I have been delivering (questionably) motivational speeches for schools and community groups since the dawn of time, talking to kids about disability and encouraging them to challenge ableism in all its manifestations. After my talks, I usually do a Q&A with the students because I feel like it’s a more authentic way to talk about things and hope that if they can get answers to all their burning questions about disability it will help naturalize difference. Inevitably, a student will ask about bullying and if I have any suggestions on how to stop it. I honestly dread this question because I’ve never been quite sure how to respond. I usually sidestepped the question with a spiel about self-confidence, talking to friends/adults, and it getting easier with age. I knew it wasn’t a great answer, but bullying seemed (and still seems) like something so much bigger than myself. But after thinking about it for years, I’ve decided to finally take a moment and answer this question once and for all.
It would be nearly impossible to maintain a story about two high school students without broaching the topic of bullying, however a story coming out of the US over the past few days has inspired me to write a couple quick comments on the subject. In case you haven’t heard yet, several boys are in a lot of trouble after self-tattooing some naughty words on the butt of a boy with a developmental disability (via FoxNews). Insert astonished gasps, questions on where the parents were or how we let these boys down as a society, and calls for pitch forks and torches.
Going through the public education system with a visible disability was no walk in the park, but I think I had it easier than most. I was lucky enough to largely go unnoticed throughout my school years and most of the negative attention I did draw came more from my propensity to geekdom than my physical limitation. I think perhaps this was largely because bullies knew my disability didn’t really bother me and so they didn’t try and leverage it against me emotionally. Having said that, my parents were warned when I was first diagnosed that kids would pick on me for being different, especially during the puberty years when a bully’s insecurities with their own changing bodies would be worked out at the expense of those with even stranger bodies (like those with weight problems or in wheelchairs).
Ultimately, I think the younger years are perhaps some of the easiest to live with a disability while the teenage years are probably some of the worst. Kids are generally accepting and always inquisitive of difference, but teenagers are so insecure themselves that the first sign of deviance is seen as an opportunity to ridicule and subjugate, if only to solidify their own place in the world. I’ll be the first to admit that this perception is filled with generalizations that doesn’t describe the experience of all teenagers, but I think it does explain some of the difficulties teens with disabilities have integrating into the social structure of high school.
Far from saying this should discourage us from attempting integration, I think disability (or more specifically adapted ability) actually provides us with a place to broach the subject of body, identity and difference with teenagers. Rather than looking down at disability and chastising youth for talking to or about people with disabilities, we should encourage this interaction and change the discourse from the negativity of difference to the opportunity of adaptation. Rather than talking about all the things I can’t do, why don’t we look at the things I can and consider the things I could do with support? I’m certain most teenagers would find that with a bit of help (and some craftiness) they could be just as “able” in a wheelchair as they are without. By looking at these differences positively, perhaps it will give these youth an opportunity to look at their own strengths and limitations in a different and more empowered light.
So what should be done about the little tattoo artists in the States? Well, I’m not a judge, jury or executioner. In fact, I’m not sure I’m even qualified to practice law in the USA, but I’m sure a few good solutions could be cooked up if given the time to ponder. Sure we could tattoo things on their bums and see how they like it or maybe do some sort of “spend a day in a wheelchair” to try and teach them to empathize with the disabled, but would that really correct the problem? Yes what these boys have done is awful and they certain deserve to be punished, but perhaps the real lesson here is that we need to do a better job in our schools of educating about disability so that this doesn’t happen again to someone else. It’s like that old saying, the true mistake is a mistake you don’t learn from.