Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On Bullying and Disability

I'm in the middle of writing a post about my experience at this year's Reelabilities Film Festival, but the words aren't coming to me lately. And another issue has come to my attention that is much more serious and that I feel I need to talk about.

In the past week, two of my friends have been the target of nasty, cruel, disablist/ableist cyber-bullying, one on Formspring, and one on Youtube. Needless to say, THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE. Although there has been much discussion about cyberbullying/bullying in the media lately, especially about bullying directed towards LGBTQ youth, there has been almost no discussion of the thousands, maybe even millions of youth that are the target of disablist/ableist bullying EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

I was bullied, both on and offline, throughout seventh, eighth, and even ninth grade. While most of the bullying wasn't strictly disability-related, I do think my disability played in a part in making me an appealing target for bullies. Bullies go for people with disabilities because there's this underlying assumption that we can't fight back. And certainly that is true to some extent. The idea of me ever being in a physical fight was (and still is) laughable. The most I could ever do is hit someone with a crutch, and the momentum of the swinging crutch plus not having a crutch to lean on would probably unbalance me so much I'd fall over. But never underestimate us, because someday, somehow, we will fight back. Just look at ADAPT and similar large disability organizations - how much change they've been able to enact, how they've fought back against obvious and latent disablism/ableism.

Some of the bullying I went through WAS disability-related, however. I will never forget one IM conversation with a classmate of mine who shall not be named. Out of the blue, she goes: "You thought you could get all the attention just because you have a disability." I was very hurt and completely shocked. I don't even think I responded to the IM, because I couldn't think of WHAT to say. I was also accused of "faking it" once. Although it wasn't to my face - because the girl was too much of a coward to accuse me to my face - I think the accusation went something like this: "She [me] walks fine, and then when people are around she pretends to fall." Once again, I was completely shocked and disgusted.

Why do people use disability as an excuse to bully people? I think because, similar to LGBTQ people being sensitive or closeted about their sexual orientation, especially in those middle school stages when admitting you're different is akin to social suicide, disability can be a sensitive spot. Our society indoctrinates people into thinking disability is badbadbad. In middle school and high school, all you want to do is fit in, and fitting in is very difficult when you get "special" accommodations. Even more difficult when you are "visibly" disabled, which is why a lot of kids with "mild" disabilities try to minimize their disabilities as much as possible. Disablist bullying reaches right into the deepest and darkest insecurities we have, the ones we'd never admit out loud when we're being crippled and proud, and says "You're not normal, and that's wrong." No matter how proud I am of being who I am, there are still my moments where I feel like a freak, and not in a good way.

Especially with "mildly"/"invisibly" disabled people and being accused of "faking it", I think that hits a particular nerve. Because I know all my life, deep in the back of mind, there's a little voice that's said: "Maybe they're right. Maybe you're just lazy, maybe you could do a lot more if you just tried harder. Maybe you could walk that extra block, maybe you could stand a little bit longer. Maybe you've exaggerated your CP all this time." So to have that voice sort of validated is never a pleasant thing. A post will be coming at some point about the unique issues those of us with mild/invisible disabilities face and how thin the line is between disabled and able-bodied is in some circumstances.

More so then any other type of bullying, disablist/ableist bullying is accepted in our society. Just like the heterosexual bias that is built into our society, there is also what can be called an "ability bias". It is assumed that everyone can (and does) walk, everyone can (and does) climb steps, everyone can (and does) drive. So disablism/ableism and disablist/ableist bullying often flies under the radar, because those with the social privilege of being non-disabled don't even consider a life that doesn't have that privilege. Words like "retard" and "cripple" (used derogatorily) don't carry the same weight, the same power, as, say, the n-word (even though they absolutely should). And because so many disablist terms are used as part of slang ("that's retarded", "I'm, like, OCD about it", "I feel so ADD", etc.), I think there's a general sense of kids-will-be-kids, and teachers and other authority figures are inclined to just brush it off. But words hurt. I know it sounds cliche, but it's true.

So what can you do if you or someone you know is the target of disablist/ableist bullying? First and foremost, speak up! Tell your parents, your teacher, your principal - whoever you feel comfortable with - until someone takes you seriously. If the bullying is occurring online, save everything and print it out. On AIM, I know there used to be an option to save your IM conversation as an .html file, I don't know if it exists anymore. If there's not a save option, highlight the whole conversation and copy and paste it into a word processing document. People will take you a lot more seriously if you have written evidence of the bullying, and it's a lot easier to show people the comments word for word instead of trying to paraphrase.

Try and avoid the bullies whenever possible (obviously). Take steps to ensure they can't bother you again. When I was cyber-bullied, I blocked the screennames of the kids who were harrassing me from my buddy list. Eventually, because of the cyber-bullying and other reasons, I created a new screenname entirely and was very careful about who I gave it out to. Only give your online screennames and usernames and whatnot to people you trust and who you know you are actually going to talk to. If people ask you for your screenname and you're uncomfortable saying no, give them a fake one, or give them an old one that you never use anymore. Delete your facebook/formspring/youtube account if you have to. You can always create a new one.

And most of all, surround yourself with positivity. As I recently said to a friend, the good people in this world far outnumber the stupid people. Surround yourself with friends and family, people who care about you and will always be there for you. When you've got that many great people around you, suddenly one or two bullies seem a lot less significant. If anyone reads this post and wants to share their experiences being bullied, feel free to comment or contact me privately at caraliebowitz@gmail.com.

And if anyone wants to head over to my friend Nicole's Youtube account, I highly encourage you to watch her awesome videos about living with a disability and leave her some POSITIVE comments for once! :)


Carl Thompson said...

This is a very informative and touching post. Bullying in any form is unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

My realitive is disabled and she been cyberbulled for a while now. Here's a link to the webpage that her bully made on her. I will say none of this true. Kim have tried killing herself few times and this need to end.Please help, I know she is not a child, but a disabled person!