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    Bullying of Students with Disabilities in Our Schools

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    by Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW

    [youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gn-FAiutC_Q[/youtube]

    Though the 2013-2014 school year is ending for the summer, the bullying of students with disabilities epidemic has made headline news this academic term.  A recent headlining story took place late May in Richmond, California, where a father boarded a school bus, and attacked the student who allegedly bullied his 9-year-old son, who has autism. Burris Hurd was charged with child abuse and corporal injury to a child, and was held in jail on a $50,000 bond.

    Reports stated that Hurd’s son identified an 11-year-old student to his father that he claimed had bullied him. Hurd, supposedly inebriated, reacted by grabbing the alleged bully by the hair, pulled and raised the student by his hair out of his seat, and shoved the child on the side of the bus.  Hurd also made threats to the suspected bully, and other students on the bus.  The bus driver failed to restrain Hurd from assaulting the student nor did he report the attack to school officials.

    It was the attacked student who reported the incident to the principal, who then contacted the police department. Both students attend the special education program at Wilson Elementary School in Richmond. It is without saying that Hurd’s actions towards his son being bullied by a student was highly inappropriate, life-threatening, and extremely counterproductive to finding a solution to the program.No adult should ever put his or her hands on a child, whether disabled or not, in any fashion that will yield bodily harm and/or intimidation. Though parents and guardians of children with disabilities tend to be overprotective and on high-alert as to how their child(ren) are treated by others, assaulting someone is never the answer to resolving the issue that may exist.

    The Astounding Reality of the Bullying of Students with Disabilities:

    According to PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, research found that students with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled classmates.  One research study discovered that 60% of students with disabilities have reported experiencing some form of bullying, which is an incredibly higher percentage than non-disabled students who reported being bullied (which was 25%).

    How Bullying Affects A Student’s Ability to Learn & Thrive in the Classroom:

    The effects of bullying can negatively impact the educational experiences of students with disabilities.  Contrary to what we adults would like to believe, bullying is NOT a harmless rite of passage that children endure; its only purpose is to embarrass, ostracize, and belittle the student targeted.

    Bullying has the ability to adversely influence the targeted student’s access to education, to the point where the student’s academic success can be jeopardized.  Here are some of the devastating effects of bullying on a student’s educational experience:

    • School avoidance and higher rates of absenteeism
    • Decrease in grades
    • Inability to concentrate
    • Loss of interest in academic achievement
    • Increase in dropout rates

    Bullying Based on a Student’s Disability Status is Considered Harassment:

    Bullying and harassing behavior can be deemed as:

    • Unwelcomed conduct, such as verbal abuse, name-calling, epithets, and/or slurs
    • Graphic or offensive language, or written statements
    • Threats (verbal or implied through non-verbal communication (i.e., pounding fist into palm))
    • Physical assaults
    • Other behavioral conducts that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating

    The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have both stated that bullying may be considered as harassment when it is based on a student’s identity status(es), such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability, or religion.

    The issue of bullying and/or harassment due to a student’s disability status are outlined under two federal policies:  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.  (The OCR is responsible for reinforcing Section 504, and Title II of the ADA.)  Students with disabilities who have a 504 plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which are used in addressing, outlining, and implementing any accommodations and resources they may need in the school environment, qualify for the legal protections under these mandates.

    The Responsibilities of School Officials in Addressing Bullying:

    Bullying 3In the Dear Colleague letter issued by the OCR in 2000:

    States and school districts also have a responsibility under Section 504, Title II, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is enforced by OSERS [the Office for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services], to ensure that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is made available to eligible students with disabilities. Disability harassment may result in a denial of FAPE under these statutes.

