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Disabled Students Most Likely To Endure Bullying, Least Able To Report

Earlier this month Here & Now reported on the beating of a white 18 year old with schizophrenia. Many pointed out that his attackers were black, and attributed the incident to racism. But disabilities advocates, and others, saw something else: a very common attack on a vulnerable disabled person.

Disabilities advocates note that disabled students are twice as likely to be victims of bullying as their non-disabled peers. Among those groups is Pacer, which operates a National Bullying Prevention Center. Julie Hertzog, the center’s director, talks with Here & Now‘s Robin Young about the issue.

Interview Highlights

On challenges for parents who have a child with a disability

“My husband and I are parents to David, who is now a 20-year-old young man who was born with Down syndrome, and some other really significant medical issues. When David was going into kindergarten, I was looking at him and thinking, ‘Here’s somebody who’s so incredibly vulnerable at the age of 5, to being mistreated by his peers.’ And he had survived, literally had survived heart surgeries, and being on a trach, and having a feeding tube, and fought so hard to live that I thought, ‘If he goes to school and he’s hurt or harmed, it will just absolutely break my heart.’

“In fact, he had a very successful school experience. But that was because the number of steps that we put in place to ensure that he was valued and respected and included.”


On stories of how kids with disabilities are bullied in school

“We do hear stories every day about how kids are being bullied. In fact, our organization got involved with the topic of bullying because of one absolutely horrific story that we heard. It came from a letter from a parent in a local, suburban school district, who had a son with developmental delays. And every day, there was a group of boys, of young men, who was taking his head, and they were slamming it into a locker, and then it kept escalating, so at one point they actually gave this young man laxatives, and then they forced him to wear a diaper. And the school, the administration at that time — this was in the early-2000s — wasn’t doing anything. Number one, we immediately went to that school and we talked about the laws that protect kids with disabilities, but we said, ‘We need to change the culture around how we look at the topic of bullying, and also how we view individuals with disabilities,’ because so often they’re viewed as being different or viewed as less-than.”

On efforts to combat bullying

“As a society, as a culture, we want to, number one, really start looking at, how can we change some of the stereotypes that we have about disability? When one out of five individuals have a disability — that’s pretty high in the population. And so, one of the things that we can really look at is even, how do we think about the language that we use? And so often, when I go into even a middle school or a high school, I’ll hear disparaging terms, and the most common one is… the use of the word ‘retard,’ it’s a derogatory term meant to indicate that somebody’s less than. If we keep saying it, it keeps perpetuating the stereotype.

“One of the things that we’ve always looked at with my son David, too, is the concept of, what can we do to encourage those around him to be — and as young kids we call them ‘bystanders’ — to be effective bystanders, and to be advocates for him? And again, it’s not only the kids with disabilities who are being horribly impacted, but it’s the other kids who are witnessing and seeing these things, and they don’t like it, and they don’t know what to do. We absolutely want to empower people to be able to have that comfort to speak up.”

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