By Jorain Ng
The connection between bullying and disability is rarely talked about in Singapore.
The flurry of articles on bullying (and more recently cyberbullying) at schools do not focus on disablism – the bullying or discrimination against persons with disabilities. Yet, there are much anecdotal accounts testifying to its existence at schools.
As a child, I had my fair share of bullying, just like others who look different and/or behave differently from the masses.
I can vividly recall days when a classmate hid her arm in a pinafore to imitate my physical appearance. Simple actions such as tying my hair also attracted unwanted attention from my classmate who made physical gestures behind my back. Even back home, I was not safe from bullies. Online, I received anonymous comments on my blog (blog was still a thing back then) like, “you have no arm. hahaha.”
Looking back, these incidents are no more than childish pranks done by kids who were being, well, kids.
But, to a young child, such incidents can be emotionally traumatising.
The Situation in Singapore
Sadly, my experience is not uncommon.
In Singapore today, bullying is as rampant as it was back then.
As a matter of fact, studies show that the advent of technology only made bullying worse. According to a 2012 survey conducted by Microsoft, Singapore has the second highest rate of online bullying. A 2013 Touch Cyber Wellness Survey of 1,900 primary school students and 3,000 secondary school pupils revealed that one in three of the latter population had been bullied online.
The scary news does not end there.
Many studies have demonstrated that children with disabilities are significantly more likely than their peers to be victims of bullying. A British study conducted in 2008 found that 60 percent of students with disabilities reported being bullied compared to 25 percent of the general student population. 10 U.S. studies also found that children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be victims of bullying than their peers without disabilities.
Disablist Bullying Consequences
The effects of bullying in relation to the emotional well-being, self-esteem, health condition, academic achievement and retaliatory violence of victims have all been well documented. Children who are bullied may suffer from depression and anxiety, and develop negative self-perceptions and health issues. Some victims also perform poorly in school due to difficulties concentrating during lessons, school avoidance or absences.
But there are unique concerns regarding disablist bullying.
Children with disabilities and/or special needs often have great difficulty defending themselves against bullies. Those who have physical disabilities such as wheelchair users and people with cerebral palsy may lack the physical strength to defend themselves. Bullies may tamper with a student’s wheelchair or walking stick, intentionally put up barriers, making movement around space difficult, or intentionally bump into them.
Children with developmental disabilities may also face difficulty defending themselves. Some may lack the cognitive ability to distinguish between real friends and bullies.
Disablist Bullying Prevention
Since so much bullying takes place while children are at school, teachers and administrators must take an active role in preventing bullying.
Other than bullying awareness programs, disability awareness talks should be conducted at schools to foster an attitude of respect for persons with disabilities. Teachers must also be equipped with the training and tools to recognise and quickly intervene in bullying situations. Schools can also create an online portal for students to give feedback – a particularly helpful feature for students who are afraid to speak up for themselves at schools.
Since children with disabilities are the most vulnerable targets, parents of these children can help to prevent bullying by communicating with their child. They should ask specific questions about his or her friendships, and be aware of signs of bullying even if their child doesn’t call it that. As mentioned above, some children with developmental disabilities may not realise they are being bullied.
Parents of bullied children must work with schools to end bullying. They need to immediately inform his or her teachers about the bullying to see whether he or she can help to resolve the problem. If the bullying or harassment is severe or the teacher doesn’t fix the problem, parents should contact the principal. They should give the principal a detailed account of the incident and ask for a prompt response.
Bullying is a bad thing. As Singapore move towards an inclusive education system where all children with and without disabilities can learn and play together, incidents of disablist bullying may rise in proportion.
But if schools and parents work together at all levels, there can be a resolution to bullying. I recently heard of a story where a young boy was physically harassed by his classmates because one of his parents has a disability. His parents informed his teacher about the bullying, and the teacher spoke to the bullies and their parents. The bullying stopped, and the bullies were sent to do volunteer work at social service organisations.