Children with disabilities must not only deal with the challenges associated with their specific handicap, but with other issues that inevitably come with it. One issue that you may not think about unless you have experienced it firsthand is bullying or harassment. Disability harassment is a serious issue with grave consequences. If you have a child who is being affected by it, then you know just how devastating it can be.
When we think about a disability, we can easily identify those that impact a childís ability to walk, see or hear. If we saw children deliberately placing books in the path of a visually impaired student, causing them to trip, most of us would view that as cruel behavior that should be dealt with immediately with some reasonably serious consequence. We would be able to understand the impact it would have on the child and feel compassion and empathy for them.
Now, letís consider children suffering from a learning or emotional disability. These are no different. They are real disabilities that carry real challenges, through no fault of the child. The impacts of harassment on these children are no less than those of a child with a physical impairment, yet often they are not given the same consideration.
Think about a child with Tourette's Syndrome, a neurological disorder that is marked by physical tics. The snickering and verbal remarks made by other children are frequently treated as if they are somehow a lesser offense. In this situation, it is not uncommon to see staff members respond by ignoring it, giving a simple verbal reprimand or in some cases even participating in the harassing behavior. As a result, the child is forced to try and learn in an environment that is humiliating and even hostile which undoubtedly, interferes with their ability to succeed.
If you are a parent of a child caught up in this plight, you should know that this is not just a simple issue of right and wrong. This behavior could be a violation of your childís rights and you do not have to accept it. If your child is receiving services under a 504 plan, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects them. This act protects the civil rights of individuals with disabilities in programs that receive federal funds. It says that the child cannot be subjected to discrimination based on their disability. In addition to a violation of their civil rights under section 504, if your child is receiving services under an IEP (Individual Education Program) they are also protected under Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1975 (IDEA), which ensures that students receive a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) in spite of their disability. If a student is being harassed based on their disability, thus placing them in a hostile learning environment it could interfere with their right to that free and appropriate public education.
Disability harassment is a serious issue with serious consequences. If you are a student with disabilities, know that you deserve to learn in an environment that is free of ridicule and humiliation. If you have a child who is being affected, know that they have these rights and fight to preserve them. If you are a staff member of an educational institution, know that you have responsibilities not only to respond to, but also to prevent disability harassment in order to protect those rights. If you are ignoring the behavior you are participating. No one should view disability harassment as acceptable behavior.
For more information on disability harassment, I would strongly encourage you to read a letter issued on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Office for Civil Rights regarding disability harassment at: