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The Lifelong Impact of Bullying on People With Disabilities

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“Lice kid.” “AIDS boy.” “Cujo.” “Foster kid.” The ‘R’ word. Those are just some of the many names my siblings and I were taunted with as children. We were born to parents who loved us and were always dependent on social service programs to feed, house and provide us with basic necessities. Most of the time it wasn’t enough. Our family was an easy target for those who perceived our life choices and circumstances as inferior. No matter where we lived, kids were cruel. They searched for the perceived weakness and grabbed onto it like it was necessary for their own survival.

Creating an environment where all children felt safe from torment became one of my life goals shortly after my husband and I adopted my brother and sister following the death of our parents. Diagnosed with mental health and developmental disabilities, my brother was the target of relentless harassment and humiliation. Determined to stop this pattern of victimization, I read everything I could about what the experts said we should do to keep him safe. We built collaborative relationships with his teachers and helped him build a network of allies in the form of other students while also working to increase his self-esteem through academic and athletic success. We met with a counselor frequently who reinforced these ideas.

While there is no doubt some of our efforts helped, we neglected to take into account two important and somewhat obvious facts: children who are allowed to harass other children without fear of consequences often grow up to be adults who continue this behavior. Parents who neglect to see their child as the bully often condone the school district’s inaction.

We breathed a sigh of relief the day my brother walked across his high school stage. While much of his future plans were uncertain, we were happy he made it through his educational experience with less emotional scarring than we anticipated. In addition to Project SEARCH (a high school transition program aimed at preparing individuals with disabilities for competitive employment), he worked at a local chain department store pushing carts.

Not long after, a former high school tormentor paid him a visit. Several days later my brother was physically assaulted and promised the next encounter would result in stopping his heart. Lacking the communication skills to ask for help, he did the only thing he could do to protect himself; he gave into the bully’s demands and shoplifted small items like beef jerky and energy drinks. It was his self-defense. The supervisor and his job coach neglected their responsibility when they didn’t check in with him during his shift to ask if there were any concerns. Eventually, my brother was confronted by the security team. He was then arrested and forced to sign a confession he couldn’t read. He was also fired.

My brother went from the student who never missed school and was described by everyone he met as a nice kid with a million dollar smile to someone charged with a serious crime. Due to the connection between the employer and his transition program, he also found himself without access to the teachers and future employer he loved, and the resources that provided him with a real opportunity for lifetime stability and independence.

The day the bully decided to assault my brother at his job was the day our entire family became victims. His decision to use my brother as a pawn for his selfish needs was the catalyst to the destruction of our hopes and dreams. We spent his entire life dedicating our life to helping him access the appropriate resources. We advocated with and for him. We spoke openly about our expectations as any other parent would. My husband and I were looking forward to sleeping at night because the pieces were finally all coming together.

In 2015 the National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics reported nationally 1 in 3 school-aged children have been victims of bullying. In the district where I live, that amounts to roughly 1300 out of 3400 district-wide students who will have been victims of bullying before they graduate from high school. As the mother of a third and a seventh grader, those numbers are frightening and must not be ignored.

In April of 2018, I was elected to our local school board. Since the election, I have heard from an untold number of parents, students, and teachers who have shared stories of their own children who have been the victim of another child’s relentless taunting. The vast majority of these stories indicate the problem is much worse locally than has been publicly reported.

Anyone who has been bullied will say they remember not just the words but how they felt; the pain is real. I live with the long-lasting effects bullying has had on my brother; he doesn’t trust other people and their intentions. When a supervisor at work gives him advice, he questions their motives. A once confident young man, the experience of bullying has changed him. It’s not his disability, it’s his internal voice telling him he is the words he has been called. His reactions to once trivial situations reflect his deep-rooted self-doubt. He is perpetually defensive, and it’s demoralizing for all of us.

As difficult as the past several years have been, what continues to bother me most is the knowledge there are many other children who live in the same community who continue to be harassed. Too often I am approached by someone who has a story to tell regarding harassment and/or retaliation which happened to themselves or someone they care about. Many of the parents are praying as I did their children will evade their tormenters once they graduate from high school. My brother’s story is proof this isn’t always the case. As long as there are people who feel emboldened by gaining control over someone else, there will always be bullies.

What’s important is how we approach harassment as a district and a community. We can’t ignore reports of retaliation or harassment from students or teachers. Not only does everyone have the right to feel safe, but we must also remain proactive in empowering and including all students. District-wide we should examine every group and committee to ensure it is reflective of our district. It goes without saying that committees like the diversity committee, established to address the concerns regarding inequality in our district, should include at least one representative of color.

It’s not enough to talk about the classes and curriculum that teach anti-bullying messages. All of us need to insist on creating a culture of tolerance and embracing differences.

The day the high school bully made the decision to re-enter my brother’s life was a day my memory will never allow me to forget. It’s a constant reminder of the long-term negative effects of complacency. The bully stole from our entire family’s future that day. He also inflicted permanent damage to my brother’s self-esteem. The bully was never confronted regarding his actions and walked away from that situation without any consequences.

While it might not be possible that every tormenter in high school will graduate as someone who accepts responsibility for their actions and embraces the differences of others, shouldn’t that be the goal?

Originally published: January 21, 2019
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