A person walking on a beach notices many stranded starfish. She sees someone bending to toss starfish back in the ocean one at a time and says, “Throwing back a few won’t make any difference.” As the person throws another starfish into the water, they say, “It makes a difference to this one!” – brief version of story by Loren Eiseley
The message of the original story was to act with compassion even toward voiceless starfish, even when the overall task is overwhelming. The story is now used to inspire people who provide individual services, for example to people recovering from drug addiction or requiring additional help in the classroom.
As Debbie Taub points out, the starfish story has both literal and metaphorical issues. At the literal level, stranded starfish do not live long out of the water, and would probably be harmed by the rough handling of being thrown back into the ocean.
It is also important to take a step back and ask why so many starfish are getting stranded. Is this an expected part of their lifecycle? Was it an unusual storm, perhaps exacerbated by climate change? Have human incursions on the beach and surrounding areas changed the water currents?
On a metaphorical level, we have to find out what individuals around us actually need when we try to help them, and we need to address problems at a systemic level as well.
Debbie Taub advocates for including students with disabilities in general classrooms rather than stranding them in separate classrooms or teaching them individually. As satisfying as it might be to teach a student on their own, it is more important to remove structural barriers that isolate some students.
Social model of disability
The medical model of disability says that disability is an individual problem, a failure of an individual body. The social model of disability says that individuals can have impairments, but disability results from their interaction with physical and social barriers.
An autistic child’s excited hand flapping only becomes a disability in a classroom that requires children to sit still. Individual teachers can make room for students who need to move, and we as a society can make it a priority to support each child’s growth and development in an accessible environment.
Everyone benefits from accessibility
Everyone benefits from more inclusive environments. Most children can benefit from more movement and more individual attention than they receive in a typical classroom. Children benefit from learning alongside peers with varying abilities and impairments when everyone is treated with respect and gets their needs met.
Sadly, the US has collectively chosen to starve schools and teachers of resources because some people want only some children to be treated well. It is a matter of priorities, not lack of resources.
In the physical environment, curb cuts and ramps are mandated for people using wheelchairs. Anyone pushing a stroller or rolling luggage benefits immediately. Able-bodied people also benefit by knowing we will still be able to get around if an injury or illness impairs our ability to walk.
When we look out over the vast panorama of barriers to accessibility, what can we do? Like the person on the beach, we can pause to take in the extent of the problem.
We can make it a practice to treat everyone as a whole, capable person. That is a gift in itself, and avoids the dynamic of rescuing a “small, helpless” victim with pity or contempt.
In situations where we are the ones being treated disrespectfully, we can make it a practice to interrupt bullying, reach out for support, and advocate for ourselves when we can. We do not have to become more “normal” to deserve kindness and respect.
We can make our local environment more accessible and welcoming according to the needs of the people around us. Autistic people, people with PTSD, and people with brain injuries often have sensory issues. Accommodations can include softer lighting, no loud distracting music, and using unscented products.
We do not know what an individual person needs until we interact with them. At the same time, we can generally move toward more accessibility. For example, being welcoming for people of all genders includes providing access to all-gender bathrooms. We can change the signs on the doors without forcing someone to make the request.
We can also make our environment more accessible and welcoming for ourselves. Turn toward yourself: What need or impairment can you acknowledge, what pain can you ease, what task can you make easier to accomplish? How can you be kind and welcoming to your future self?
Mindful of limits
In the starfish story, the person throwing them back was not running around trying to reach every starfish. They were doing what they could with the starfish they could reach. Even though the problems in the world seem overwhelming, be mindful of your limits, and stay within reach of your comfort zone. You are also helping the world when your nervous system is regulated and calm because your own needs are being met.
When we believe we are not good enough unless we are helping someone else, we run the risk of doing what we need rather than what the recipient needs. We become vulnerable to manipulation by people who feed us bits of approval in exchange for our time, energy, money, and care. When we can base our self-approval on just being, rather than being helpful, we can more clearly perceive and assert our boundaries around helping others.
When we make ourselves and our environment more accessible for one person, that ripples outward. When one person feels more welcome and safe, they can take more action and inspire others to action.
We can address systemic issues of accessibility by supporting and joining organizations created and run by people with disabilities. As the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network says, “Nothing about us without us.”
- “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eiseley
- “Stranded Starfish: Addressing the Systemic Segregation of Students with Disabilities“ by Debbie Taub
- Information on the Social Model of Disability from People with Disability Australia.
- Autistic Self-Advocacy Network believes that the goal of autism advocacy should be a world in which autistic people enjoy equal access, rights, and opportunities.
- In their book of essays The ABCs of Autism Acceptance, Maxfield Sparrow (formerly Sparrow Rose Jones) shares their own and others’ experiences of being autistic.
- Image by Steven Pavlov, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0. Healthy starfish (Pisaster ochraceus or Ochre Sea Star) during low tide at Cannon Beach, Oregon, US.