Disabled children are three times more likely to experience bullying compared with their non-disabled peers. Experts reveal exactly why, and what must be done to change attitudes towards disability, to prevent all forms of bullying.
Every year, Anti-Bullying Week is celebrated in November (11-15 November), to combat attitudes that lead to bullying. This year, the theme is Change Starts with Us, acknowledging that we all have an individual responsibility to make changes that create a safe, inclusive environment for everyone.
Bullying is something that can affect physical health, self-esteem, socialising, attainment, and can significantly impact mental health. Everyone can experience bullying; however, the disabled community is more likely to experience bullying compared to their non-disabled peers. No more so than children and young people living with a disability.
Disabled children are at a higher risk of experiencing bullying; there are many reasons for this, but it is primarily caused by a lack of understanding surrounding disability, and the prevailing attitude that it’s acceptable to pick on someone’s differences.
In fact, research has found that at aged just seven, 12 per cent of children with special needs revealed they were bullied ‘all of the time’ by other pupils, compared to just six per cent of their non-disabled peers.
“Generally, when any child is being bullied, it is because someone has singled them out as being different,” explains Nicola Murray, head of programmes at the charity, Anti- Bullying Alliance.
“This perceived difference might be to do with their individual characteristics, or their relationships with peers and the wider community.”
Nicola continues: “For a disabled child, they might be singled out because of the effects of an impairment. For example, it might take them longer to go from class to class; they might be absent from school a lot, or there might be communication barriers.
“If there isn’t a culture in the school to support all children to understand or see beyond these differences, this can lead to attitudinal issues and stigma.”
Addressing attitudes is crucial in reducing the stigma surrounding disability, but physical barriers within schools – and wider society – can pose as a hurdle to changing mindsets, and the education system has a huge part to play in making improvements.
“The way schools are set up, SEN pupils are often isolated from their peer group,” Nicola explains.
“Disabled children might have a learning support assistant, they might be taught in a different part of the class or building, there might be a lack of quality access to the physical environment, the curriculum, or social opportunities.
“Sometimes, a SEN child might not be given independence, and aren’t enabled to be a part of the same activities their peers are.”
During Anti-Bullying Week, schools, workplaces and the wider community are urged to work together to challenge bullying when we see it, particularly when it’s directed towards someone who doesn’t feel safe defending themselves.
For people living with sensory disabilities, it can be particularly difficult to understand and express the fact that they’re being bullied.
“Deaf children can experience bullying for a variety of reasons,” explains Andrew Richardson, safeguarding manager at the National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS).
From a lack of deaf awareness, or negative attitudes towards children and young people with a disability: this can have a detrimental impact on a person’s progression.
And, as bullying comes in many different forms from verbal, emotional, physical and cyberbullying, people with sensory disabilities may not easily recognise bullying behaviour.
“Deaf children are sometimes less able to pick up on social cues, such as sarcasm or a tone of voice, and can be less able to verbally defend themselves,” continues Andrew.
“There’s no excuse for bullying and it’s important that any instances are quickly identified and stopped.”
For various different reasons, disabled people may find it harder to verbalise being bullied. However, as a parent or carer, there are signs present.
“Some clues can include difficulty sleeping, becoming withdrawn or a reluctance to go somewhere,” Andrew explains.
“Their behaviour may change at home, or they may want to distance themselves from ‘signs of deafness’, such as not wearing their hearing technology.”
As a parent, it can be extremely distressing to think about your child being bullied, particularly if it’s targeted towards their disability. But, there are things you can do to address the issue and ensure your child knows they can come to you for support.
“No bullying situation is the same and sometimes it’s difficult to know exactly what to do,” Andrew says.
“But acting immediately, consulting resources and alerting attention is absolutely vital for the child’s health and wellbeing.”
When a child or young person tells a trusted adult they’re being bullied, it’s vital that action is taken immediately to help them.
“Young disabled people tell us that if they tell someone and nothing happens, that can be almost as damaging as the bullying itself,” Nicola stresses.
“We have to show that sort of behaviour isn’t tolerated. All the child can do is tell someone, but it’s the responsibility of those trusted people to act.”
Bullying is something that can happen to anyone at any time in their life, and is a problem that particularly affects the disabled community.
It’s important to remember that, if you’re experiencing bullying – be that at school, in the workplace or in your personal life – it’s not your fault, and it’s not your disability’s fault, either.
Unfortunately, bullying is an issue that affects disabled people all year round, but with campaigns such as Anti-Bullying Week spotlighting the issue, we’re a step closer to changing attitudes.