All Depends…

Lilley sits playing at a musical keyboard, deep in concentration. She is wearing a short purple dress and her blonde hair is held up in a clip at the back. There is a black obsidian arrow hanging from a silver chain around her neck. In the background there is a blurred bokeh of Lilley's apartment.

Last Saturday night, a few of my friends and I embarked upon the task of going through a playlist of cheesy songs that one of the friends had compiled, debating the definition of “cheesy” at length, and deciding whether or not the songs on the list were indeed cheesy. The overwhelming consensus was that almost all of them were, despite the subjective nature of what does and doesn’t constitute nonedible cheese. Hey, I’ve always been open about our tendency to philosophise, but I’ve never pretended that all the topics that we choose are remotely important. Silliness is vastly underrated.

Anyway, the more I listened to these songs, the more I realised that they played perfectly into a categorisation system to which I have been giving much thought recently. The difference between, and to some extent, the maturity ranking of dependence, independence, and interdependence.

Think about some cheesy songs that you know. Many are love songs bemoaning some or other breakup, with lyrics such as “I can’t live without you”/ “please don’t leave me”/ “I need you by my side”. That communicates dependence. Then there are the angry or defiant “I will survive”/”I’m better off without you and can make it on my own”/”I don’t need anyone” types of songs. These theoretically signify independence. And then of course there are the “let’s stand together”/ “all you need is love”/”we’re all a connected big happy family” type of songs. Interdependence. I’m not (necessarily) using actual lyrics here, but I’m sure you catch my drift.

The goal of what we dubbed our “cheese and wine” evening was only to categorise songs as cheesy, or not cheesy. However, the reason that I started forming my subcategories of dependent/independent/interdependent is that I have recently been doing an online emotional intelligence course, in which one of the modules addressing interpersonal communication covered the dependence spectrum. Roughly at the same time, I came across a thread (once again on the disability community discussion Facebook group I’ve previously mentioned) where this exact thing was discussed in relation to disability.

In general (as I learned in my EQ course and in discussions about disability) dependence is not considered to be optimal. I agree. However, society tends to overvalue independence. The alternative is interdependence.

Let’s start with some general theory. Stephen Covey came up with what is referred to as a maturity continuum. We all start out as dependent on our parents or care-givers as infants or children (physically, emotionally, and in all other ways). As we get older, we progress to a state of independence, during which we learn to do things for ourselves (taking ownership and responsibility for our own physical health, thoughts and opinions, feelings, self-worth, finances, and other aspects of our lives.

According to Covey, the next step on the maturity continuum is when we reach the realisation that the best results can be achieved through collaboration, as opposed to when working alone. We have the confidence and capabilities that come with independence, but ask for help when needed, and take the feedback and perspectives of others into account. It also means accepting assistance, and simultaneously contributing towards the efforts or well-being of others with our own skills. As I’ve mentioned before, diverse workforces outperform homogenous workforces 2:1 and are more innovative, because more people bring more perspectives, skills and abilities to the table. This principle applies to most other aspects of life.

Here’s how Covey describes the continuum:

  • Dependence: When we are dependent, we operate from a “you” paradigm: “you must help me”, or “you have let me down”.
  • Independence: When we are independent, we operate from an “I” paradigm: “I can do this for myself”, or “I am responsible for my own success”.
  • Interdependence: When we are interdependent, we operate from a “we” paradigm: “we can combine our talents to achieve this goal”, or “we must decide whether to have X or Y for dinner, and who will do what”.

Eric Bernes’s theory of transactional analysis (TA) focuses on the content of people’s interactions with each other, and also holds some insights about how we operate dependently, independently and interdependently. According to TA, there are four different life positions that people can adopt, which influence how they interact. I could go into a lot more depth about what these positions signify in psychoanalysis, but for now we will only be focusing on the dependence/independence/interdependence levels.

