Bullying rates higher for children with disabilities

Learners with disabilities are disproportionately affected by bullying at all ages and in all learning settings, with serious negative impacts on their education, health and well-being. The extent of the problem and the reasons these learners are so vulnerable was the subject of an international meeting, the third in a 2021 series by UNESCO and the World Anti-Bullying Forum.

The international meeting on bullying involving children and young people with disabilities was held in the lead-up to the World Anti-Bullying Forum in Stockholm on 1-3 November. Representatives from UN agencies, non-Government and civil society organizations, academia and youth explored the available evidence, and spotlighted examples of targeted responses to bullying.

A new report summarizing the key findings of a literature review commissioned by UNESCO was presented for the first time during the meeting. In every study reviewed for the report, learners with disabilities were as or more likely than their non-disabled peers to be victims of school violence and bullying, in some cases significantly more. This is found at all levels of education, but particularly between the ages of 13 and 15 during the transition from late childhood into early adolescence. 

Vibeke Jensen, Director, Division of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development at UNESCO said school violence in all its forms, including bullying, is a severe infringement of children and adolescents’ right to education. “UNESCO promotes inclusive education systems that remove the barriers limiting the participation and achievement of all learners. Among marginalized and vulnerable groups, UNESCO has been paying special attention to children with disabilities,” Ms Jensen said.

Bullying for a child with a disability is a traumatic experience, explained Maria Njeri, Goodwill ambassador for the Cerebral Palsy Society of Kenya. “Unfortunately, I remember the other students didn’t know much about me and my condition, so they would laugh at me all the time and make sarcastic comments. I was isolated at my own desk, away from the others and locked up in class, always teased,” said Ms Njeri. “The teachers weren’t any better. They’d frequently punish me for not keeping up at school. I believe if the school and the teachers had introduced me appropriately, it would have been easier.”

During final panel discussion at the international meeting, experts debated how responses to bullying would be improved if more young people with disabilities were involved in research. As well as tapping into the diversity of experience this community possesses, said Mark Carew, Senior Researcher, Disability Data and Inclusive Policies at Leonard Cheshire, “young people’s involvement in bullying research can empower participants and build their capacity and confidence to address the power imbalance that is associated with bullying. It will also serve as a great advocacy tool to bring about change in their lives.” He said that the research approach should be participatory across the lifecycle of evidence generation, from design to dissemination.

“For research to be inclusive of young people with disabilities, the availability of skills and resources are critical,” added Cathy Vaughan, Head of the Gender and Women’s Health Unit and Co-Director of the Centre for Health Equity at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne. “These include providing reasonable accommodation, making the materials available ahead of time, providing assistive technologies, training in accessible venues, accessible transport, and managing the timing of the process to ensure people’s fatigue level.”