Ask Yourself…. What am I assuming?

With the beginning of a new school year upon us, it is a perfect time to consider our belief systems and challenge our society’s paradigms about disability. Ask yourself these questions. What do you think when you hear ‘intellectual disability’, ‘low functioning’, ‘severe sensory impairments’, ‘non-verbal’…? What assumptions do you make based on a person’s diagnosis? How do these assumptions impact on the communication supports and interventions you provide?

The prevailing paradigm in our society – the “shared world view” (Jorgensen, 2005) – about individuals with disabilities is one of deficit and low expectations. We believe that “if the student knows it, she will be able to show it” (Cafiero, 2007). When, over time, we do not see ‘evidence’ that an individual can do something, we assume this means they can’t. These judgements affect how we interact with and educate individuals with disabilities, such that

  • students are not provided with access to the general education curriculum
  • people talk with students (or even about students) in their presence as if they don’t understand
  • students aren’t supported to engage with and develop friendships with their same-age peers
  • planning for students’ futures does not consider the prospect of tertiary education or careers that consider their own interests.

Many experts in the area of special education and intervention for individuals with disabilities have written about the notion of the ‘least dangerous assumption’, first coined by Anne Donnellan in 1984. It states that “in the absence of absolute evidence, it is essential to make the assumption that, if proven to be false, would be the least harmful to the individual” (Donnellan, 1984, cited in Cafiero, 2007). Rosetti and Tashie (2002) illustrate it this way:

If I were to go fishing for a week and not catch any fish, 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.

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 would desire.

A belief system based on making the ‘least dangerous assumption’ will lead to open expectations of our students with disabilities and an underlying presumption of competence when no evidence exists to indicate otherwise. It will lead us to strive for better practice in our teaching and intervention and to assume “that poor performance is due to instructional inadequacy rather than to student deficits” (Donnellan, 1984, cited in Jorgensen, 2005). These experts challenge us to create a new paradigm, to “believe that all people are valued individuals with limitless potential” (Rossetti & Tashie, 2002).

To find out more:

Rossetti, Z. & Tashie, C. (2002). “Outing the prejudice: Making the least dangerous assumption.” The Communicator: Newsletter of the Autism National Committee.

Cafiero, J. (2007). Challenging our belief systems regarding people with autism and AAC: Making the least harmful assumptions. Closing The Gap, 26 (1).

Jorgensen, C. (2005). The Least Dangerous Assumption: A Challenge to Create a New Paradigm. Disability Solutions, 6 (3).

Video by Dr Cheryl Jorgensen:

Teaching Learners with Multiple Special Needs. Jan 26, 2014. Why “Prove it with Low Tech First” Doesn’t Work.


14 Responses

  1. Janet Jonas-Oliver says:

    Thanks Yvette, good article and I wish this could be sent to every school, every teacher and every speech therapist.

    • Yvette Theodorsen says:

      Thanks Janet. Feel free to share this message far and wide! It will be also be shared in our next ILC Tech newsletter, which is subscribed to by many schools, teachers and speechies.

  2. Catherine says:

    A great article! I agree with Janet…it should go to every school and maybe do an article for ‘The West’

  3. Caz says:

    Thanks for exposing this problem. Dangerous assumptions inhibit both the student and the teacher and limit potential for experiences to positively impact on people with disabilities. Keep up your fantastic work!

  4. Meagan says:

    Thank-you for this insight and I believe it is so true and can be applied in many day to day situations. Everyone is so different in how they approach things and how they absorb their learnings. Although someone may struggle to pick up something straight away it does not mean they are incapable. Cognitive learning can take time and with the right influence and positive enforcement, anything is possible. May I please share this insight on our Rocky Bay community forum at

    • Gail Stacey says:

      Hi Meagan, thank you for your comment. As Yvette is not in the office today I just wanted to let you know you are more than welcome to share this blog on your community forum.

    • Yvette Theodorsen says:

      Absolutely true, Meagan! I think it is generally easier for people to recognise this potential in people who may take more time to learn but CAN show they are learning. It is even harder for the many people I work with who, due to their physical and sensory challenges, are very limited in their ability to show just how much they are learning and how ‘competent’ they really are. The challenge for me is encouraging all those supporting the individual to continue to make the ‘least dangerous assumption’ in the midst of this uncertainty.
      You are welcome to share!

      • Meagan says:

        Thank-you Yvette and Gail. This is insightful information to share so hope is not lost and determination is gained. Even if learning signs are not obvious. The fact there are support people there who care if another person achieves something is enough motivation for them to overcome certain obstacles and feel a sense of accomplishment.

  5. Alison says:

    Great article, I watched a video about this recently. The million dollar question is… How do we balance this point of view with limited resources? Hopefully one answer will always be with family centred practise focussing on a child’s strengths from the very start so that they are empowered to keep trying and discovering.

    • Yvette Theodorsen says:

      Thanks for your comment, Alison. I think a true paradigm shift in our society would ensure that the much needed resources are directed towards ensuring true inclusion of people with disabilities in society – access to the same educational opportunities for all, coming from a presumption that all people can learn and are worth the investment of our resources. I think education is key to changing the ‘world view’ (yes, it takes time!) and I am grateful that the Internet and social media have increased our ability to reach people and share this message.

  6. Gail Stacey says:

    Hi Alison, thanks for your comments, I would like to see the video you mention if you can point me in the right direction.

  7. […] alternative communication (AAC) aids or devices. This reminds me of our least dangerous assumption blog post by my colleague Yvette. The least dangerous course of intervention for Shaun was an approach that allowed him to maximise […]

  8. […] have termed ‘the gatekeepers’ to augmentative and alternative communication systems. We need to presume competence and ensure individuals have access to an environment rich in language represented in ways they can […]

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