By Katherine Schneider, PHD
A disabled woman’s advice for adults and teens on dealing with bullying and cyberbullying.
I was born blind and grew up in public schools. Hurtful teasing, bullying and shunning were regular parts of my childhood and, as a result, my self-esteem was low. I hated being blind. All I knew to do when confronted by bullying was to respond with the old saying “Sticks and stones might break my bones…” and tell the bully to “Shut up.” Sometimes this worked, but usually not.
A disability makes its owner more vulnerable. Whether a person has a physical, cognitive, or emotional disability, that individual has some limitations that a non-disabled person does not have. Those who bully look for differences and weaknesses when choosing a target. Parents, teachers, paraprofessional aides and therapists need to talk honestly with children who have disabilities about acknowledging their limitations, learning social skills, and accentuating their strengths. If the child can’t outrun the bully, for example, then perhaps they can use their verbal powers to diffuse the situation (such as with humour), say a loud and clear “Stop” or surround themselves with friends who can deflect the bully’s attention.
There is, at some level, still denial about the problem of bullying for people with disabilities. When I was working on my children’s book Your Treasure Hunt: Disabilities and Finding Your Gold, several editors suggested I delete the page about bullying because “That doesn’t happen anymore.” Parents fear to ask their child if they’re bullied partly because they know they will be furious if the answer is yes. All that good advice about staying calm and not swooping right in to solve the problem goes right out the window when it’s your child, especially your child who has a disability. The instinct to protect is always there, and we want to make our children’s unpleasant experiences go away.
How to help
We want to solve our children’s problems. But in some cases that isn’t the best response. Listening and giving verbal first aid—“That is wrong,” “I’m sorry that happened” or “I’ll help if you’d like”—is the way to go. Help the child brainstorm about what needs to be different next time and role-play reactions. Modeling compassionate but firm problem-solving teaches more than lecturing, ranting or stomping off to confront the parents of the mean kid. Coach your child to ask for the help they want. By doing this, you are teaching skills that will last a lifetime.
We also need to remember that bullying of those with disabilities (and bullying in general) does not end on graduation day. I recently had two encounters with an adult bully who I needed to work with on a project. Bystanders were as shocked at her behaviour as I was and did nothing. The first time it happened I froze, but by the second time I had a caustic verbal retort ready. The bullying has not recurred since.
As I was preparing this article, I came upon a book by Melody Beattie called Playing It by Heart. It’s about how to not fall back into being a victim and is now on my to-read list. Memoirs such as Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures and Mark Zupan’s GIMP help teens know things will get better. Books for children and teens are available in various formats from bookshare.org, so those who don’t read regular print can know they’re not alone and learn ways to deal with bullying.
For me, reading and writing are therapeutic in that I can be in—and help to create—a world where there is less bullying and more kindness and empathy. Together we can make a better world, both within and outside the pages.
Dr. Katherine Schneider is a retired clinical psychologist. Dr. Schneider has published a memoir To the Left of Inspiration: Adventures in Living with Disabilities and a children’s book Your Treasure Hunt: Disabilities and Finding Your Gold. You can learn more about her work at kathiecomments.wordpress.com
Reprinted with permission from cyberbullying.org