Bullying in schools is a constant focus of discussion, debate and concern. Not a week goes by, it seems, when there isn’t a news article about some aspect: cyber bullying, text-bullying, bullying on playgrounds, classrooms and sports fields. What has been largely missing from the uproar are accounts of the widespread bullying of children with disabilities by both students and teachers.
The recent stories in Toronto in The Sun about William Lau, the young student with cerebral palsy who was being bullied in school, are the exception. These articles show that while progress has been made, students with disabilities still experience isolation and punishment. Thanks to The Sun’s intervention and spotlight on the issue, William is now being given the support and protection he needs.
Unfortunately such public awareness and support of disabled students is rare, as too little is being done to ensure that children with disabilities are valued, respected and included. As Michelle Obama has pointed out, adults first need to evaluate their own attitudes and behavior before questioning the cause of their children’s intolerance.
Often, though, it is not only adult attitudes reflected in children that threaten students with disabilities. It is school policies. In August 2009, Human Rights Watch published a shocking report on the use of corporal punishment in schools in the United States. Twenty one states still permit corporal punishment in their schools, and their research found that corporal punishment is used on children with disabilities at higher rates than on other children.
The report documents the experiences of autistic children who have been slammed face down on the floor while teachers sit on them, a process known as “face down restraint,” or the first grader who was repeatedly spanked because of outbursts brought on by his Tourette’s Syndrome.
Not only are these ineffective disciplinary techniques for any child with a disability, but because fear can exacerbate punishable behavior, these techniques also make the child’s behavior worse. Can we really allow teachers to engage in this sort of violence, while we debate how to reduce bullying in schools? Both techniques attempt to exercise authority through fear.
In the case of my own disabled brother, who, after considerable effort by my parents, is able to attend his local school in British Columbia, I have witnessed the positive results of inclusive schools. My brother’s own education and socialization skills have improved and he has been able to teach his classmates about disabilities and the acceptance of those who are different.
However, his experience has not always been positive. My brother was recently sent to sit at a desk outside the classroom for certain lessons. He was not disturbing the class; his teacher simply thought it was necessary so the class could proceed with their “normal” lesson. Allowing those in power to define what is “normal” and what is not is perhaps the most pervasive form of bullying.
If we want to eliminate bullying, we need to change the definition of what is “normal” in schools. Let us continue to discuss and work toward ending the acceptance and presence of bullying in our schools. But first we need to expand the dialogue to include the various differences and challenges facing vulnerable students within school communities. The priority for adults should be to set a better example for our children, which includes challenging school policies and attitudes that turn teachers into bullies.
Anastasia Holoboff resides in New York City but is originally from Toronto and has been involved in the disability rights community for many years both in Canada and internationally.