You are entering the Independence Zone!

Yesterday, I wrote about the phenomenon of letting children with disabilities get into trouble, or do something other than what they’re told (or forced to do, in some cases). I also wrote about the difference between appropriate and inappropriate discipline for children and young adults with disabilities. Today, I’m going to focus on one of the most inappropriate ones: scare tactics.

“You’d better cooperate at therapy, or I’ll spank you when we get home.”

“If you don’t do your exercises, you’ll never be able to walk.”

“You better start saving money for a wheelchair if you’re not going to exercise.”

“If you don’t work on your independent living skills, you will end up in a nursing home.”

“You need to practice brushing your teeth (or combing your hair, or whatever). Do you want people to laugh at you/say your teeth are rotten/say your hair is messy?”

“If you don’t meet your IEP goals this year, you won’t be able to be in class with your friends.”

Show of hands from any readers with disabilities–how many of you have heard these statements?

Show of hands from parents, guardians, educators, and others–how many of you have said them or others like them?

First of all, let me assure you: if you have said them, it’s okay. I have very loving parents, and sometimes, they used scare tactic statements like these (not in those exact words, but close). I know it was because they loved me and because of their own fear of what might happen if I didn’t do whatever it was they were pushing me to do. And I understand that, when your kid isn’t cooperating or behaving badly, you can get frustrated enough to use these tactics. Maybe, like my mom used to say, you think, “It’s the only way they’ll listen!” Maybe you’re just too shocked at your kid’s behavior to think through what you say. And yes, I did put my parents in this position as a little kid. My mother tells me that at age three, during occupational therapy, I started saying the D word out of frustration).  It doesn’t mean you’re abusive or don’t love your kid (or student, or whatever relation the child or young adult is to you). In fact, in a way, it shows your love. But these words hurt. And they’re the wrong way to show love or support to a child of any age with a disability.

Why? Well, let’s look at the first, and I think, most important reason. I’m sort of an amateur psychologist. People, their emotions, words, and actions, fascinate me. And it occurs to me that when authority figures use scare tactics, they’re really voicing their own fears. As in, “What if my kid does end up in a nursing home? What if he or she never walks, never talks, never ___? What will we–what will I–do then?” Fear is a natural emotion, and I condemn no one for it. But to project your own fears onto your child is counter-productive. It teaches them to be just as scared as you are–I feared nursing and group homes with a sick dread for years. And it paints you into a box. Who’s to say what will “never” happen? Who’s to say where your kid will or won’t end up–doesn’t your child get to make that choice, with your help when needed? And so what if your child or teen doesn’t walk or talk the “regular” way? Not everyone does, and we have assistive technology for that.

Reason two: Scare tactics are often anger-driven, negative, and therefore counter-productive, just as other forms of discipline such as spanking are. (To those of you who employ corporal punishment, now you know where I stand. We can argue in the comments section if you like). Now, my parents, and theirs before them, spanked, and probably used scare tactics, and none of us are horribly scarred. But the world is changing, and we’re all learning. And what we’ve learned is, anger-driven discipline begets more anger. It also begets hurt and resentment. As forgiving as I endeavor to be, my chest still burns when I think about my mom telling me about having to save up wheelchair money. Such an attitude may also cause your child to think, “My parents don’t care about the whole me. They care about my feet, my hands, my whatever. And whether they love me depends on how I act in therapy.” Failing that, the child may certainly think, whether you smile at them, do fun things with them, and so forth depends on their “cooperation.” It’s conditional love, and it’s the emotional equivalent of a loaded gun.

Reason three: Scare tactics may inspire one-way thinking from your child or young adult with a disability. As in, they’ll think, the one and only way they’ll get a home of their own is to learn X number of skills to others’ satisfaction. The only way they’ll walk “better” is to do these specific exercises (instead of, say, playing real games or sports, or coming up with their own fitness goals).

Reason four: Scare tactics place people with disabilities, of any age, in a position of powerlessness. Take, for example, the teacher who says his or her student can’t stay in the general education classroom unless he or she meets specific IEP goals. The real message there is: “You earn the right to be in my classroom, and if you don’t cooperate, you lose that right.”

I remember this happening to me once. I was in sophomore algebra, and my regular scribe threw her back out early in the semester. Instead of hiring a scribe with real training, the special ed program began sending in random students or Joe Schmos off the street, basically, out of an assumption that scribing just meant taking notes. One day, because of this, I got a horrific grade on a test. I began to cry uncontrollably. I was discovered in the restroom, taken to the special ed room, and left in the special ed kitchen to calm down. The message? “You’re hysterical. That behavior will not be tolerated, so until you can calm down, you stay here. Segregated.”

My chest is burning again. I’m going to yell, so bear with me. I am SICK AND TIRED OF BEING TOLD THAT PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES HAVE TO EARN THE RIGHT TO NORMAL THINGS THAT OTHER PEOPLE GET BY VIRTUE OF BEING PEOPLE. PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES ARE NOT PETS, PRISONERS, OR OBJECTS. THEY HAVE NOT DONE ANYTHING OTHER THAN UPSET YOUR PRECIOUS NOTION OF WHAT’S NORMAL AND ACCEPTABLE. JUST BECAUSE THEY CRY, YELL, MAKE BAD GRADES, OR ANYTHING ELSE DOES NOT MEAN THEY HAVE TO “EARN” YOUR RESPECT, PRAISE, OR LOVE. THAT LINE OF THINKING IS OLDER THAN MY GRANDMA! @!%#*#!

Whew. Better now. But I hope you got the message. We often treat people with disabilities as perpetual children, with an attitude of, “You can’t have what you like or want unless you earn it.” Let me ask: would you like it if you had to earn every shopping spree, dessert, or other way you treat yourself, by meeting a goal someone else wrote for you? Would you like to be punished with separation from the people you want to be around if you didn’t meet that goal? Would you like people holding those goals over your head?

No. Didn’t think so.

Reason five: Scare tactics have a sweeter, but just as dangerous side: rewards. As in, “If you don’t cooperate, X bad thing will happen (spanking, never walk, never talk, nursing home, get laughed at, etc.) But if you do, we’ll do something fun/you can have ice cream, etc.”

Now, at times, rewards can be appropriate. For example, I used to have to get BoTox shots, and I hate needles. So as a kid, my reward for getting through BoTox was a trip to the bookstore. If my parents had said, “It’s okay, honey, we’ll do something fun after this. Want to go to the bookstore?” that would’ve been fine. But what they said was, “We’ll only go if you don’t scream.”

Yes, I screamed the first time I had the treatments. But I never did it again.

So, you say, it worked. Yeah–but the unspoken message was, “It’s okay to cry, but not to scream. This expression of your emotions is okay. That one isn’t.” And, barring the fact that ten years old might seem old to scream: (1) When you’re phobic, what happens, happens. And (2), I felt censored. A reward should not be a carrot you dangle in order to censor a person with a disability in any way. Too often, I think, we approach people with disabilities like the rats in B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist lab–we pet them when they’re good, shock them when they’re bad. Or we say, “This cheese is based on your ability NOT to be bad” rather than, “This is your reward for doing something I know was hard and that you didn’t want to do.”

Stop the scare tactics. Stop treating your child or young adult with a disability as a “crip” whose behavior must be “fixed” along with the disability (which as we know, often can’t be “fixed.”) Stop the conditional love.

I hope this post encouraged you–even if it was a little scary.

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