Edited to add: Part of this post was reshaped for inclusion in the article Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours published in Disability Studies Quarterly.
Quite some time ago, a parent, seeing photographs and descriptions of me, decided on my behalf that there was a richness to life that I was missing out on and would always miss out on because I am disabled, specifically autistic, specifically (in this person’s description, not a term I’d use myself) “profoundly” autistic. I wrote a response at the time, but did not have the language to articulate a fundamental difference between his assumptions and my own. Now I, at least partially, do.
Humans have only a limited capacity for perceiving and interacting with the world, and within even the broadest of human capacities, life is infinitely dense, infinitely rich, infinitely beautiful, and there is always infinitely more of it than any one human being can possibly perceive or experience. This is not to say it always looks that way, but this is always there.
That means that any human being can be filled to the absolute saturation point with this richness and there will always be more there, and their experience of this richness is not diminished in the slightest by the fact that there is always so much more of it than they could ever understand.
So, leaving aside for a moment the fact that autistic people appear to directly perceive more of the world than non-autistic people do, how does being autistic change this? How does being disabled in general change this? Even if this somehow meant that we would not have certain particular experiences that particular people associate with “giving life meaning” or “giving life richness,” surely that richness is everywhere, and not just within particular experiences that particular people find joy in.
A full, rich, and rewarding life is not defined by tallying up the experiences valued by particular people in particular cultures in particular places, and is not defined by the cognitive or physical capacities of the person living it. The world has that richness embedded deeply into it, at an infinite level of complexity and simplicity and detail, and it can be found anywhere a person looks.
As someone whose cognitive and physical abilities vary widely from day to day, moment to moment, I know that this richness is just as present when I lack the capacity to differentiate one sensation or moment from another as it is now while I am engaging in complex thought, just as present when I am fully immobilized as it is now while I am rocking back and forth and rapidly typing on my computer, just as present when I have seizures every few seconds as it is now when I am seizure-free, and just as present when I am ‘bedridden’ with pain or fatigue as now when I am active and mobile.
The problem with people’s ideas of quantifying this richness is that they completely leave out the fact that it is infinite in comparison to the broadest of humanity’s finite capacities. A similar problem happens when people try to quantify personhood. In that moment they overlook something vital about the world and people’s experience of it.