President and CEO of Bender Consulting Services.
In the United States today one group that is frequently targeted for bullying is students with disabilities. As we all know, anyone who is different is often the target, but the question is what are we doing about it?
Often young adults with disabilities have low self-esteem; a primary reason for that is bullying. There is no limit to what bullying in elementary school and middle school can do to a young child. No one wants to be treated that way by anyone.
I teach high school students with disabilities about the world of work. I was shocked when I asked them how many of you have been targets of bullying - 75% of the class raised their hand. I asked them to give me some specific examples. One young man with a prosthetic leg told me how the other children would tease him and trip him on purpose; as a result, he fell down the steps and broke his arm. Another young man, who is a young man with autism, told me how in elementary school at recess, the other children would throw him to the ground and hit him for up to 10 minutes. He said, "One time when I got up, I could barely walk."
Before I give you a few other examples, I have to ask this question. Where are the teachers? How is this happening? I know your question is "Why didn't he tell someone?" I asked that too. The answer is "fear of revenge by the bullies".
One young girl who is blind, told me that in Girl Scouts - you heard me right Girl Scouts - the other scouts would purposely tell her to walk in areas, during an outdoor hiking trip, where they knew she would fall down and get hurt. Wow! Where are the scout leaders during this time?
Two young boys with autism were teased so much in elementary and middle school, that one hid everyday at lunch time and the other boy resorted to fighting back. Once again, where are the adults who are supposed to be protecting our children?
We know that a child with a disability, like my disability epilepsy, will be the target of jokes and cruel comments. Even worse, is when they face exclusion. There are different types of bullying that we must stop:
Violence - As I already talked about in prior examples, children with disabilities are the target of physical violence in school by bullies. We must protect our youth. We need special training at schools to look out for any signs of violence. This also means non-stop education and speaking in the schools on "Stopping Violence." If young children hear enough about bullies being losers, cowards and one of the "un-cool", it will have an impact and will also limit the desire to be one. In addition, schools must make it clear that bullies will be punished.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, "Disability Harassment" is illegal under Title II and also under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This is something that must be explained and made clear in our schools by our educators. It is illegal to participate in disability harassment.
Verbal Abuse - For those who are not the victim of physical violence, they are often the victim of verbal abuse. They are called names such as "retard" or "freak." I cannot emphasize to you enough, how those words hurt and destroy self-esteem. One thing we must do at schools is teach that this type of joking and kidding is not funny. One great author, Jodee Blanco who has made her life a life of championing those who have been bullied, has written a great book, "Please Stop Laughing at Me". She was bullied from 5 th grade through high school in terrible ways. She has a website dedicated to preventing bullying and speaks across the country to schools on this subject. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. We need more bullying activists to speak up and talk about it at our schools on an on-going basis.
Exclusion - As a woman living with epilepsy and officer of the National Board of the Epilepsy Foundation, I meet young people with epilepsy across the United States who have been victims of bullying, often through exclusion. I remember when I first met 11 year old Emily and heard her tell a group in DC at the Kids Speak Up! Conference that after her best friend saw her have a seizure, her mother called Emily's mother and uninvited her to a sleepover. Do you know how that feels? Do you have any idea? Exclusion can be as terrible as being hit in the face. If you are purposely left out of events with your friends, or at school because you are different, it really, really hurts. Educators need to work harder on making sure that people who are considered different are included on team projects and events in school. We need to teach our young people that everyone needs to be included, whether they are a young person with epilepsy or a young person who uses a wheelchair. We need to teach them to not be afraid to ask questions about the disability. What do I do if you have a seizure? If you are a wheelchair user, can we accommodate you in a sleepover and how? Children with disabilities would rather you ask than exclude. I maintain that as adults, to look the other way, you are a participant in bullying. We must stop bullying. We must realize that children with disabilities are often afraid to speak up. Teacher, counselor, coach, and parents, there are children out there depending on you to speak up now!
Joyce Bender is President and CEO of Bender Consulting Services. Please direct questions for Joyce to email@example.com.