Cause for concern: bullying of young people with disabilities


Teachers and specialists from ten countries took part in a two-day workshop on technology and students with special educational needs (SEN). The workshop took place at European Schoolnet's Future Classroom Lab on 16-17 June 2016.

Participants spent time discussing a paper, written by Katja Engelhardt and Roger Blamire, which focuses on bullying and its prevention, with particular reference to students with special educational needs and disabilities. The paper will appear in a forthcoming book arising from the ENABLE project.

A key point raised in the paper is that, according to research, “Bullying remains the single biggest concern raised by children with special educational needs and disabilities” and that bullying of children and young people with SEN is more prevalent than that of children and young people in general. There are a number of reasons why this is the case. First of all, students with SEN may have difficulties telling others what is happening to them. They are more likely to have fewer friends to protect them. They are also less likely to defend themselves because they want to fit in and thus, they may not even recognise that they are being bullied. Children with SEN are vulnerable to manipulative bullying, where a person is controlling someone, or exploitative bullying, where features of a child’s condition are used to bully them. Children with autism spectrum or hyperactivity disorders, or learning disabilities, in particular, are at a high risk of bullying. At the same time, some children with SEN can also be bullies themselves.

Technology can be truly life-changing for young people with special needs as it can liberate them and enable them to participate in life in ways that were previously impossible (for example, they can use assistive and communication devices and tools and may choose to deliberately not reveal their disability when online). However, at the same time, cyber-bullying presents additional difficulties for this group of young people. For example, assistive technologies, although designed to enable participation, can draw attention to the child’s difference, and lead to their being left out of social groups. Furthermore, young people with SEN may not understand online social conventions, or the potential risks of sharing information. Specifically, children with autism may make literal interpretations of content, those with learning difficulties may not understand terminology, or identify reliable content, and those with complex needs may have difficulties understanding the concept of friendship and may trust everyone implicitly.

In response, schools should aim to be places where children feel safe and are heard. They should make it clear that bullying incidents will be responded to effectively and should encourage bystanders to be ‘upstanders’ - standing up to bullying instead of passively watching.

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