All Inclusive? Tackling Disability-Related Bullying in Schools

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“I don’t think that Halle Berry could have a disability, she’s really pretty and I’ve seen her in films and she’s not in a wheelchair or anything, she can do stuff”

“James Cracknell looks normal, so he can’t be disabled”

Over the past five months we have had the pleasure of working with hundreds of primary school children and teachers across Islington to help them to better understand disability and tackle disability-related bullying. Much of the material covered in our workshops was adapted from our educational resource, All Inclusive, which is free to download here.

It is estimated that around 4% of primary aged children are disabled, but disability-related bullying remains a big problem in schools. Research conducted by the Institute of Education in 2014 showed that disabled pupils are twice as likely to be bullied as their non-disabled peers. Experiences of being bullied, or worrying about it, are extremely destructive and can damage social skills and progress. Pupils who are the targets of bullying may become depressed and withdrawn. For many disabled young people, bullying continues over many years and can blight their lives into adulthood.

Some of the past strategies aimed at tackling disability-related bullying have placed the focus on the disabled child, for example, improving their social skills and helping disabled children to ‘fit in’. However, if we are to create effective change, we need to refocus on improving all children’s understanding of disability, and helping pupils to recognise that everyone needs to treat others with respect and understanding.

In our workshops, children are first tasked with matching celebrities with their achievements before being asked to sort the celebrities into disabled and non-disabled people, just by looking at their pictures. It is then revealed that all of the celebrities have a disability. Children have the opportunity to learn about different conditions and provided with a safe space to share their experiences if they share a similar condition, or have a family or friend who does so.

“I have dyslexia! That’s just like me!”

The children learn how people are not necessarily born disabled, that disabilities are not always visible and that many very successful people are disabled.

“Sometimes disabilities are on the inside, rather than the outside, so they can’t be seen'”

“People with disabilities can achieve cool and brilliant things”

The children then work in small groups to consider the story of a young boy called Stefan who is bullied because he has ADHD. The story is paused at different points and the children think about what they would do if they were Stefan or his friends to make sure that the bullying is stopped.

“His friends shouldn’t just stand there and not say anything, they have to help Jake”

“Jake might be scared, but he needs to tell a teacher. I would go with him”

The workshops finish with the young people considering the steps that they can take to ensure that their classroom is a safe and happy place for everyone.

“We will make a box in the classroom that you can put your worries in and tell people if you are being bullied”

“Make sure everyone gets to join in”

“Create an anti-bullying campaign and tell everyone in my school!”

If we are going to eliminate disability-related bullying, it is not enough to just work with the young people, we need to take a whole school approach. Schools need to be equipped with robust policies and procedures, which impact positively on practice and are accessible to staff and students. Therefore, we have accompanied our workshops for young people with twilight teacher training sessions for teachers and support staff. Participants complete questionnaires prior to our visit, which allows us to tailor the material to the needs of the school.

“I’m not sure if we have any disabled children in our school, so this isn’t a big issue for us…”

The training includes helping staff to understand the definitions of disability and special educational needs and their duties with respect to these under the Equality Act 2010 and Children and Families Act 2014. The training covers effective approaches to promoting equality and undertaking education which challenges prejudice amongst pupils. Work to promote understanding needs to go hand in hand with effective approaches to responding to disability-related bullying when it occurs. Firstly, the impact of allowing pupils to use disablist language needs to be understood.

“Pupils say sp***ic to each other, but I don’t think that word is connected with disability any more, it just means stupid or bad at something”

Allowing disablist language to go unchecked creates associations between disability and deficiency, creates a hostile environment for disabled children and lays the foundation for disability-related bullying to occur, therefore it needs to be challenged consistently and pupils need education to understand why it is wrong.

Schools also need to ensure that all staff and pupils are able to articulate the schools values and expectations with regards to disability-related bullying. Our training culminates with an exploration of how to effectively respond to different types of disability-related incidents. Case studies are utilised to consolidate these approaches.

“Open discussion about what is happening in our school and the opportunity to work through scenarios has helped us all to galvanise our approach to tackling discriminatory incidents.”

We are extremely appreciative to Islington council for the funding and support that they have provided which has allowed us to undertake such an extensive programme of work in the borough. Interventions such as these can only ever be a small factor in creating school climates which celebrate difference and foster good relations, but building awareness and understanding is a vital step in the journey to fully inclusive schools where all children feel safe and able to achieve.

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