“It’s All Your Fault”: Blaming the Victim and Why it Must Stop–Now

Hi, readers,

You thought I’d disappeared, didn’t you? Well, I admit, these past few weeks have been beyond hectic. I’ve been neck deep in final projects to close out my first year of my second Master’s degree (whew, what a mouthful), have been keeping up a tough exercise regimen, and taking iron for sheer exhaustion. But here I am, and I have a new post. It sort of goes along with the victim mentality post from Good Friday, but this focuses on a new angle of that: blaming the victim.

My armchair psychologist is coming out again. I probably don’t have to give you a definition of that, because it’s just what it sounds like. And because blaming the victim is what it sounds like, you’d think people would know better than to do it. But blaming the victim happens constantly, especially in Disability World, and especially to children with disabilities. And often, the people around the person with a disability–including loving families, friends, teachers, and others–don’t even realize when they’re casting blame.

See, that’s where blaming the victim gets tricky. It sounds like a nasty, abusive thing to do. And in some cases, such as emotionally destructive relationships, it is. (Think manipulative mother-in-law, as in Ginny L. Yttrup’s beautiful book Lost and Found. Or the husband or wife who tells his or her spouse, “I wouldn’t be this way if you ____,” which makes the innocent spouse basically think he or she is a terrible person). But often, and I think especially where disability is concerned, blaming the victim has its roots in love which unfortunately gets expressed as frustration or anger. I’ll give you an illustrative example.

Let’s say that Elinor is a child with a physical disability. This physical disability makes it very difficult for her to participate in P.E. Worse than that, her teachers don’t seem to want to make the effort to modify P.E. so that it’s meaningful for her. Instead, what they tend to do is send her out in the hall to practice skills like hitting a T-ball off a cone or balancing a ball on an oversized tennis net, while everyone else plays real games. Or the teacher makes a big deal of “letting” Elinor be the referee or scorekeeper, which translates into, “Just stand there.” Elinor hates P.E., grows to hate physical activity of any kind (because it’s all about “practice” and “moving better”) and shuts down where that is concerned. She does have physical activities she likes, but no one seems interested in probing into what these are. (I’m lifting this example straight from my own unfortunate gym experience, by the way).

Here’s where it gets tricky. Elinor’s parents want her to be physically active, and know that she needs to, arguably more than most kids do. So naturally, they don’t want to exempt her from gym class. They know she’s in a bad situation and feel terrible about that, because they love their daughter. And pushing the teachers has done nothing. Once Elinor is older (and yes, physically active, because as an adult, she’s been allowed to pursue fitness her way), she asks her parents why her school-age P.E. experience turned out like it did. And the answer she gets is,

“It wasn’t all the school’s fault. You were very stubborn.”

Same scenario if the kid has another type of disability. “Alex, I know you don’t like doing reading worksheets. But you need to be more appreciative of Ms. Smith because she’s trying to help you overcome dyslexia.” Or even–worst-case scenario–“If you’d just shape up and walk/talk/act better, you’d be a lot happier.”

Now, I am not for one second denying that kids can be stubborn, act out, or just plain annoy adults. Nor am I advocating that kids with disabilities disrespect authority or refuse to do what they’re asked. Kids with disabilities, remember, are no different, at their core, than kids without disabilities, and we wouldn’t let kids without disabilities act that way. In writing this post, I’m basically saying three things:

  1. Yes, kids are stubborn, have bad attitudes, or act out. And yes, if they’re contributing to a problem between them and the school, that needs to be addressed. But:
  2. Children with disabilities are, as we know, children first. So, just like kids without disabilities, we shouldn’t be shocked when they exhibit–well, childish behavior. They may be trying to tell the adults in their lives something, in the only way they know how. If that way is inappropriate, see #1. But even so, LISTEN. And then:
  3. Stop blaming the victim. Recognize that in many cases, children and young adults with disabilities may be in a situation that’s not the ideal for them when they do act out (as in the P.E. example). Of course, exempting the kid from P.E. may not be a good answer, for the reasons I gave in the example. But rather than blaming the victim, a better solution would be to stop blaming altogether. Instead, go to the school, the caregiver, or whoever is in charge of the situation at hand, and push. In other words, Make these people do their jobs! The local gym teacher thinks it’s acceptable for your child to be shuffled out in the hall all the time or made scorekeeper? No way. You tell them, “Think outside the box. You’re one of the biggest proponents of activity and healthy lifestyles in this school. Let’s work together to make that happen in a meaningful way for my kid.” Your child’s classroom teacher constantly scolds him when his adaptive equipment jams, his computer’s battery dies, or whatever? Your child may be causing these malfunctions by not taking care of the equipment, and again, see #1. But if not, you tell the teacher, “I understand this is frustrating. I don’t want Daniel’s learning to be slowed down because of malfunctions either. But obviously, scolding him isn’t helping. What else can we do?” A lunchroom monitor complains because your child, who is learning to self-feed, makes a mess in the lunchroom? You say, “I understand you don’t want to clean up extra messes, but rather than get upset with Meg, what about adding cleanup to the feeding lessons? What about letting her clean up after lunch with a buddy?”

Also, please remember: There are two sides to every story. But the more you blame the victim, the less the person trusts you. And trust is huge when it comes to people with disabilities, because of the great amount of things they are trusting you with (which sometimes amounts to their entire lives). That person–especially if he or she is a child–may start to believe, “I can’t tell the truth about how I feel because it always ends up as my fault.” So examine your own attitudes. Outside of necessary discipline (NOT punishment, folks) are you blaming the victim? And if so, what can you do instead?


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