  • I’m not OK — You’re OK: We adopt this life position when we are dependent. We see the other as capable, whilst we are not, and we need the other to help us whilst blaming them when they don’t, positioning ourselves as victims.
  • I’m not OK — You’re not OK: Often this position is also adopted when we are dependent or feeling powerless, but perceive that the person/people on whom we could depend aren’t able to help us either.
  • I’m OK — You’re not OK: This position could be adopted when we are independent, but not in a good way. It comes from a position of superiority, where we either look down on others in relation to ourselves, see them as incapable, or blame them for past failures, believing that we must stand alone in order to meet our needs.
  • I’m OK — You’re OK: This is seen as the optimal life position to which we should aspire, in which we are interdependent, trusting others and recognising each other’s worth and varying needs and abilities.

So why do these theories portray interdependence as higher than independence? Well, when completely independent, people can often struggle to ask for help, failing to recognise that others might have skills and knowledge that they don’t. There’s also the danger of becoming disconnected from the world around one’s self, and losing sight of the effects that one’s words and actions have on others. These effects can be disadvantageous not only to others, but to ourselves, as it prevents us from being able to form meaningful relationships. Too much independence can also result in loneliness and isolation. Many studies show that isolation can result in severe mental health conditions, ranging from depression to schizophrenic or dissociative disorders and dementia.

With the above in mind, why is it that society still undervalues interdependence then? This is because many people see interdependence as too close to dependence, or because the term is confused with co-dependence.

Interdependence does involve being dependent (to some extent) on others, but equating dependence and interdependence fails to acknowledge that interdependent people are still capable, give as well as take, and simply know when to admit that they might not be the absolute best at something.

Similarly, equating interdependence and co-dependence fails to draw an important distinction: Again, interdependence involves a healthy give and take, where as co-dependence is characterised by unhealthy attachments in which one or more people within a relationship are dependent on each other’s approval for self-worth, need to be needed to feel worthy, or even require the ability to control others (or to be controlled) so as to feel “okay”. Low boundaries also characterise co-dependence, whereas interdependence is based on mutual respect as well as self-respect.

When it comes to disability, independence is also generally held up as the yardstick to which one should aspire. That way, disabled people wouldn’t have to feel like “burdens” on society, or at least that’s the rhetoric surrounding it. In the thread on the Facebook group I mentioned, one disabled group member who prefers to remain anonymous commented that (in the US) this might be partly due to boot strap ideology. This is the belief that all people, despite their circumstances growing up (such as extreme poverty, or in this case, disability) can attain wealth and prosperity if they just work hard enough and “pull themselves up by their boot straps”. This idea is largely seen as outdated and false in mainstream society nowadays, but it still has a far reaching influence.

Whilst reading the thread on the Facebook group, I identified a few themes from the conversation that sum up my feelings on the matter of independence versus interdependence very well:

