What Kind of Kid Bullies the Sibling of a Special Needs Child?

This is a follow-up to Totally Honest Blogging: Not Nice, in which I tormented a junior high classmate even after I found out she had a special needs sibling.

What kind of kid acts the way I did? Harasses a peer without cause, for sport, and after discovering facts about the victim's home life that should have made them totally off-limits?

In my case, there were two reasons:

First, I suspected that no one would stop me. Most people didn't realize I was such a little asshole. Adults like my kind, hard-working parents considered me harmless -- if sullen and a bit of a shirker -- and most students didn't notice me. My victim Deanna was quiet and kept to herself. When I decided to bully her, I anticipated smooth sailing on those soulless seas.

Second, people with disabilities were theoretical to me. Most kids my age tossed around the word "retard" as a synonym for "jerk" or "loser;" I had never before known a classmate who would find "retard" hurtful. I never considered that people I actually knew could have family members with disabilities. When I found out that Deanna's sister had special needs, I was intrigued, but not enough to change strategies or target. Not enough to stop badgering a blameless girl, or consider that her life might have been challenging enough before my bullying.

I had no empathy touchstone. I had no personal connection to anyone with a disability.

The problem wasn't lack of exposure: there were eight students in the special ed class at my sizable elementary school, and their three teachers frequently brought them onto our enormous shared recess field. But I don't remember any attempts to integrate those students into our community, to help us meet them, talk to them, understand that they were just kids, too. They sat on the grass near us while we played statue maker, but they might as well have been behind a glass partition.

No one ever helped us recognize the shared humanity behind the special ed students' differences. And unfortunately, my personal experience has been that many people still need to be smacked upside the head before they can see the kid under the special needs label.

If I could reach back in time and smack myself, believe me, I would.

On Friday: What parents and teachers can do to help promote understanding and prevent bullying of children with special needs and their siblings.

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  1. I actually just had a conversation via chat room with a friend who has a sister with some form of mental retardation, and your post applies to her situation perfectly.

    Karen was the kid who got teased about her sister. They had to ride the bus together, and her sister frequently acted out in school, on the bus, and in public. She got teased mercilessly because of it, and her mother pushed her to be the defender, to look out for her sister.

    Unfortunately, as an adult now (her sister is in a group home now) she has a deep intense hatred of her mother and her sister. It's pretty sad.

    Kids will be kids, I guess all we can do is try to educate our own. I know my children will NEVER get away with using the "R word".

  2. Anonymous12:47 PM

    If I could go back in time, I would smack you, too. You were one of my chiefest tormenters, you know. But you were, to me anyway, fascinating.

    That said, isn't it interesting that you are now one of my chiefest sources of joy?

    People change, thank heavens.

    And you're still fascinating 35 years later.

  3. When I was 8yo my mom sign me up for an after school program which consisted to bus us to the near by institution, where we spent the afternoon playing with kids with special needs. I remember the afternoons in that place which smelled like soup. I remember an older kid who had huge tantrums and would throw himself on the floor, and I remember spending most of my time playing with this girl (Maria? don't remember, I am horrible with names...) who had Down Syndrome.
    A dear friend who I have known since I was a little kid was born with a congenital disorder which prevented his legs from developing. He has to use crutches to "walk". In middle school I went to a music geeks school and one of the coolest kids in the class had an older brother with special needs. I remember his very very sweet mom, and my friend struggle to balance his social "cool" life with his life at home.
    I think that early exposure has made a big difference in me understanding and respecting differences. I truly hope that each of the included students in our schools and classrooms act as small ambassador to kindness and respect for others.


Respectful disagreement encouraged.