    In the letter, the OCR also addressed how bullying and harassment has the potential to stymie a student with an IEP from receiving an educational opportunity that is appropriate for their needs:

    The IDEA was enacted to ensure that recipients of IDEA funds make available to students with disabilities the appropriate special education and related services that enable them to access and benefit from public education.  The specific services to be provided a student with a disability are set forth in the student’s individualized education program (IEP), which is developed by a team that includes the student’s parents, teachers and, where appropriate, the student.  Harassment of a student based on disability may decrease the student’s ability to benefit from his or her education and amount to a denial of FAPE.

    The OCR released another Dear Colleague letter in 2010 as a reminder to school officials of their responsibilities to protecting the civil rights of students with disabilities from bullying and harassment.

    Under these federal policies, parents and students have legal rights when bullying and harassment occurs.  It is the school administrators and school districts responsibilities to ensure that a non-threatening environment is available to all students, and are to take proactive measures to eliminate situations that may affect a student’s physical and emotional safety, and academic achievement.

    What Can Be Done To Combat Bullying:

    Responding Appropriately to Bullying Allegations Made by Students with Disabilities

    From the headline story covered at the beginning of this article, the parental response was undeniably ineffective in grasping an understanding of what was taking place between the alleged bullying victim and accuser.

    Parents/guardians, educators, school district officials, and other adults involved in students’ academic experience, have to realize that they are the frontline advocates for bullied students with disabilities. Advocating for the safety of students and ensuring that students are able to function fully in the school environment should be the top priority for everyone; losing that focus will be ineffectual handling of the situation.  Students with disabilities who are bullied need to feel that those who are supposed to protect them will do so.  Receiving that protection and support from these adults will allow students to be comfortable in discussing what has transpired between them and their classmate(s) in order to resolve the problem.

    One key thing for adults to realize:  it is NEVER the bullied students’ responsibility to “fix” the problem; if they could do that, then they would not need adult intervention.

    Educate Yourself About What Your State is Doing to Fight Bullying in Our Schools

    Bullying and harassment are not only mentioned in federal laws – many states have enacted laws addressing the detrimental effects and responsibilities of schools.  StopBullying.gov, a federal resource that provides information about bullying and cyberbullying, targeted populations, and what can be done to ameliorate and extinguish this issue, has a webpage called Policies & Laws that gives you the opportunity to learn about the anti-bullying mandates in your state.

    Create a School & Community Environment Where Peer & Self Advocacy are Supported

    Allowing students to be stand up for themselves and their classmates when bullying and harassment occurs is a powerful peer supporting mechanism to establish in school and community settings.

    Students know who are the “instigators”/”bullies” in their schools, but they may not want to be the one to “snitch” on their friend or classmate.  Teaching students that they have a responsibility to stand up for what is right by speaking up when it is necessary has the potential to reduce the occurrence of bullying and harassment by more than 50%.  The reason peer advocacy is so effective is because a student who confronts a peer about their bullying behavior resonates more than it would coming from an adult

    Teaching self-advocacy to students with disabilities will allow them to find their voice.  Learning to be direct about what they need, and when they feel unsafe will eliminate feelings of intimidation or shame due to bullying.  Self-advocacy is an empowering tool that students will be able to use not only in the school environment, but also in the workforce, addressing public policies, etc., when they become adults.  It is truly never too early to promote self-advocacy to disabled students; it is an imperative life skill to have.

    Resources About Bullying in Our Schools

    Awareness and action regarding bullying are dire so that all students will can learn in our schools without fear or isolation.  StopBullying.gov’s Prevent Bullying page and PACER’s Resources webpage has a plethora of online tools for parents, educators, and students to fight against bullying.

    Final Thoughts about Bullying:

    We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand anymore; our students are hurting, and in some cases, are taking their own lives, because of bullying.  It is our responsibility as parents/guardians, educators, helping professionals, and community residents to work together to protect and empower our students of all abilities.

    (Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of JLSL.)

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    Vilissa Thompson, LMSW is the Disability and Advocacy Staff Writer for Social Work Helper, and she is also the Founder of Ramp Your Voice! In addition to being a Disability Rights Consultant and Advocate, Vilissa seeks to propel the faces and voices of people of color with disabilities both within the disability community and in the general public. Vilissa can be contacted via email at Vilissa@rampyourvoice.com, or by visiting the Ramp Your Voice! website at http://www.rampyourvoice.com/.

