What Part of NO Don’t you Understand?: The Truth about People with Disabilities and “NO”

Hello, readers,


It’s one of the first words we learn as toddlers, and for most of us, it’s a word we use with gusto during that “terrible twos” phase (which, as I’ve heard, can stretch into the terrible threes or fours). It’s a word some people, especially women, and especially in Christian circles, have trouble saying–and meaning–the older they get. Because as we know, God called us to serve, and if you say no to service, even if you’re already doing five other things, you’re supposed to feel guilty, right? Wrong. But that’s a whole other topic. The point is, we have all learned the word “no,” and even though some of us don’t act like it at times, we know how and when to use it. Most of us also know there are times when “no” is the only proper or safe answer. But for people with disabilities, the sad reality is, in 98% of cases, it’s as if this word doesn’t exist. It’s the word they are not allowed to say. It’s also the word a lot of their loved ones are not allowed to say, because to tell an “expert”–and people with disabilities’ lives are, as we are aware, stuffed with experts–“no” is to be noncompliant, in denial, aggressive, grieving, or something equally as ridiculous.

I used to think that this was expected, even okay. For example, I knew I was never supposed to disrespect parents or teachers, and that translated to therapists as well, because they too were in authority over me. So to say “no” to something they wanted to do was not an option. My parents could say it, but not me. Fortunately, for the most part, I had therapists who knew what they were doing, and none of those therapists were abusive or neglectful. But as I write this post, I keep thinking about that two-year-old boy–you know, the one whose mother basically said, “Cooperate (allow this therapist to pull and jerk on you, even if it hurts) or get a spanking.” As in, “You can say ‘no,’ but that ‘no’ will be punished. When you say ‘no,’ it means nothing. We will still do what we please to and with you.”

Now, the first time I heard this particular story, I thought, yeah, right. Kathie Snow has got to be kidding. She’s just another of those bleeding-heart permissive parents who let her son manipulate her into taking him out of therapy, and now she badmouths everybody who chooses to do things differently. I didn’t come to that concluison on my own, either; I had help. I thought, surely it’s irresponsible, even ungodly, to give in to a child with disabilities just because they said “no.” And when I spoke to my mother about this, she basically said, “Parents have the final say over children, period.” (She did NOT mean children have no rights, but she, like me, wondered if all this “disability is natural” talk was proporting that we give children whatever they want because of disabilities). Plus, I was always taught that therapy was supposed to hurt. In other words, if your leg muscles pulled when someone stretched them, it was just because they were tight. If your braces hurt, well, that’s what they were supposed to do because they were new, or because they were getting your feet in the “right” position, which your feet were not used to.

Armed with this, I sent an email to Kathie to ask her: Isn’t therapy supposed to hurt? And, how can therapy be bad? I wouldn’t be able to do the same things I can do today if I hadn’t had therapy.

I don’t remember the exact response to that email, but I do remember two things. Kathie challenged my thinking that I wouldn’t “be where I am today” without therapy, because, had other methods even been explored? And, she said, there was a difference between natural stretching and actually hurting a child during therapy. Grabbing, jerking, and yanking on a kid’s legs is hurting him; I don’t care who you are or what your views on child-rearing, corporal punishment, etc. are. And that little two-year-old should have been listened to when he basically said, NO.

And yet, so often, when someone with a disability says “no,” it means nothing. It doesn’t even register as significant. “No,” from a person without a disability, means “They don’t want or need to do that. Let’s respect that” (or, in the case of children, it could mean, “Yes, you still have to do this thing you don’t want to, but I respect that you’d rather not.”) I think that’s the key difference. When a person with a disability of any age says “no,” there is no respect involved. There is no consideration that, “Maybe we should listen” or, “Yes, you still have to go to therapy, go to the doctor, whatever, but I understand how you feel.” Instead, the knee-jerk response tends to be, “She’s being noncompliant.” “He’s being manipulative.” “He’s not following his IEP, IHP, or behavior plan/goals.” In other words, other people say “no” because they have freedom of choice and expression. Other people say “no” because there is a legitimate reason for those feelings. People with disabilities say “no” because they are by nature belligerent, manipulative, whiny, and noncompliant.

