Here Comes Trouble–and that May be Good: Discipline and Disability

Show of hands, readers. How many of you have ever, at any time in your lifetime, but particularly childhood for some of these:

  • Run away from your parent in a store or other public place?
  • Gone outside without parental permission?
  • Run with scissors–and lived?
  • Lied?
  • Back-talked a parent or authority figure?
  • Thrown food or an object, screamed, cried, or cursed, out of frustration, anger, sadness, or pain?
  • Made a huge mess with toys, fingerpaints, cooking ingredients, or other such things?
  • Gotten in a physical or verbal (or both) fight at school?
  • Run in the halls, slammed lockers, or otherwise acted loud and rowdy?

We all did–and I’m pretty sure it’s a safe bet that some of you are laughing as you read this list. Just in case you’re wondering, yes, I have done a few of these items too, as a kid and as an adult. Of course, most of us also faced the consequences. And unless you came from an abusive family–in which case you have my sympathies–then those consequences were probably appropriate. Let’s add another dimension to this, though. Would the same have been true for a person with a disability who did these things?

I’m going to make another radical statement: discipline and disability don’t go together well, and it’s not for the reason you’re thinking. No, I am definitely not saying that a child with a disability should never be disciplined, or that a disability is an excuse to engage in negative behavior. What I am saying is, for many reasons, children, teens, and young adults with disabilities often don’t experience discipline the same way people without disabilities do. Either they haven’t been allowed to push their limits, or when they do, it’s handled inappropriately.

I would hope you know me better than to think I’m telling you that bad behavior–sin, in my book–is okay. Lying, cheating, stealing, disrespecting parents, all of that–it’s not cool, with or without disability. But we all do it, and we all learn from it, unless we have disabilities. Take, for example, the hypothetical example of three-year-old Charity. Without a disability, Charity, a curious toddler, could easily run away from Mommy or Daddy when she shouldn’t, or go outside without permission. But if we put Charity in a manual wheelchair? Suddenly, that possibility is taken from her. She can’t get away from anybody. This means, of course, she can’t run out into the street and get hurt, or cause Mommy to have a heart attack when she loses Charity in Wal-Mart or the mall. But it also means, if Charity wants to explore her world without Mommy or Daddy right there? If she wants to get away from the playground bully pinching her or taking her toys, but can’t push her manual wheelchair fast enough? Well then, tough cookies.

Or, let’s pick another example, an older kid this time. Let’s say we have a student with a disability named Gabriel. Gabriel has an IEP stating he must reach a certain fitness goal by the end of the school year. Hmmmm…let’s call it a cardio goal, say, running a mile in 20 minutes (long time limit due to leg braces or any other walking issues). But suppose Gabe doesn’t feel like working on his goal that day? Or suppose the gym teacher says something like, “Go faster, Gabe!”, or his peers tease him. Gabe turns around and back-talks the teacher. Or he defends himself against the teasers by yelling at them or even getting physical.

If Gabe didn’t have a disability, most likely, he would be written up for back-talk and given a detention. He might be sent to the principal’s office for fighting, but ideally, the principal would understand it was self-defense and mitigate the consequences based on that. At least, I would if I were the principal. Yet because Gabe has a disability, he gets taken aside and scolded in this way: “Now, Gabe, you know better than that. You need to work on this goal so you can walk better and you should be respectful to the people trying to help you.” And the bullies? As Kathie Snow wrote in her recent brilliant article, “A Human Being Issue” (from which I got the major idea for this post), Gabe’s behavior would be blamed on his disability. As in: “Of course he hits and acts out. All kids with X disability do.”

What a flipping crock.

In addition, I believe children and young adults with disabilities are not given the option to get into trouble if they want to because of the “good little cripple” paradigm. That is, people without disabilities assume that a disability is some sort of permanent safeguard against negative or sinful behavior. Let me assure you from personal experience, it’s not. And although we would prefer that no one behave badly, it’s somewhat demeaning when we assume, “Belle would never be RUDE. The poor thing has autism,” or “Hannah can’t be loud and rowdy. She has spina bifida.” It’s just as bad, if not worse, than looking at a person with a disability and automatically assuming he or she will protest everything you do, angle for money or special privileges, or cause you trouble.

In changing the paradigm of discipline and disability, I think we need to do a few key things. First, we must understand children and young adults with disabilities are going to push their limits. It’s part of human nature. Of course little Johnny is going to run away from his mom. That’s a risk Mommy runs if she allows him to be mobile by giving him a power wheelchair or other freeing mobility device. But is it a better idea to confine him, so that he can’t get away, even if he wants or needs to? Of course Monica might lash out and say she hates her menial job, or back-talk an authority figure. But in that case, aren’t we somewhat glad that her disability doesn’t preclude her ability to stand up for herself, even if she may need to be reprimanded for the behavior itself? I underline, NOT the disability, as if it caused the behavior–only the behavior. The authors of Shut Up about your Perfect Kid mentioned that it can be considered a milestone if a child with autism tells a lie. Why? Because it means he or she has learned to view the different perspectives of different people–the perspective it takes to make up the story, tell it, and react to how it makes oneself or others feel. No, lying is not acceptable in 99.99999% of cases. Yet, we can say to the child with autism, “I’m unhappy that you lied, and there will be consequences. But I’m happy that you’re thinking about other perspectives” (or something like that).

Second, we must remember: if you wouldn’t discipline a child without a disability in X way, don’t do it to a child who has one. The extreme example, of course, would be smacking the kid or yelling at him or her to “quit whining.” But more commonly, when parents or other authority figures discipline people with disabilities, they do so with patronizing, patient-impatient reprimands, blather about goals the child or young adult is “breaking,” or other such nonsense. If you would put your young child without a disability in time-out? Do that for your child with a disability. The same is true for confiscating a teenager’s television time or phone time.

Finally, and most importantly: Don’t assume people with disabilities are out to cause trouble or break rules. But if they do, react just as you would to a person without a disability, within reason (for example, if a person with a disability ever got into serious trouble with the police, I would expect the police to be understanding and flexible with modifications needed, such as understanding that a person with autism may not make eye contact because he or she never has–not out of guilt). And where appropriate, when they do, chalk it up to experience. As the mother in the classic movie The Sandlot would have said:

“Let them climb trees, hop fences…get into trouble, for crying out loud!”


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