    Culture

    What Do You Know About Disability Cultural Competence?

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    Recently, I had the opportunity to give a webinar on disability cultural competence to social service workers, but was met with many blank stares. As a disabled social worker myself, I often notice that the disability community is not recognized as a cultural group. Disability is also not considered as a social identity in diversity considerations, despite the ways the community feels about it. Frankly, our field has a long way to go when it comes to developing disability cultural competence. Let’s see if we can change that.

    Why the We Need to Prioritize the Disability Community

    You may be asking yourself, why all the focus on disability? Well, the disability community comprises 26 percent of the adult U.S. population – that’s one in four Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control. Among children under the age of 18, estimates suggest that 4.3 percent of the population is disabled according to the U.S. Census from 2019. This means that social services workers are interacting with the disability community all over! It’s also important to note that disability transcends race, ethnicity, gender and other social identities, as seen in the graphic below (courtesy of Courtney-Long, Romano, Carroll, et al., 2017). So we need to remember to be intersectional in our  practice – these are not siloed communities.

    Courtesy of Courtney-Long, Romano, Carroll, et al., 2017

    Importance of Disability Identity

    I’d like to transition now to talking about the importance of having a disability identity. Some people identify as disabled from a cultural perspective. Some people are not even aware that this is an option and you can open their eyes to the world of disability as a resource for them. In other words, for some, this is a missed opportunity to connect to a supportive network. For others, it’s a choice not to identify as disabled either due to stigma, internalized ableism or other beliefs. The idea is that developing a strong disability identity is super helpful with your long-term well-being. And in order to do this, you have to both connect with the disability community and with disability culture. So what is that?

    What is Disability Culture?

     

    In short, disability culture is the “sum total of behaviors, beliefs, ways of living, & material artifacts that are unique to persons affected by disability.” It’s essential for social service workers to be tuned in to disability culture so they can leverage it to connect with their clients. And let’s be clear, disability culture does NOT consist of disability service programs. Where we really see disability culture come alive is on social media sites, such as Twitter and Instagram. You can follow some of the major disability culture hashtags to see the dialogues and debates that are hot in our community right now, such as: #DisabilityTwitter; #DisabilityVisability; #DisabilityAwareness; #IdentityFirst; #DisabilityLife; #Spoonie,#SpoonieLife, and more.

    You may notice that the last two hashtags included the word “spoonie.” This derives from “spoon theory,” which is an actual theory based on a metaphor about how much mental and physical energy a person has to accomplish their activities of daily living (ADLs) and instrumental activities of daily living (IADLs). The disability community talks about how many “spoons” they have as a unit of measurement of energy – and sometimes refers to themselves as spoonies. Please note that in teaching you this, I am helping you to develop your disability cultural competence.

    How Build Disability Cultural Competence

    Other ways to build up your disability cultural competence are to check out the Disability Visibility Project, which tells the stories of diverse members of the community in wonderful ways. And there are a range of organizations, such as Sins Invalid, which founded the disability justice movement. You can also read the 10 principles of that movement in this short document. This will help you to tune in to the disability pride movement. We have a pride month and a pride flag too, it happens in July.

    When it comes to engaging in disability competent practice, we need to develop knowledge about disability culture and disability history. We can also consider taking the following steps to round out this competence:

    First, we need to examine our own attitudes about disability and engage in reflective practice around that. You can consider your own implicit bias about the disability community through Harvard University’s Project Implicit test about ableism, or through social worker Vilissa Thompson’s guide to checking your own ableism.

    Second, developing disability cultural competence over time also includes a careful look at the terminology we are using and respecting disabled people’s choice of identity-first language in many cases. You can read more about that here and throughout that site. The Harvard Business Review also has a thoughtful essay on why you need to stop using particular words and phrases. It’s a great resource and helpful read for many.

