My friend, Abbey is 12-years-old, in 7th grade and has cerebral palsy. I wrote about Abbey a few posts back when I was writing about labels and why we have to attach them to children with special needs. As Abbey so astutely pointed out to me, everyone has special needs of one sort or another – some people’s are just more obvious at first glance than other people’s are. But recently, Abbey shared with me what it’s like to be bullied because of her disability and I found her words to be incredibly powerful – and they made me incredibly angry. This video clip will show you, in her own words, some of the things Abbey has to endure. Click on the image left to watch!
I’m sure watching this video will make your blood boil and your heart break, imagining what Abbey has to put up with, imagining her coming home from school to cry. I hope it will also make you admire Abbey for her courage and self-confidence because she is able to let most of these bullies roll off her back. Her mother has taught her that she is so much more than her diagnosis and luckily, she has many other kids and adults who recognize her bravery and integrity. Abbey is able to advocate for herself in many ways, as she is articulate and one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met – of any age!
But what happens to those kids who aren’t able to stand up for themselves, like Abbey is? What about those kids who can’t communicate well enough to defend themselves? Or besides children with special needs, what about those kids who are routinely bullied because of how they dress, how they look, how well they do or don’t do in school, their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs? How did it become so commonplace for our children to have to endure mistreatment and what can we do to stop it?
I wonder if we have become such a litigious society that too many people are afraid to stand up for victims of bullying because they are afraid of legal implications if they do. Or if we have become so immune to the effects of bullying because there are so many ways a child – or an adult – can be bullied. There’s cyber bullying, workplace bullying, schoolyard bullying. Are we becoming so cowardly that we are allowing the bullies to win? Are kids being told they can’t stand up for themselves against bullies because our schools have a zero tolerance policy for violence so that a student can’t even physically defend themselves?
To me, bullies are ignorant, plain and simple. They are ignorant about a lot of things, like people’s differences, they obviously aren’t tolerant and clearly don’t have any confidence in themselves. But I think the biggest thing they are ignorant of is their own feelings and emotions. If a school yard bully or an office bully had the emotional maturity to be cognizant of how their words and actions feel, they wouldn’t do such cruel and hurtful things. How to go about educating these ignorant bullies is where the problem lies.
Children who bully other children are perhaps mistreated at home. Maybe they don’t have loving adults in their lives who teach them right from wrong. Maybe they aren’t being raised with any sort of spiritual grounding, any sort of religion that teaches them about loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. To a certain extent, children can’t be held completely accountable for their actions. Which is where we, as a society, have to step in and set standards of acceptable behavior to one another for children to emulate.
Abbey and I spent an afternoon together about a year ago. I picked her up at her house and took her to a children’s nail salon, where she got a manicure, pedicure and a haircut, then we went to the mall where she wanted to “Build A Bear” and ended our day with lunch at a fun-themed restaurant. I enjoyed every minute with Abbey, loved her hilarious running commentary on everything we were doing – that kid has quite a sense of humor! But by the third stop on our trip, my back was hurting and my arms were starting to ache. Because each stop along the way involved getting the wheelchair out of the back of the car, lifting Abbey from her seat (and she weighed about 60 pounds at the time), getting her situated in the chair and then repeating these actions when we got back into the car. I suddenly understood why so many of the parents of the kids in my programs wore back support bands, why so many of them had back problems.
When we were at the mall, it suddenly dawned on me that whoever thinks that stores in malls are wheelchair accessible is crazy because we bumped into every end wrack and display we came across. The aisles were not wide enough to accommodate even a child’s wheelchair. Several people, including children, spoke to us in the bear store, admiring the kitten Abbey created and greeting us warmly as we passed. But when we made our final stop at the restaurant and were waiting in line to be seated, a big, ugly, wretched looking woman began to stare at us- in disgust. A grown woman, who, I might add, was ill-groomed, smelled bad and looked even worse (okay, I might be exaggerating but wait until you hear the rest of the story!), stared down at Abbey in her wheelchair, not saying a word. Abbey smiled up at her, held out her kitten and said, “Would you like to see the kitten I just made?” The woman looked Abbey straight in the eyes….and turned her back on us.
The hostess at the restaurant and the other patrons waiting in line saw this and all of them began to chime in to Abbey, exclaiming over how cute her kitten was and what a good job she did in creating it. The hostess even skipped over the hideous woman to seat others behind her first. But none of that prevented Abbey from being completely aware of what had just happened – she had been judged and rejected by an adult, a grown woman who certainly should have known better. What’cha want to bet that that wicked witch raised a bully or two?
As a parent, I certainly don’t want to be held responsible for every mistake my children might make. But I do feel I should be responsible for giving them the moral grounding to help them develop their own moral compass and the ability to feel compassion for others. As a society, we should all feel a responsibility to make up for cruelty and bullying when we see it happening, like the others did in the restaurant line. It can’t take away the hurt from someone being bullied, but at least we can show them that everyone in the world doesn’t stink.
And it wouldn’t hurt if every parent had to spend an afternoon lugging a wheelchair or walker everywhere they go, seeing what it’s like to have a child with special needs who is completely dependent on others for their mobility. Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and we’re more likely to understand what their life is like on a daily basis. Why don’t we all band together, like the people in the restaurant line, and acknowledge when we see someone being bullied – ignore the bully and extend compassion to the bullied? Why can’t we all show those who bully that they aren’t welcome here, in our schools, in our businesses, in our homes? Bullies do what they do because they are ignorant and because they can get away with it. The next time you see someone doing something cruel to another person, if you don’t want to step in and get actively involved, at least turn your back to the bully and let them know that bullies aren’t welcome around here.