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  • Writer's pictureJoan Medlen

Redefining synonyms: “Submit” and “Comply”

“Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect.”

The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young

“Submit”   “Comply”   “Submissiveness”    “Compliance”

There are a few words more hotly debated. These words, which are synonyms, represent a belief, or attitude, usually about a relationship. They are used when discussing marriages and when discussing support for another person – with and without disabilities. “Compliance” is a frequent term used regarding students receiving special education  services and for adults in the disability service system.

When I read or hear them, my thoughts immediately go to the word, “control.”

I most often hear the notion of submissiveness or being asked to submit used in religious circles when discussing the roles of partners in a relationship or marriage. 25 years ago when I was getting ready to marry, it was a topic of one of our marriage counseling sessions required by our church. I don’t remember much about the session except that my girlfriends and I were too independent to fit the “submissive wife” model we believed was in question. In some circles, I am considered a rebel for not being “submissive.”

“Compliance,” on the other hand is something I hear repeatedly – from teachers, direct support providers, health care professionals, program managers, case managers, and policy makers – when discussing people with disabilities. Many classrooms use compliance-based tactics to obtain “good behavior.” Many people who provide support to others consider it a good day when the person they are working with was “compliant” and followed all commands. But I don’t want my son, or the people I support to be “compliant.”  I’d like to hear what they have to say! Once again, I am considered a rebel in some circles.

Let’s look at the words: Webster’s Online Thesaurus offers this about being submissive: “readily giving in to the command or authority of another.” Words with the same meaning (synonym) include compliant.

That does not sound like a relationship I want. I am not a rebel. I just believe in respect. It seems to me that if I care about the person I am in a relationship with (as a wife or friend),  I would never ask them to do anything that felt submissive. It’s true we sometimes do things or allow choices that we aren’t fond of in a relationship, but if we care about the other person, we do not ask them to “submit” if they feel oppressed.

Now let’s look at the word, “Compliance: a readiness or willingness to yield to the wishes of others.”  Words with the same meaning include submissive.

Hmm. Now if it said “yield to the wishes of your Mother,” I might go for it. But it doesn’t. To be “compliant,” means a person yields to the wishes of others.  If compliance is your goal, then  your goal is for the person you are working with to yield to the wishes of others, rather than their own, always. That’s certainly not a concept I think of when I think of a quality life or self-determination!

To me, the belief system using these words is a power dynamic. One person in the relationship holds the power of the other person. I don’t want to dive into what this means for a marriage or other intimate relationships.  But since there is a great deal of polarizing  discussion about submissiveness with regard to marriage, it seems important to illuminated the similarity between that debate and the debate around “compliance” for children and adults with disabilities.

I’ve always believed that if I truly care about the other person in the relationship, I won’t ask them to submit or comply. Asking someone to submit or comply so that I can have the power in the relationship hardly seems respectful. Since I want respect from those I spend time with, both in and out of work, it makes sense I should offer them respect, too

The skill for a successful relationship is in the ability to communicate, collaborate, and compromise.

I have just finished reading The Shack by Wm. Paul Young. It is a very abstract view of religion, clearly from the Christian point-of-view. The focus of the message, however, is on relationships, respect, and forgiveness. I’ve found many thought-provoking passages, including this one:

“Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect.”

When I read it, I thought, “what if I used the word, ‘compliance’ instead?” A few minutes later, I found that compliance is a synonym (has the same meaning) of submissive. Bingo.

Compliance “is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect.”

This really works for me. You see, if I respect the person I am supporting by listening to them, listening and acting on what they like and do not like, then it is more likely they will choose to collaborate with me in things that we do.

Generally when I’m sitting in a meeting about Andy or listening to support folks talk about working with someone, I doesn’t sound like this is the definition they are using for “compliance.” Usually they mean, they want someone to do what they tell them. They want the power to tell the other person what to do.

I propose we take this one step further:

Providing support “is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect.”

This is my definition of support for a person with disabilities. It works very well for me. It is a definition that, when the tables are turned in my elder years, will allow me to feel good about myself. I suspect it is what Andy – and all people with disabilities – want in their life.

I am currently watching this play out in our home this summer. M provides support to my son Andy. She’s worked with him before. They are very fond of each other. M respects Andy’s communication style. She listens intently and let’s him know what she hears. In one week they’ve gone on all sorts of adventures – more than I would have imagined – and today he started using the communication system others have avoided making available.  He does what she asks, albeit in his own good time, and respects her in return. It has been a joy to watch.

Could it be, if there was less “submission” or “compliance,”  we would have far less need for forgiveness in our advocacy? (see “Forgiveness and Advocacy: An Effective Complement”)

What will it take for this to be your definition of supporting someone?

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