Sticks and Stones – The effect of bullying on disabled children

Despite strong efforts, bullying remains a constant problem in schools. And disabled children are most at risk.

In a recent report produced for the Scottish Commissioner for Children and Young People, Tam Ballie, it was revealed that bullying is still a very real part of school life for disabled children. The document, was prepared by Professor Kirsten Stalker of the Glasgow School of Social work and Professor Lio Moscardini of the University of Strathclyde. It found that whilst some improvements have been made, there was still a long way to go before this damaging social phenomenon becomes a thing of the past.

The prevalence of bullying and the fear of being bullied in education, is a key concern for disabled children as it represents a significant barrier towards social inclusion. The report also observed that some disabled children felt that the standard of schooling they received was lower than their able-bodied peers. Furthermore, there were generally lower expectations in terms of gaining qualifications.

Ballie conceded that, although “considerable efforts” had been made to include disabled people in education and improve the support they received, still “disabled children and young people do not enjoy the same chances as their peers”. He added that “too often inclusion remains an aspiration, not a reality.”

The financial crisis has put further pressures on disabled households. Higher living costs, low incomes and poverty has given rise to real difficulties for disabled children and their families.

Bullying is a serious issue whether a student is able bodied or not, but the impact of bullying on disabled students can be particularly damaging. Bullying UK takes the example of a child with a communication disorder. Such a student may be already reluctant to mix in a social situation with other children due to their condition. It is easy to appreciate how someone so vulnerable could become a target for bullies. However, the result of such victimisation can have far more damaging long term effects in terms of hindering future progress even resulting in regression in some cases.

The problem of bullying of disabled people is by no means reserved to Scotland alone. In a report published by the charity Mencap in 2007, it was found that out of 500 children surveyed in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a staggering 82% of children had been bullied with 58% experiencing physical harm.

Moreover, in a book published earlier this year by National Children’s Bureau (“NCB”) entitled ‘Perspectives on Bullying and Difference’ it is suggested that part of the problem is that the issue is not fully understood at a far higher level. Fergus Crow, the Programme Director for Education and Learning at the NCB notes that “research in the book suggests that teaching staff underestimate the victimisation of these (disabled) children”. Clearly, if one is to have any hope in eliminating bullying, then those responsible for managing the provision of education must fully understand its implications for disabled children.

One of the other challenges facing policy makers has been the lack of coherent analysis on the subject. Indeed, the above book, produced by the NCB is claimed to be the first comprehensive examination of the vulnerability of children with special educational needs at school.

Of course, the victimisation of disabled school children forms only part of a broader picture on bullying which must be addressed in the round. Perhaps the biggest attempt to achieve this has been launched in the US.

‘The Bully Project’, which was released on 30 March 2012 is a moving documentary following the lives of five students and their families, who are the victims of severe cases of bullying. It is a brave campaign, which aims to tackle this issue in all its forms.

Those involved with ‘The Bully Project’ identify the targeting of disabled children as a real concern. Lack of research in this field in the US, makes it difficult to arrive at any definitive figure, but from the data available it is estimated that disabled students are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their non disabled peers.

Bullying remains a complicated issue for school around the UK. Unfortunately its repercussions for disabled children are even for damaging. Although it is now clearly on the agenda, the figures demonstrate that much must be done before it is truly dealt with.

One of the most important goals for disabled people is to feel included in society. It would be a pity if a disabled child’s first experiences of interacting with the world at large was rejection and isolation at the hands of a few mindless troublemakers at school.

For more information, please see the following links:

Bullying ‘Harms Disabled Children’ news article

Mencap – 2007 Statistics on Bullying

‘Perspectives on Bullying and Difference’ – Supporting young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities in schools. Edited by Colleen McLaughlin, Richard Byers and Caroline Oliver

‘The Bully Project’

‘The Bully Project’ – Trailer

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