    Third, we also need to think respectfully about disability etiquette and how ideas play out in different parts of the disability community. One should presume competence about us – all of us! We ask that you respect our bodily autonomy, speak to the person and not their companion/interpreter, ask before you help, be sensitive about physical contact/equipment contact, don’t make assumptions about capacity, listen to us, don’t assume you know better and if you are in doubt about what to do, ask! Writer Andrew Purlang sums up his disability etiquette request as follows:

    • Don’t be afraid to notice, mention, or ask about a person’s disability when it’s relevant — but don’t go out of your way!
    • Offer to help, but make sure to listen to their response, respect their answer, & follow their directions
    • Don’t tell a disabled person about how they should think about or talk about their own disability
    • Don’t give unsolicited medical, emotional, or practical advice
    • Don’t make a disabled person responsible for managing your feelings about their disability, or for your education on disability issues
    • If you make a mistake, just say you’re sorry and move on. Don’t try to argue that you were right all along.

    Now What?

    Taken together, these steps, learning disability culture, and examining our own attitudes about disability, go a long way towards the development of disability cultural competence. But none of it will do any good if we are not fighting for disability access and disability inclusion, which are central issues for the disability community. Many people think that issues of access were solved by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. But the implementation of that law is fraught and embattled, and there is lots of work to be done on the access front. Take a look at these simple guides below. They will go a long way in helping to engage the disability community and making us feel welcome! Above all, remember our movement’s rallying cry, “nothing about us, without us!”

    Website Accessibility

    Accessible Social Media Guide

    Meeting Accessibility

    Webinar Accessibility

    Public Event Accessibility

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    Disability

    New Analysis: More U.S. Adults Identify as Disabled; Ethnic and Socioeconomic Disparities Persist

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    A new analysis led by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers finds that the number of U.S. adults who report they have a disability is 27%, representing 67 million adults, an increase of 1% since the data were last analyzed in 2016. In this new study, which used data collected in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers found a wide array of disparities between socioeconomic and demographic factors that persists among those who identify as disabled and those who do not.

    “To reduce ableism and create more inclusive communities, our country must be equipped with data on the prevalence of disabilities and who is most impacted by them,” says Bonnielin Swenor, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of the Johns Hopkins Disability Health Research Center and associate professor of ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Wilmer Eye Institute.

    Swenor and her research team analyzed survey data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a collection of health and behavior information from annual telephone surveys of more than 400,000 U.S. adults.

    Results of the analysis were published Oct. 21 in JAMA Network Open.

    Approximately 27% of American adults reported a disability. When compared with the U.S. adult population, this represents 67 million adults. An additional 6 million people reported a disability since data on disability prevalence were analyzed and reported in 2016.

    In the current study, approximately 12% of American adults reported more than one disability. Mobility was the most often reported disability type, followed by cognitive/mental, independent living (requiring help for daily tasks and outings), hearing, vision, and self-care (needing help with bathing, dressing and other personal care tasks).

    In addition, the researchers analyzed socioeconomic and demographic data to better understand the prevalence of disability across intersecting groups.

    “Developing effective measures and policies to include people with disabilities in all aspects of life needs to account for the variability in how people among different ethnic, socioeconomic, demographic and geographic groups experience disability,” says Swenor. “With robust data, we can strengthen the foundation of our knowledge about disability and develop tangible solutions.”

    The survey data showed that, compared with adults without a disability, disabled adults were more likely to be older, female, Hispanic, have less than a high school education, have low income, be unemployed, and be bisexual, transgender or gender nonconforming. Digging deeper, the team found differences in disability prevalence based on sociodemographic groups. For example, Black females had a higher prevalence of disability than females of other races, and Black adults identifying as gay or bisexual had a lower prevalence of disability compared with gay or bisexual adults of other races.

