Bullying Among Youth with Disabilities

Nov 20, 2012
Tagged with: Bullying Among Youth with Disabilities

Promoting Social Inclusion Through Physical Activity

Bullying has become a hot topic lately in social media, the news, and awareness campaigns.  Many reports have noted that students with disabilities are involved, but fail to mention them most often as the main target.  There are several interventions surfacing to combat this “silent epidemic” with play being the main solution.  In order for these interventions to have an impact on youth with disabilities the solution of play must be inclusive.

In recent years school bullying has received national attention contributing to all 50 states adopting anti-bullying laws, policies, or both.  The question now is how effective are these laws and anti-bullying programs for youth with disabilities?  Several research studies have reported alarming new patterns for victims of bullying showcasing that individuals with intellectual disabilities such as autism spectrum disorders are at an increased risk.  A nationwide survey of more than 900 parents of students with an intellectual disability reported that 57% were being bullied.  The rates of bullying among these youth are worryingly high, contributing this issue to a profound public health problem.

The act of bullying has been around for generations, and was once overlooked as a mere challenge of childhood, be it sibling rivalry, verbal teasing, or social exclusion.  Bullying is no longer an ordinary challenge, and we must continue to work towards positive social inclusion for the well-being of all youth.  The school years during adolescence can be a trying time for youth while on their personal journeys of self-discovery.  Imagine these customary “growing pains” heightened through acts of bullying by their own peers.

Bullying is defined as intentional aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power or strength and is repeated over time.  It can take many forms such as physical (hitting, kicking, shoving), verbal (teasing or name calling), emotional (social exclusion), and cyber bullying (insulting text messages, hateful acts via social media).  Several studies show that students with visible and non-visible disabilities are more subject to bullying than their non-disabled peers.  What contributes to this population being an increased target?

There is a skewed perception about youth with disabilities among their own peers.  Youth with ADHD have reduced attention spans and may be unable to hold a conversation; thus their peers view this difference as making them hard to befriend.  Youth with visible disabilities such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida are likely to be victimized by their peers because they may have a different appearance.  Youth with disabilities affecting communication are viewed as “weird” because they use assistive technology devices.  Social inclusion and disability awareness must be taught at an early age so children learn that disability is not a defining quality or in this case a target for bullying.

Now how do bullying, youth with disabilities, and social inclusion all come together? Through inclusive physical activity.  A study released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation analyzed the effects of a recess-and-play-based program on reducing bullying in schools.  The organization, Playworks, was evaluated on its approach of creating organized inclusive recess time utilizing full-time recess coaches.  The effects of these recess coaches are immense including the creation of inclusive opportunities for students and easing the transition from recess to the classroom, allowing teachers more time for instruction.  The main finding of this report is that inclusive play is positively correlated with reduced bullying.  The Playworks annual teacher-reported survey on recess behavior illustrated that 97% noticed increases in student physical activity followed by an 81% decrease in the number of bullying incidents.

Through cultivating an environment for inclusive play, youth are more likely to perceive their peers as active counterparts versus defining them by their disability.  Playworks aims to focus on systemic change and improving the school environment, which is crucial for a long-term impact on bullying.  A movement beyond bullying is created when we involve inclusive physical activity in schools as a means of promoting social inclusion and disability awareness.  An inclusive play environment teaches children with and without disabilities to appreciate each other’s differences and similarities by engaging in play together.

Another physical activity based bullying campaign is “Play Well With Others…Be Active Against Bullying!”  This program was created by FlagHouse with partners AAHPERD, the National Police Athletic League (PAL), The Jared Foundation, American Camping Association, CATCH®, and Project Adventure.

Resources for Inclusive Play Areas:
•    The U.S. Access Board has published official guidelines pertaining to accessible play areas and a summary guidebook on Accessible Play Areas.
•    Play & Park Structures features an accessible products gallery, the Seven Principles of Inclusive Playground Design, Universal Design Benefits, and Boundless Playgrounds.
Resources on Bullying in Youth with Disabilities:
•    Considerations for Bullying in Youth with Disabilities and Special Health Needs StopBullying.gov
•    Walk A Mile in Their Shoes is a guidebook developed by abilitypath.org on bullying and children with disabilities.

Allison Hoit, MS, ACSM-HFS

Author: Allison Hoit

  • http://www.playworks.org/blog Beth Kimberly

    Hi Allison! Thanks for including Playworks in your discussion on bullying and social inclusion through play and physical activity. We believe recess is a key part of the day for all students and can particularly support students with disabilities. More and more parents and educators are making recess time a priority in their school day in order to improving the school/learning environment for all.

  • Allison

    Thanks for your comment, Beth! We can all work together to increase the impact play can have on reducing bullying and promoting social inclusion. Playworks is a great organization and I was happy to highlight it!