  • Independence doesn’t equal autonomy: Many members on the group pointed out that, in disability circles, independence is often conflated with autonomy and self-determination, but they are not the same thing. One can have autonomy and be self-determined whilst also being interdependent. Independence is being entirely free from the control or influence of others, whilst autonomy and self-determination (in my opinion) are more about having options open to you, and having the power to make choices for yourself. I may be interdependent, but I have autonomy in that I have the option of taking an Uber to meet my friends at a restaurant, asking for a lift, walking there if I know the way, or deciding to stay home because I want to. My autonomy lies in the fact that I have options. I am privileged enough to have the money to afford an Uber, and that I live in an area where Uber (or some other form of public transport) is available. I am skilled at making connections and friends, and the ones I have are the kinds of people who would not mind picking me up on their way somewhere if I asked. If I did not ask, I would actually consider myself to have less autonomy, because I would be limiting my options. In both cases, I wouldn’t be operating entirely independently, because someone else would be driving me where I need to go, but it is having the choice that makes me autonomous. If the restaurant is close, I can walk if I know the way. This is getting somewhere independently, but someone would have probably shown me the route, or walked with me once or twice before. If I decide to stay home, it isn’t because I have no way of getting to the restaurant. It would be because I chose to do so for whatever reasons.
  • True independence is a myth: Anyone who thinks they are entirely independent is kidding themselves, whether disabled or not. If you are earning your own money, you are still dependent on a company hiring you. Even if you own your own business, you are dependent on your internet service provider, or on a supply chain providing resources that were physically manufactured by others. You are dependent on roads built by others for these resources to be delivered. If your business grows, you are dependent on your employees actually pitching up for work, or on your outsourced accountant to do your books if book keeping isn’t your forte/if you don’t have time. If you order groceries for delivery, you are dependent on the people who developed whatever app you are using, you are dependent on the people picking out and packing your groceries, and you are dependent on the person collecting and delivering them. Although nondisabled people are often able to do their own shopping independently from delivery services, they often opt for delivery anyway. If not, they are dependent on cashiers, on the farmers who provided the produce they are buying, on the people who figured out the formula to make the face cream they use. Many people can cook, but they order takeout or go to restaurants where they are dependent on chefs. How many people can say they make everything they cook from scratch anyway? Do you make the dough and roll the pasta from scratch every time you make a pasta dish? Even though you might be a good gardener, do you and the residence of your apartment complex generally maintain the grounds all by yourselves? If you have a plumbing problem, do you call a plumber, or fix it yourself? I don’t know a single individual who is an amazing cook, great at cleaning, has super green fingers, is a wonderful handyman, is a financial wizard, home schools their children without any external help, knows exactly how to treat their own ailments and those of others, can defend themselves and their family if there’s an intruder, and can easily represent themselves in court. One person cannot do everything.
  • Interdependence is an adaptive trait: Interdependence is often sighted as much of how the human race survived and evolved in the first place. We learned to cooperate, and we started living in communities for protection and to share in other resources. The very act of childbearing requires two parties. I don’t mind being seen as an interdependent disabled person, because it doesn’t only mean that I need and use societal support. It also means that I am seen as someone with something to offer society. People rely on me for various things too.

So is independence bad? Not at all, but it’s all about balance. As Lisa Ferris (another member of the discussion on the Facebook group) said, learning how to do things independently has value “because it gives you more options in any given situation, but it should never mean you have to be 100% independent all the time…” She also pointed out that independence is not sustainable, whereas interdependence is.

Here’s another observation made by Lisa that I found very insightful: “Sometimes disabled people have been burned by ableist people so often, we become “independent” as a response to that trauma. We stop trusting people to treat us as equals, so we answer that by seeking independence.” This often occurs when disabled people are treated as if they are burdens on their friends, families and on society at large. It is interesting how disabled people are judged for making use of services that nondisabled people make use of all the time. An example given on the group involved ordering takeout. If a disabled person often orders in, it is assumed that they cannot cook, or are too lazy to learn. If a nondisabled person does this, there is no such assumption. But surely disabled people don’t order in because they just don’t feel like cooking, or heaven forbid, because they don’t enjoy cooking, right?

Another reason that some disabled people strive so hard for independence is because of internalised ableism. Yet another group member (Matt Langland) pointed out that it is not uncommon for disabled people to judge other disabled people for not being independent enough. I’ll admit, I have done this. My frustration comes from my tendency to project my own levels of, or desire for independence onto others. Some disabled people feel that other disabled people should do things exactly the way they do them, forgetting that there is no one single best way to get things done. As Matt put it, “People have different levels of independence which work for them depending on their skills and capabilities.” Disabled people who encourage others to be more independent do usually mean well. They just fail to realise that what works well for them might not work well for someone else. They don’t realise that their projection is sending the message that, as Matt said, anything “less” than what they themselves are doing means that the other person is not measuring up as a proper independent disabled person, and that they are dragging the names of all disabled people through the mud. If one South African or American’s actions do not reflect on the character of all South Africans or Americans though, why is it that we as disabled people insist on taking everyone else’s behaviours and society’s reactions to those behaviours upon ourselves?