    Swenor and the research team note that an aging population and other factors may contribute to the increase in reported disability. The data include information from before the COVID-19 pandemic, and Swenor says there may be an increase in people reporting a disability resulting from long-term symptoms of COVID-19.

    The research team aims to use these data to continue studying the experiences of disabled populations, including identifying and finding support and resources for people with disabilities and ascertaining the capabilities of schools and employers in supporting disabled communities.

    In addition to Swenor, researchers who contributed to the report include Jessica Campanile, Jennifer Deal, Ph.D., Nicholas Reed, Au.D., and Varshini Varadaraj, M.D., M.P.H.

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    Disability

    Zoom Differentiation and Accommodations

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    Though virtual learning is seemingly becoming less commonplace across the country, it’s still certainly around and likely will be for some time. And we all know that virtual learning has its challenges. Especially when it comes to differentiating in the virtual classroom. For students with special education accommodations, teachers will need to get creative in order to account for every student’s unique needs and optimize learning opportunities. Thankfully, there are strategies and methods for providing special education accommodations in Zoom—we just need to think outside the box and modify what each accommodation looks like in the virtual realm. Let’s take a look.

    Zoom Chat

    Since some are no longer physically in the classroom, proximity, prompting, and cueing accommodations pose a bit of a challenge for instructors. Yet, nothing has changed in terms of the student’s needs. In fact, students who struggle to focus and/or stay on task may need the prompting and proximity accommodations even more now that they are sitting in front of a screen. Online learning does not allow for physical proximity; however, teachers can utilize the chat function to maximize student engagement and provide an alternative form of proximity, prompting, and cueing.

    Reaching out: The Zoom chat can be used to individually reach out to specific students with prompting accommodations to spur participation and to rephrase a question when necessary.

    Clarifying: The chat also allows teachers to check for understanding by providing a platform for asking clarifying questions, follow-up questions, etc.

    Advocating: Teachers should remind students of their chatting capabilities so that students with accommodations can advocate for themselves and speak up when they need assistance.

    Tracking: The chat also acts as a data tracker; teachers can modify their settings in Zoom so that chats are saved. This allows for teachers to review correspondence with students and share questions and check-ins with parents. Teachers can also use saved chats to track the number of times a student initiates a task, asks clarifying questions, responds to polls or exit responses, etc.

    Reminding: Teachers can use the Zoom chat as a method for reminding students of their extended time or reduced workload accommodations as well. This allows teachers to discreetly remind a certain student that his due date is extended without drawing attention to the student’s accommodations in front of the whole class. **Just be certain that, when chatting with specific students about these accommodations, you have selected the student’s name from the dropdown so that the chat remains a private, 1:1 conversation.

    Breakout Rooms

    The grouping function in Zoom can also be beneficial when ensuring certain special education accommodations are offered. Teachers have the option to manually assign groups, which means that students with special education services can be grouped with a para-educator or with other students who have the same accommodations.

    Variance: Teachers should try to avoid always grouping special education students together, however, as to avoid drawing attention to certain small groups or stigmatizing students who need additional support.

    Oversight: Teachers can randomly assign groups using the “automatic” option when creating breakout rooms. Then, while students work, the “host” can pop in and out of groups to act as a “check-in” for students with that accommodation.

    Mobility: Teachers can also move the para-educator from group to group during breakout room sessions so that every student receives supports throughout the collaborative activity.

    Discretion: Breakout rooms also offer opportunities for differentiation. Teachers can modify assignments and link adapted materials in the chat to send to specific breakout rooms. From the chat link, students can click on the shared Google doc to access the modified material. This function can provide students with resources such as word banks, sentence starters, outlines, graphic organizers, glossaries, etc. The key is that each student who receives these accommodations will have access in a discreet manner and can choose to use the materials as needed.

    In short, there are many steps educators can take to ensure virtual learning provides differentiation and accommodation on a platform like Zoom. Though virtual learning may not be around forever, it still remains for some, and with that, educators must ensure they enhance the learning experience as much as possible.

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