Ain’t Manipulatin’: People with Disabilities and the “Manipulation Myth”

Hello, readers,

If you noticed incorrect grammar in this post’s title, you should have. I never use incorrect grammar. I react to it the way Adrian Monk reacts to a lack of symmetry or cleanliness–as in, it’s not acceptable. Unless, of course, I’m dead serious about something, and right now, I am. What am I dead serious about? The manipulation myth.

I’d like to begin with a shout-out to fellow disability advocate and inspiration Kathie Snow, whose article “What’s a Behavior?” on disabilityisnatural.com inspired this post. In “What’s a Behavior?”, Kathie addresses something I’ve talked about before on this blog–the fact that when a child WITHOUT a disability displays “inappropriate” emotions, particularly anger, in any way, it’s normal. It’s a kid being a kid. But when a kid WITH a disability does the same thing, it’s suddenly a “behavior” that needs to be curbed and controlled. Written down in a “behavior plan” and monitored and punished ad nauseum, despite the fact the kid may be trying to communicate the only way he or she knows how. And I know the argument–some of those “behaviors,” like rocking, twirling, hand flapping, and so on, are “embarrassing.” Well, get over it. If you haven’t taught that child how to communicate otherwise–or given him or her a way to, such as through assistive technology–then you are the one with the “behavior problem.” And of course, some of these “behaviors,” such as biting, are harmful because they are self-injurous. Those should actually be curbed–but not without delving into the real cause, instead of saying, “It’s just the disability; they all do it.”

That’s disturbing enough. But this post is going to focus on a “behavior” children and adults with disabilities are accused of all the time, and that is arguably more harmful than the rest: manipulation.

If you have a child or other loved one with a disability, or know someone, you’ve probably heard this myth–and if not, someday, I’m sure you will hear it, because it’s disgustingly prevalent. You know, the one that goes:

“Of course Benjamin doesn’t want to cooperate at therapy. He’s manipulating you.” Then, in an aside–“You know, children with disabilities learn to manipulate at a very young age.” Or,

“Yes, Mrs. Anderson, I know Chris seems upset. But he’s doing that to manipulate so he won’t have to go to X therapy.” (Without even considering WHY Chris doesn’t want to go, IF he needs to, or IF that’s why he’s upset in the first place). Or,

“Grace claims she can’t do things to get sympathy and manipulate teachers into not making her do her work.”

Now, those of you who’ve been reading this blog know what a big proponent I am of children and adults with disabilities being treated like everyone else. And if we’re going to treat them like everyone else, we do need to acknowledge that yes, most people with disabilities are capable of some level of manipulation and might choose to use it. Manipulation itself is not what I have a problem with, because we all do it. What I have a problem with is the “manipulation argument” being used every time a person with a disability expresses negative emotion or won’t “comply.” I have a problem with the general population doing everything it can to control people with disabilities, humiliate them, dumb them down, and then accuse them of manipulation, noncompliance, and aggression when they–gasp!–fight back. And I have a major problem with “manipulation” being used as a pat answer, rather than others, who claim to care for, even love, the person with a disability, probing for real answers to why they’re doing what they’re doing. Of course, sometimes the people who really do love that person can go a little overboard, for fear that person really will become manipulative otherwise. And let me tell you from personal experience: no one likes a manipulator. But in other cases–come on. Drop the M word.

Let’s take a look at the actual definition of “manipulation,” shall we? My computer dictionary defines it as, “to control or influence somebody or something in an ingenious or devious way.” Another definition is, “to change or present something in a way that is false but personally advantageous.” In other words, to lie for one’s own gain. Synonyms for “manipulate” include “control,” “influence,” “sway,” “exploit,” and “capitalize on.”

Hey, wait a minute.

Take a look at those definitions and synonyms for me. A good look. I’ll wait.

Okay, I guess you’re back. If you took a good look, and used your critical thinking skills, I’m sure you noticed something those definitions and synonyms all have in common. Here it is: you’ve got to be smart to manipulate!

Did you catch that? Manipulation is something you have to be smart to do–yet people with disabilities are constantly accused of being stupid! Double standard much?

Here’s another problem: the idea that people with disabilities “learn to manipulate at a very young age.” Well, excuse me, but if they’re so stupid in every other way, where and how are they learning their scheming skills? This rationale lowers the capacity of people with disabilities to think and learn, to the point that anything they learn, especially manipulation, is comparable to an animal instinct.  Something’s rotten here, and it’s not Denmark.

“But Chick,” you say, “what about the people with disabilities who are smart? We can still say they’re manipulative, right?”

No, you can’t. Because (1), everyone with a disability is smart, just in different ways. And (2), manipulation is something you darn well better prove before you accuse someone–anyone–of doing it. And besides that, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Controlling, exploiting, influencing, capitalizing? Lying for one’s own gain? That’s actually what the general population does, much too often, to the very people they accuse of trying to manipulate THEM!

But the most important thing to remember about the manipulation myth is, it hurts. It can knock down a person with a disability’s confidence in his or her own emotions and right to express them. I used to get so frustrated with math that it made me cry–and was accused of manipulating to get out of doing math. In fact, I was accused of crying to manipulate people–when I didn’t have a conscious desire or thought of manipulating–so often that I lost confidence in my own right to shed tears. I lost confidence in my ability to express much of anything unless it was “I’m always happy,” to be honest.

Parents, don’t let your kids go through that. Loved ones of adults with disabilities, don’t you dare let them end up in that boat, either. Yes, manipulation exists. And yes, all people, those with disabilities included, do it. But I’ll say it again: because this argument is so hurtful, loaded, and overused, you darn well better have good evidence before you charge anyone. And not just random evidence either, like, “Well, she manipulated me one time, so manipulation must be what she’s doing all the time.” Probe. Think. Determine what the real issue might be. Make Adrian Monk proud. 🙂 And make yourself proud, because in doing so, you will not have taken the easy way out.

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