Yes, there are disabled people who could be doing more to develop their capabilities. Although there are lazy members of the disabled community (as there are in every other community) this might not be the case for all disabled people who haven’t developed their skills. Many people just shy away from doing so for reasons such as a lack of confidence, or from a sense of learned helplessness. If someone was brought up in an environment where their parents did everything for them, they are less likely to know how to even go about developing capabilities. Even those of us who were encouraged to do things for ourselves as children will sometimes engage in avoidant behaviours out of a fear of failure. I know I do this sometimes.

I’ve had an interesting relationship with the dependence/independence/interdependence continuum over the years. I’m still trying to find that balance… That sweet spot. I still feel that I sometimes allow people to do too much for me that I could actually do for myself. For example, until recently, I didn’t feel like struggling with the inaccessibility of my bank app, so I allowed someone close to me to do payments on my behalf. I realised that this wasn’t serving me though, as I felt out of control of my finances. Therefore, I started figuring it out for myself, and with the help of a friend, I have managed to draw up a budget and am doing rather well. That’s where interdependence comes in. I allow this friend to help me become more independent. In turn, I help him with things that he isn’t as good at. For example, he has been struggling emotionally with various personal matters, and I’ve been using my skills to coach him through some very challenging situations.

In another example, I have a friend who is really great with computers. I suck at it. He helps me, and in turn I sometimes proof read letters or articles for him to advise him on grammar, or how to express something.

I hardly ever cook, but recently I have been trying to do so more, and to vary my recipes a little. The other night I made dinner for my close circle of friends, but I asked one of the friends to just keep an eye out to check if I’m doing things right. I didn’t allow the friend to do the cooking for me, but his watching made me feel more confident. In turn, he got dinner.

There are some things I am able to do for myself, but they are just a little harder, or more time consuming. So instead of just doing them myself, I might ask a sighted friend to help me. There’s nothing wrong with this. The problem would come in if I become complacent and allow myself to slip into the habit of letting things be done for me too often. It can also become a problem when people just take over and do things without me having asked for help, or without asking me if they can help. This too is about a balance though, because I must also sometimes accept that my friends might want to do something nice for me in the way that they would have done something nice for a nondisabled friend. When I say I’m going to make dinner, I don’t mind if someone wants to help by grating cheese, or chopping something, but if they end up doing the majority of the work, it makes me feel disempowered.

Then, there are skills that I just don’t feel the need to cultivate. I would rather spend my energy on something that I consider to be more worth my time. For example, some blind people teach themselves the skill of taking selfies. This is difficult for me, and I have friends who are actually very good at photography. The photograph that is the featured image for this post (as is the case for all the other featured images on my blog) was taken by a friend. It is of me sitting playing a keyboard, and no, I don’t know if I was playing a cheesy song or not. Either way, I am told that it’s a good photograph, and highlights my attractive physical qualities. I will never understand the perks of good lighting, angles and the like nearly as well as my sighted friends who are skilled at photography. Besides, I don’t like posing, because I photograph better when I’m being natural. Therefore, photographs are something that I am entirely unashamed of asking to be taken for me.

So, extremely long story short, there are two main points that I want to make: Firstly, I think that the crux of the matter is autonomy, and again, autonomy is not the same thing as independence. Someone once said that it’s not about how much you do for yourself, but that you are in control of what is done for you. Secondly, I’m strongly in favour of interdependence when done “right”. When I say “right”, I mean right for me, because everyone does interdependence in a different way. We are diverse creatures after all.

In conclusion, the South African concept of Ubuntu is a good way of understanding the value of interdependence. “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” means that to be human is to recognise the humanity of others. More directly translated it means: “a person is a person because of people”. Disabled people are people, just like everyone else. They ask for help, just as you sometimes do, and many are more than willing and able to return the favour.