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Teachers, students ostracize disabled children, study finds

Posted Jan 25 2012 11:34am
A 2011 Holland Bloorview study sheds light on how children with cerebral palsy are ostracized and bullied at school.

A qualitative study of 15 youth aged eight to 19 with cerebral palsy published in Disability and Rehabilitation found that teachers and peers intentionally shut out children with disabilities. Examples include teachers who turn off a communication device for most of the day – rendering a student silent – and a teacher who refuses to allow a child to have a bathroom communication button because it will disturb other children. As a result, the child, who is toilet trained, must wear diapers.

Sometimes accommodations weren’t made, researchers found. Other times accommodations themselves – such as having students write tests in a different room – set the children apart physically. “There were more and more accommodations I would need that would make me stick out more different,” says one participant.

Many students said they changed schools several times because of the negative attitudes of teachers. They also found teacher attitudes influenced how their peers treated them.

Unintentional peer exclusion included leaving children out of activities because they were perceived as ‘fragile,’ busy with an educational assistant or ‘too slow.’

Intentional exclusion focused on children’s differences and included name-calling and being ignored. “The kids act like I am invisible,” one participant said. Four of the participants had been physically bullied over a number of years, which included being kicked and pushed and physically injured.

Students reported that they didn’t want to tell anyone about the bullying because they were ashamed.

In a follow-up study published in Child: Care, Health and Development, Holland Bloorview researchers asked the same group of youth with cerebral palsy how their participation in school life could be improved.

The students identified three key strategies: learn how to explain your disability to peers and teachers, rather than trying to hide it; improve disability and bullying awareness so students are more comfortable seeking help; and develop friendships by engaging in extracurricular activities. Research shows that having a support network of friends protects children from being isolated and bullied.
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