Outing the Prejudice: Making the least dangerous assumption
By Zach Rossetti and Carol Tashie
People with disabilities are people first. Because of the presence
of a disability, a person may act, get around, look, dance, smile,
read, learn, show what she knows, or communicate differently. The
key here is that this is a difference and not a deficiency. As humans,
we are all alike only in that we are all different. The fact that
society tends to create a hierarchy of these differences, by labeling
some of them deficiencies, is a manifestation of an out-dated paradigm
plagued by prejudice. This inherent prejudice against people with
disabilities means that some differences will be defined as deficiencies
and looked down upon by all of those “higher
up” on the social ladder.
What makes this even worse is that most people do not even recognize
this prejudice. It is disguised as compassion and justified as “help.” The
segregation of people with disabilities into “special” classrooms
and separate lives is justified by this paradigm of deficiency. Too
many people continue to believe that, “since they do not look
or act like us, they must not be as good as us.” This way of
thinking needs to be outed, challenged, and changed in order for
all people to be valued just
as they are.
Anne Donnellan, in her book Movement Differences and Diversity in
Autism- Mental Retardation: Appreciations and Accommodations People
With Communications and Behavior Challenges (1994), identified why
this old paradigm was not sufficient and needs to be replaced by
a more humanistic and respectful one. The key to the new paradigm
is the concept of the “Least Dangerous Assumption.”
“Least dangerous assumption” states that in the absence
of absolute evidence, it is essential to make the assumption that,
if proven to be false, would be least dangerous to the individual.
She continues by explaining that the “absence of evidence can
never be absolute evidence of absence,” and as such, it is
always safest and most respectful to make the “least dangerous
Consider it this way. If I were to go fishing for a week and not
catch anyfish, there would be two assumptions that could be made.
First, I could say “there are no fish in the lake since I did
not catch any, and I know what I am doing.” Or, second, I could
say simply that “I did not catch any fish that week, and I
will keep on trying.” The first assumption seems rather arrogant,
while the second one is more realistic and respectful. (There is
a third assumption that I could make which would be that I am not
a good fisherman, but we won’t go there).The same holds true
for students with disabilities. Imagine a child who does not talk
with the spoken word and moves around using a wheelchair. Her teachers
have worked with her for a month and have not yet seen any evidence
of what she understands. In fact, they wonder if she knows or is
aware of anything at all. These teachers can make one of two assumptions.
They can assume that “what you see is what you get” and
that this child does not know anything, that her brain is as empty
as that lake. As such, they can educate her in a way that reflects
those assumptions (perhaps segregated classes or regular classes
with low or no expectations). Now imagine her as she graduates and
uses a communication device to say, “Why did you treat me so
poorly?”. I am smart and you wasted twelve years of my life!” A
very dangerous assumption was made, with results that none of us
Now, consider the second assumption. These same teachers can recognize
that her movement differences are differences and not deficiencies.
They can assume that she knows lots and just isn’t currently
able to show what she knows. Her brain is as full of knowledge and
potential as that lake is of fish, but they just have not been able
to reel anything in yet. As such, her schooling would reflect these
high expectations and she would be considered and respected as a
valued member of her school and classes. Now again, imagine her twelve
years later at graduation, using her communication device to say, “Thank
you from the bottom of my heart to all of my teachers who believed
in me and made me feel as if I truly belonged and treated me like
all of my classmates.” This is the least dangerous assumption,
one that results in a young woman who can celebrate her full and
But consider a third scenario as well. What if we never come up
with a way for this young woman to communicate her intelligence?
What if, after twelve years as a valued and respected student in
all general education classes, we still do not know exactly what
she has learned and knows? What harm was done? What was lost? Nothing.
And that truly is the least dangerous assumption.
Understanding the concept of “least dangerous assumption” and
acting on it are two different things. The idea of considering all
people as capable and intelligent may not come naturally to some
people due to the influence of society’s prejudices against
people with disabilities. Most well intentioned adults and professionals
have been taught to believe in the out-dated paradigm and, therefore,
may make very dangerous assumptions about students with disabilities.
Many people’s first impressions of people with disabilities
are tainted by years of societal prejudice and media portrayals of
what is enviable and worthwhile. While the power of these experiences
is strong, we can no longer allow this to serve as a justification
for the perpetuation of the prejudices against students or adults
The question we should all be asking ourselves is: “Do you
really believe that the individual with disabilities is a valued
and competent and unique person?” Think long and hard about
that question. If you cannot honestly answer “yes,” then
the next question is simply, “Why?” Think about your
beliefs, your experiences, and the prejudice you have
been taught. Ask yourself how you can change those dangerous assumptions
and mindsets. Talk with people who are friends, parents, siblings,
lovers, and colleagues of people with disabilities. Listen to people
who have been segregated or devalued because of the way they look
or move or communicate. Learn everything you can about the many ways
people communicate and get around and show us who they are and what
they know. Introduce yourself to people who had labels of mental
retardation while in school, who now are able to communicate their
thoughts and feelings and tell us all, loud and clear, “I am
intelligent!” Recognize your prejudices and work through them.
It will not be as difficult as it first seems. And you will never
again make assumptions about people that result in the loss of opportunity,
experience, or respect.
All people are people first. Everyone belongs to this wonderful
life. No one should have to conform to someone else’s standards
before they are told that they are “good.” We all belong.
We all have strengths and weaknesses and our own individual potential
to be great people and to live the lives we want. We can all lead
happy and fulfilling lives, supported by those around us to be successful
adults. It is up to all of us to examine our own core beliefs and
to spread the word of the least dangerous assumption. We can no longer
allow the justification of a prejudice that is so dangerous. Now
is definitely the time to believe that all people are valued individuals
with limitless potential. Keep on fishing - the lake is overflowing!!!!
Rossetti, Z. & Tashie, C.
University of New Hampshire
Institute on Disability
10 Ferry Street, #14
Concord. NH 03301