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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Spoon Theory and People With Disabilities

In a few disability blogs and Twitter "tweets" now, I've seen references to spoons: using or spending spoons, not having enough spoons to do something, and how many spoons a given a given activity uses. I just assumed it was some of disability theory with which I was unfamiliar, and I kept forgetting to look it up. Yesterday I remembered, and my research led me to Christine Miserandino's Spoon Theory.


The Basics of Spoon Theory

Miserandino developed Spoon Theory as a way to explain to her best friend how it felt to have lupus. The premise is that people start the day with spoons, and as they perform their tasks of daily living, spoons get taken away.

A person without disabilities or illness may start each day with an unlimited number of spoons, because their bodies are healthy and there's nothing to stop them (save the usual limits of what the human body can do and the circumstances imposed on them by others) from them getting done what they want to in a day.

A person with disabilities or illness, because of the physical challenges she faces, may only get ten spoons to get everything done in a day. Depending on her disability, six of them could be gone just getting ready to get out the door to a doctor's appointment. She may be able to borrow against some spoons for the next day, to be sure that she finishes the appointment, but then she might really need to rest the next day.

It's an interesting way of looking at things. I really urge you to read Masarandino's essay in full.

Looking at Spoon Theory - Where Do You Spend Your Spoons?

Looking back over the course of my recovery, I can definitely see the moments where I've had fewer spoons to spend than the average person. I think that right now I try to live like I have unlimited spoons, and I'm slowly becoming unconvinced of the wisdom of that.

My left leg and arm are much more mobile than they used to be, granted, but they're still heavier to move than my right leg. I should probably be getting more rest than I do.

I'm choosing to spend most of my spoons  on trying to write and get my business launched, and on social interaction (which I don't get a lot of and know I need more of).  And I work pretty hard. And I'm pretty hard on myself when other things fall by the wayside as all of this happens.

There's other stuff, but it's boring and doesn't need to be shared.

My point is, maybe my spoons still just aren't unlimited...as much as I'd like them to be.

I'll have to think about this some more. Read Christine Miserandino's Spoon Theory essay.  Here's the link again:


Image credit: songbird839 / 123RF Stock Photo


  1. Lucky the people who don't know they have a limit on spoons. Very best of luck in the meantime with the business push. If my meagre resources are of any use in pushing it further I would be delighted to help.

  2. Thank you, Nick - that's a very kind offer. :)

  3. I actually think that nobody has unlimited spoons. It's just that healthy or nondisabled people have so so so many more.
    Before the Spoon Theory came into existence, I used to try to explain my "fatigue" (such a pathetic word for "massive exhaustion") in terms of bank accounts: Some day I start with $5, some days $1, some days 10 cents, some days 2 cents. Some days I write checks my body can't cash and then I'm overdrawn for x number of days/weeks/months. But it was a long, cumbersome explanation, and inevitably someone would say, "But NOBODY has UNLIMITED energy." And then I'd say, "Right, but where they have $1000 in their energy account, I have 10 cents."
    So, some people might have hundreds or thousands or a hundred-thousand spoons, like a marathon runner might use all their spoons that day.
    I lurve the spoon theory because it's such an easy, almost universally understood shorthand now in the online disability/chronic illness world. It takes fewer spoons to explain being spoonless!

  4. Sharon, the "unlimited spoons" stuck with me, too. I started to think of my sister, whose energy levels are very depleted after a day with my nine-month-old niece, and who often doesn't wake up fully rested, and thought, "She, as a person without disabilities, doesn't have unlimited spoons." It just seems to me that life circumstances can...must...limit our spoons, as very few people in the world have lives that allow their bodies to function 100% optimally 100% of the time.

    I like your bank account analogy. It works better for me than the spoon analogy in some ways, particularly in explaining what happening when you get into an "overdraw" situation. But "I'm out of spoons" definitely gets the point across more effectively and concisely!

    Thank you so much for commenting, Sharon. :)

  5. I was puzzled when I had started hearing people posting about this theory in the last few years as I had heard of this theory from friends with MS in the UK, or individuals with AIDS.  I wondered, 'Was there perhaps a business model spoon theory?'

    but I have noted that reading it aloud on youtube was early 2007, another printing than her current blog was 2006 so perhaps it is the case of an idea or essay becoming popular in one area, then going silent, then gaining popularity again - as it has in the last two years. 

    I think any way to help explain basic disability energy management is a good thing.  For a person who used to work 14 hour shift then work the second job that day, and do that for years, as well as take a degree, the well of good health seeming unlimited is true.  People who run marathons come to work the next day - that's not life with Lupus or MS. 

    But then spoon theory doesn't really help people understand relapsing/remitting where someone goes from bed or wheelchair prolonged back to walking.   It is a model, but like all management models, I hope that more simple to understand models will be added over time and also help able bodied individuals gain understanding.

  6. Another great point, Beth (wonderful to see you, by the way!) Society tends to be hard on people who only need a wheelchair sporadically...saying that they must not really need it if they're not in it all the time. "Today I have the spoons/don't have the spoons" doesn't seem to fully capture the entire issue, particularly when chronic pain is involved. But it's these sorts of issues that force models to evolve, yes?