Back to School and Back to Bullying? Why Kids with Disabilities are Bullied, and Why the Problem Persists

Hello, readers,

Yes, it has been a long time. Sometimes this happens, as I am not entirely sure what to write. I sometimes feel as though everything I could cover in this blog has already been covered. But then I remember three things: (1) I enjoy writing to you, (2) What is written in this blog needs to be said in some way, and (3) There will always be angles that haven’t been covered yet. So, in the spirit of back-to-school month (boy, I miss buying school supplies!) we have today’s topic.

It may be upsetting to you, because I know it was to me, that we need to cover this topic at all. The fact that kids with disabilities (KWDs) are often more likely to be bullied in school than other kids, is quite disturbing. What’s more, recent studies also show that no KWD is truly exempt. That is, some people think that a child who, say, uses a wheelchair, looks physically different, or displays stereotypical behaviors of autism or a mental disability, is more likely to be picked on. Therefore, kids with disabilities like dyslexia, dyscalculia, or ADD/ADHD are safe, right? Wrong! The truth is that in some cases, “invisible” disabilities are even bigger targets than visible ones, because they come out in ways that don’t immediately call attention to the fact that they are disabilities.

What do I mean by that? Let’s take this to the playground, shall we? I’ll use girls’ names since I think it’s unfair that boys are often cast as bullies in scenarios like this, and because girls can be downright cruel. If, for example, Claire sees Ramona and Josie bullying Vivian, who wears leg braces, she might go over to them and say, “Knock it off,” because she can see that it’s tougher for Vivian to walk away or defend herself. The disability is visible, and it’s obvious. But say instead that Vivian has dyslexia, and only the teacher knows what her disability is. To the rest of the class, including Claire, it may just look like Vivian can’t read or spell. So Claire might just join in the bullying if she feels like she can, or if she’s pressured to do it.

However, even if we know why students harass classmates with disabilities, at any age, I believe our knowledge can be part of the problem. For example, some parents, teachers, or administrators may become so vigilant about protecting students with “invisible” disabilities that they forget about the “visible” ones, and vice versa. Yet, there are far more insidious examples than this. For instance, let’s look at the reasons studies point out KWDs are bullied, and how knowledge of these reasons can become an issue unto itself.

Reason: Kids with disabilities often lack the communication skills to stand up for themselves.

Why the knowledge is a problem: Have these students been given any means to communicate? Or are teachers content to say “they can’t,” and then continue to let other students pick on these kids because they communicate through, say, gestures, grunting, or screaming? Or, in the case of children whose communication is known (say, a kid who’s Deaf and uses ASL, or a student who has access to an assistive technology device), do teachers (and other adults, too) assume that the child will take full responsibility for explaining the communication method, and thus, never be harassed? Most likely not. For example, even if a student has an assistive technology device that classmates think is cool, envy could arise. Harassment could come in the form of, “She uses that to cheat!” or, “Why can’t I try/borrow it?” even if the classmate has clearly said “no.”

Reason: Some kids with disabilities look different/use different modifications.

Why it’s a problem: The fact that classmates are absorbing the idea that this is “different,” wherein “different” = “bad,” is an issue. One of my sources describes this problem by saying that a KWDs needed supports “may disrupt class or get in the way of other students.” My heart squeezed at that one; my typewriters, computers, and printers were considered disruptions, and inconveniences to staff, all through school. Memo to adult members of any school community: By agreeing to educate a student with a disability (and thus, obeying federal law) you have agreed to place “convenience” secondary to that student’s needs. Now, yes, if a support might cause students to get hurt–say, if James uses a walker–then absolutely, he should be taught to stow it out of the way when not using it. But if you’re just upset because you have to hear clacking Braille writer keys or the voice of an assistive device? Really, how petty is that? Instead of shaming the student who needs support, either overtly or covertly, through your attitude, help your class get used to the presence of said support and help the student feel more a part of the classroom community.

Reason: Kids with disabilities lack social skills/may behave in odd ways

Why it’s a problem: Aside from the fact that any behavior is considered “odd” (don’t we all have those)?, what do we normally do with a student who’s considered to have “poor social skills” or “behavior problems?” Right–Segregated Classroom to the Rescue! Or not. Again, yes, some behaviors or quirks can be distracting, but by isolating these children and saying “they have no social skills,” you are putting upon them a self-fulfilling prophecy. You want to see those kids picked on, hanging around the fringes of recess or extracurricular activities? Then by all means, continue to label them social zeroes. If, instead, you’d rather see them interact like “everybody else,” keep in mind that no two people are exactly alike, and do all you can to facilitate natural, friendly interactions.

Reason: The kid with a disability may in fact be the bully.

Why it’s a Problem: Yes, according to Michelle Diament of Disability Scoop, this does happen. And if it does happen, what to do? Do what you would for any other bullying student. First, try to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing, and then respond with a natural solution. That is, if the student is bullying because he or she was bullied first, then it’s time to reevaluate the relationships among the kids in your classroom or school environment. If it’s because having a disability is stressful (say, he or she always acts out during math class because of dyscalculia) then work with the student to find ways to make “trigger” times easier. But do not–I repeat, do not–fall back on the options of segregation and shame.

Hopefully, any school personnel reading this is listening and agreeing. Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that the teachers are the bullies in this situation (stay tuned for my next post, on toxic teachers, for more on this issue). But for every bully out there, I would hope there is someone willing to examine what’s causing the harassment, and who knows that the “time-honored” traditions of Disability World won’t help matters.

No one wants any kid to be bullied, but I say we’ve overlooked the bullying of students with disabilities for too long. This school year, let’s make sure these students have “kid” things to worry about, such as which extracurricular club to try, who to play with at recess, or who to take to the prom.


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