to get them to a point of actionable power. Then, once they reach the point of success, it means stepping back and letting them do it. But, before you get to that point of success, you do need help. You need to learn, you need tools, and you need people to help you. That’s true whether you have a disability or not.
Ah, but the difference is some people, when given the tools and assistance they need, can become more independent then others! Really? How much of that is genuine potential, or lack thereof, and how much of that is appropriateness of tools and education? We assume some people are more able—or have more potential for “ableness”—than others. Yet, as a culture, we resist providing those who are deemed less able with appropriate technological and educational adaptations. How can we really know what people are capable of if we only provide a certain set of standardized tools and we only provide those to the people we think can use them? Does that reflect a belief in independence or a belief in standardization?