Doesn’t that make you sick? It makes me want to puke. It kind of reminds me of people throughout history who said, “Blacks are scientifically inferior” or “Jews have no real moral conscience.” So why do we look at people with disabilities, and do virtually the same thing to them? Why are they consistently pigeonholed as rebellious or whiny? Where is THEIR freedom of choice and expression?

I wasn’t going to blog this until later on, but after yesterday, I knew I had to. Yesterday, one of my Facebook friends posted an article about a public school in Waupun. One of their classrooms utilizes a “Quiet Room” for students who misbehave. According to the Fox News article on this Quiet Room, it is located behind a concrete wall in a standard classroom. It “measures seven feet deep by five feet wide and stands just under eight feet tall.” This room has no chairs and no ventilation. The floor is tile. The walls are–get this–padded. The room locks when someone holds a handle from the outside, meaning that often, the use of the “Quiet Room” takes two teachers–one to get the kid in there, and one to hold the lock.

Superintendent Donald Childs says the “Quiet Room” is very common in public schools and is used to calm children who are out of control. Really? Up until recently, I’d never heard of a school with such a thing. Plus, the only child mentioned as being put in this room is–you guessed it–a child with a disability. Tyler Rennhack has Asperger’s Syndrome and has been placed in the Quiet Room as a consequence of his “meltdowns,” as they are called.

If the story stopped here, I’d be upset enough. Locking a child in what amounts to a box, for any behavior, is not acceptable, whether or not the child has a disability. But it gets worse. When Tyler’s mother probed into what was going on at her son’s school–frankly, I’m surprised she was able to do so without breaking someone’s nose–she was told that her son was “being disruptive,” so he was put in the Quiet Room. What constituted disruption? Apparently, Tyler was pacing around, saying “no, no, no,” and exhibiting “trigger behaviors” for a meltdown.

What a crock.

One, I think we need to seriously reexamine why pacing around the room is disruptive. Certainly, students cannot learn if, say, half their classmates are jumping on desks, destroying property, and swinging from the ceiling a la Tarzan–but none of that was happening. Tyler’s pediatrician said the boy was not engaging in any “provocative” behavior at all. Perhaps Tyler is in fact a kinesthetic learner who needs to move around in order to learn best. It happens–some children can move around, touch classroom objects, and not appear to be paying any attention–but then they remember everything the teacher says and respond well to lessons and activities. And some of those children have disabilities, but some do not. My point is–when did it become the norm for children to be “able to learn” only while sitting straight up at a desk for six hours a day, with little or no physical activity, breaks, and so forth? (It’s like, we take away recess and P.E., and then we complain about, and blame kids and parents for, obesity and “behavior issues.”) Moving around the classroom did not warrant locking Tyler Rennhack in a box.

Secondly, why was Tyler saying “no, no, no?” Yeah, could’ve been what is called “stimming” in the world of the autism spectrum–but if that’s the case, it is a NATURAL behavior for a child on that spectrum. It is not harming anyone. And suppose it wasn’t stimming? Suppose Tyler was really saying no to something important–well, guess who wasn’t listening? And guess what message this boy received? Right–Saying “no,” and not abiding by the way we tell you to learn, is bad, and you will be put in the Quiet Room for it.

Thirdly, Sueprintendent Childs defended the teachers’ reaction to this incident by saying the room’s door was closed for a “very few minutes.” But psychologists have recently discovered that if you “restrain and seclude” a child, as happened to Tyler Rennhack, you actually cause the body to “mimic physical feelings that occur during trauma” (!!!!) Yeah, great job, Teach. Wanna pay for my kid’s counseling? Didn’t think so.

The superintendent also displayed a condescending and rude attitude toward Tyler’s mother, quoted as saying, “I know she’s not happy with [the punishment]…she’s never been happy with it.” Which tells me that this had been going on for awhile, and yet no one in that school system cared to listen to what mother and son were saying. Mrs. Rennhack was essentially brushed off as, so to speak, another complaining parent with a spoiled kid.

