“Bullying” and disability

sidYes, it is true, I have spent the last three years studying school violence, bullying, harassment, relational aggression, the enacting *isms if all sorts, whatever jargonistic term of the day is being used for the targeted and hierarchical dominance and abuse of children at school.   I admit I have a mightily trained eye for such behaviors.

I have observed this behavior at schools, read all sorts of research, interviewed a large number of people, and followed the national narratives of this kind of violence in the news.  And all of my work has changed the way I look at violent and abusive social interactions at schools.

It is true that I once allowed myself to have a naive surprise at particular manifestations of this kind of violence,  a sort of comforting shock when I discovered, for example, that a child with autism was the daily target of his classmates. 

I say it was a comforting shock, because if it were not shocking I would be forced to admit that I suspected such things could be occurring all along.  And if that were true then how could I ever live with myself for existing in the same school day after day and doing nothing. 

So no, I no longer allow myself the distance or moral superiority of surprise when I see any marginalized population become the target of overt ‘bullying’ at school.  And I no longer call this sort of violence bullying, a meaningless term that privatize a whole communities acceptance that some people are quite simply better and more deserving than others. 

Bullying is a term that suggests that Sid is mean to Bobby because of something personal between these two boys, or suggests something pathological about either of them individually.  The term bully does not suggest that Bobby is an inherent target because he is (smaller, fatter, a minority, poor, not athletic, disabled, Muslim, etc) less than Sid who is therefore entitled to do whatever he wants to Bobby.

Which is of course, why I have such disdain for that word.  Bullying.  It  implies some sort of private story of  Sid, the loner meane from Toy Story, who is deeply disturbed and randomly abusive.   This fairy tale is that of the loner bully who is, in the words of many self identified bullies I spoke with, just sort of ‘random’ and can’t explain where he gets his ideas.   And the suggestion that this violence is random is nonsense.

I am not saying it is nonsense for the children who bully, I trust them when they say that  don’t know exactly why they have no respect for the rights of certain people; but for we adults involved in education and child development, we could be fully aware of the non-randomness of their sense of entitlement and indifference if we chose to examine the social divisions among our students.  

We could look directly at the enactment of racism, ablism, heterosexism, classism, and call it what it is in the context of this sort of social violence rather than calling someone a bully.  And what these *isms are, are not the internal ideas of bullies, but are rather the manifestations of the social hierarchies our schools are often deeply involved in supporting and enforcing.

And if we could look past the bully to the power game being enacted, maybe we could look at how our school created the conditions in which children saw someone with Autism as the logical target for displaying their mastery of the system. 

And then maybe we could consider what we need to change about the messages we are sending children, the ways we are sorting, tracking, privileging, and erasing students from the public arena that is the school.   Maybe we could treat the school as the pathological system that is in need of repair.

Discovering this article today:  Bullied out of class: Parents pull autistic son from school due to taunts, hazing took me off on this rant. 

I admit my first experiences with targeted violence toward children with disabilities really bothered and shocked me.  I remember thinking each event had to be random and private, afterall, we all know better than to do this.  And then quickly being overwhelmed by the clearly patterned nature of this sort of violence. 

I personally have witnessed enough ‘bullying’ of children with disabilities to make me want to close my eyes forever.  I know you may find targeting kids with disabilities shocking and have the ready impulse to morally shame the aggressors, but I’d suggest they aren’t just random or morally inferior in acting out this aggression.   

And I am not saying this population is any more or less targeted than racial minorities, gender non-normative kids, or anyone else.  I am simply pointing to the scene in front of me and saying – Yes, here too.  Don’t look away.  Here too.

Here among our children with disabilities we have found yet another site for hours of entertainment and superiority.  As the article I have linked to points out, this random harassment  of a child who does not understand what is going on  is just simply funny to the other kids involved.  Don’t you get it?!  He doesn’t get it, and that’s funny right?!

Here is a scene (I don’t recommend) from Tropic Thunder reminding us as a culture just how entertaining other people’s disabilities are to us all:

And here are a few lines from the article about the boy with autism who was bullied out of his school:

He’s been the target of violence. He’s been tricked. He’s been taunted. And he’s been humiliated.
All for laughs.

“He has no filters for social interaction,” Bridget says. “He doesn’t know how something will affect someone else.”
The final act came a few weeks ago, when Pat’s resource room teacher called to say that he had exposed himself at school.

That humiliating incident occurred after other kids repeatedly taunted him, teasing: “Pat has a vagina. Pat has a vagina.”

That upset Pat badly, and he insisted the boys were lying. But the boys persisted. Prove it, they said.

So he did.

That is not bullying, that is bias and it will require more than individual discipline to change schools so that this sort of dynamic is no longer a simple expression of the natural order for children.

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1 Comment

Filed under Disability, School Violence

One response to ““Bullying” and disability

  1. I just saw your link to Citizen Orange. I’d like to be in touch. Drop me a line at kyle at citizenorange dot com if you get the chance.