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Bullying & Disability

August 23, 2012  |  Dr. Anjali Forber-Pratt

Imagine, being held at gunpoint as you try to catch the bus home. The weird thing about this moment is, I didn’t understand it at the time and yet it is something that I so vividly remember even today. I remember being surrounded by the entire gang, just past the front office, in a place slightly inconspicuous so the teachers and people of authority couldn’t see what was happening. The timing of it was just right, the very moment that I had rolled through that set of fire doors as they closed behind me. The afternoon announcements started, meaning the office staff had their attention focused elsewhere and they all circled around me, preventing me from continuing through the hallway to the only accessible exit of the school. I was trapped and was told, “You’re just a stupid cripple who doesn’t deserve to live”. How does this even happen?  To this day, every time I read a story about a student with a disability being bullied, such as the young girl with cerebral palsy from Texas who was bullied by her teacher and not allowed to use her walker, or the 11-year old boy from Canada, with muscular dystrophy, who committed suicide after being mugged and habitually bullied, I am reminded of these incidents from my own past.

Since then, I have dedicated myself to making a difference for others. Part of this has involved earning my Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from the College of Education and collaborating with Dr. Dorothy Espelage, renowned expert on bullying research.  (See: With her and her research team of undergraduates, graduates, and colleagues around the country, we all make contributions with a concerted effort to make U.S. schools safer. To me, part of making our schools safe is about creating awareness, educating and dialoguing about differences—including differences due to disability. I am passionate about helping to transform perceptions of what it means to be different, helping others accept their own differences, and motivating others to take action in their own lives and communities.

 When I went home that day, I was quiet. I snuck away to my private haven, the place in my mind where nobody could question me, my safe place. I tried so hard to stay there, for as long as I could. I made it until about 11pm that night. And then, I broke down. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t talk; being held at gunpoint and told that I didn’t deserve to live because of my differences wasn’t right and I realized I didn’t have it in me to go to school the next morning, no matter how hard I tried. I eventually confided in my mother as to why I was refusing to go to school the next morning. Nobody should ever have to feel that way.

Looking back, I wonder about how such intense hatred by someone who was different could have occurred and been projected on someone else who was different. It’s a sad story really, not for me, but for our society as a whole.  I believe it is our collective responsibility to come together as citizens of the world to address the issue of bullying and creating safe school and community environments. It should not be a blame game, rather, we all have to step up to the plate and help to create, foster, and nurture a positive, open, accepting atmosphere where individuals with and without disabilities or other differences can excel. It then becomes our duty to intervene when inappropriate language or aggression occurs. We are all responsible.

Bullying is a social construct that is based on complex interactionsbetween individuals and social-ecological factors surrounding the individual (author and colleagues, 2009).  Quite simply, it is about the individual in his/her school environment, community environment, home environment, and all of the social relationships he/she has. Regrettably, with many of the existing anti-bullying programs and interventions that do exist, consideration is often not given to the disability label, specific characteristics, or special education services provided to the student (Rose, 2011).

Therefore, we need AAPD and vested parties and readers like yourself to help tease this complicated relationship out to help us learn how to better meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. “Like bullying in general, bullying of students with disabilities represents both a civil rights and public health challenge” (Young, Ne’eman, & Gelser, 2011, p. 1).   According to recent report from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE, 2010) possible outcomes of student-on-student harassment and bullying include lowered academic achievement and post high school aspirations, increased anxiety, loss of self-esteem and confidence, depression, post-traumatic stress, deterioration in physical health, self-harm and suicidal ideation, feelings of alienation in the school environment, and truancy. We are still learning about how disability can and does influence the bullying dynamic—meaning the victim, perpetrator and/or bystander. Disability adds yet another layer of complexity to the puzzle.  As a member of the disability community, I feel we cannot afford another stigma or barrier that prevents success or achievement, so let’s come together to make sure that any anti-bullying prevention programs and efforts are effective for our students with disabilities too.


Author’s Note: For a complete reference list or any other information, please contact me at:

Follow on Twitter: @anjalifp

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Submitted by Grant at 05:17 PM on September 10, 2012
In high school several students had cerebral palsy, down syndrome, and aspergers. These students were harassed almost all the time. Whether it was on the bus, at lunch, or in class these students were victims of chronic bullying mentally and physically. At the time I really didn't go along with the bullying, but I didn't really do anything to help stop it either. I failed to act which is something I regret not doing. More severe punishment should be taken on those that bully disabled people. I think the main reason they kept doing it was because they had no reason to stop doing it since no disciplinary action and they had no feeling of regret/remorse. We should stand up to bullies by doing something as simple as saying something to them or developing programs that educate bullies about various disabilities. Having bullies experience being bullied themselves could be used for more severe cases or chronic bullies.
Submitted by gen at 01:20 AM on September 7, 2012
My son was bullied in school because he of his dark skin color and because he came from a small island in the pacific. My son did not want to go back to school after the incident and it kills me that my son or any child has to feel this way. I have tried to comfort my son over the years and I talk to him about why people act the way they do. I have tried to build up his self esteem and teach him to be more positive and educate him to accept peoples differences. I have also had him participate in church outings to meet good friends. I think kids should be psychologically evaluated before starting school therefore issues can be addressed when the they are young and maybe implement a therapeutic treatment for parent's as well.
Submitted by Ranwolf at 03:37 PM on August 29, 2012
Sad is all I can say about this. I too am disabled. I have not been bullied by thugs, but by the system. I can not get out or do anything because my insurance will not pay for a motorized chair because there is no name for what I have. It does not matter that I have a mobility problem and can have no life. Hover round says they will get me a chair if my insurance won't pay. I just have to pay them $3000 to $6000 up front. I am disabled for God sakes, I don't have that kind of money!! So much to little or no cost to me!! I just wish there was somebody out there that can help. I am a big man. I used a friend's wheelchair for a day but I don't have the strength to pull my weight around. Thank you for your time. Randy

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