Here’s what gets me about this whole thing, though. Fox News also provided a transcript of a recording between Tyler and his teachers (with Mom in the background, trying to explain his behavior was not a risk). Tyler was described as “causing [classmates] not to learn.” And his teacher said, “You may come out WHEN YOU ARE COMPLIANT.”

You know what, I am sick of that word. Now, I am all for obedience, but not at this level. Not when the alternative is anger-driven, emotionally abusive punishment (or punishment of any kind, because punishment, unlike discipline, is driven by aggression and anger at the punish-ee). And I am sick of people with disabilities, children and adults alike, constantly being labeled as “noncompliant.” As in, “They don’t play by our rules. They don’t do what we sanction as ‘normal.’ They are different. And “different” means disruptive, combative, and a nuisance, by definition. These people must be controlled!”

Oh. So what you mean is, they do things differently from you? In a way that, perhaps, you don’t understand? And because you’re intimidated by what you don’t understand, you will react to it with anger and aggression–the same reactions you accuse people with disabilities of? You’re saying that children and adults with disabilities must be punished because they dared tell you “no?” Because they wanted or needed something other than what you were willing to provide? You’re saying that, for everyone else, you know what “compliance” is, because they “comply” naturally–but people with disabilities are, by nature, unable to comply, so you will determine FOR them when they have obeyed, and then, only then, will you lift the punishment?

It’s laughably ridiculous. It is, in fact, thoroughly sickening. And it needs to stop, before someone else gets hurt. So say “no” to “compliance” and “behavior plans” and all this other junk. Say “yes” to treating people with disabilities as individuals–with different learning styles, needs, wants, and ways of expressing themselves. And, most importantly, say “yes” to a person with a disability’s right to say NO.




  1. Mandy Rennhack · July 30, 2012

    Nice article 🙂 Love it. My son was saying NO NO NO because………… I helped him with his homework the night before and the teacher said he was to do it himself. I help him write because he is sensory so writing gets fusterating for him. The teacher made him promise her before school let out that he would do it by himself (he wasn’t suppose to get homework sent home in the first place) when she walked him out to my car she told me he was to do it by himself or there would be consequences. I called her that night and told her that I helped him, I did the physical work but he did the mental part of the math. I told her he will have NO consequences for that, that homework wasn’t suppose to be sent home in the first place. She said okay and the next morning my son was afraid to go to school. He kept saying “what if” I told him not to worry about it, that mamma took care of it. He left with a smile and trust. When he got to school the teacher asked him WHY THE HOMEWORK WAS DONE IN MY WRITING. she knew why, remember our phone conversation? My son said ” my mom took care of it”…… then she had Ty go sit down. I found out from another boy in his class whom showed up at my door with his mom after the story aired that told me the teacher erased all his homework we had done the night before (3 sheets) and told him to redo them all…………………..hence the NO NO NO, he had no clue what was happening at that point. I had taken care of it for him.
    Well, I am happy to report that Tylers story has gotten that aweful box down. It no longer exsists. Parents are now aware to go into these schools and see what might be instore for their children. I am happy that Tyler has made a difference for other children and their parents. Be aware of what is going on with your children especially the ones with disabilities. I explain to Ty how he has helped many children like him, and that some of them can not speak to tell their mommys and daddys about what has happened to them. I told him that he is a hero to a lot of children with disabilities. By saying that, I am hoping he looks at it like he made a difference from his misfortune. He smiles and is happy that the box is down. Ty starts a new school year this year in another district, but I know he is scared and trust is an issue. What these teachers have done has really tortured my son.
    Thank you for your story.
    Mandy Rennhack (Tylers mom)

    • independencechick · July 30, 2012

      Thanks so much for writing in with an update. I don’t have children, but I am a teacher, and hearing what happened to your son made me so angry I knew I had to write something about it. Yes, Tyler has helped many children like him, and I hope that he will carry that with him as he starts his new school. Every child with a disability needs to know they are wonderful, unique individuals who are capable of helping others and changing the world, not just being “needy.” I will pray that Tyler is able to trust in his new school without fear, and that the right people can help him overcome it. Good luck to both of you–he’s a great kid, and you’re a good mom. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s