Ignorance is not an option

The number of students with special needs who reported being bullied should serve as a lesson to us all

Tara Brabazon

Bullying is founded on selfishness and self-absorption. The desire to ridicule, judge and attack others - either on- or offline - is an attempt to feel valued. Other people's emotions are used as the ladder to climb to self-importance.

Perhaps most shocking is that attacks on others, in order to medicate personal insecurities and self-hatred, are often directed at children (and adults) with disabilities. In 2011, abilitypath.org released a report called Walk a Mile in Their Shoes, which found that 85 per cent of students with special needs state that they are bullied.

We need to think about - rather than glance over - that statistic: 85 per cent.

That figure may initiate disgust. Or rage. Or incomprehension. Or anger. But there is another option beyond these emotions: consciousness. We can commit to intervention through education.

But before deciding to undertake such an intervention, can I suggest that a personal audit is required? Ask yourself, how many teachers do you know with an impairment? How often has someone with an impairment even visited your home, either as a friend or guest? For most of us, the answers to these questions confirm that business as usual is not an option. In fact, doing as we have always done is disrespectful.

Through interventionist programmes, we can create an environment of equality, thoughtfulness and respect. We can move beyond ourselves and recognise and affirm the lives of others. From that single decision, learning begins.

One such Australian-based disability awareness programme is Just Like You. Aimed at students aged 9-11 and run by the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, it recognises that one in five Australians has a disability. It intervenes in the culture of invisibility, marginalisation and bullying.

Two presenters deliver two Just Like You sessions free of charge in Australian schools over a fortnight. One presenter has a disability. The role-modelling that emerges from such a programme is extraordinarily valuable. The able-bodied and impaired presenters are equals. They discuss disability in an open and even way, showing how to communicate with respect and care towards girls and boys and men and women with impairments.

Those of us with the great privilege to work in education have a profound opportunity to intervene in ignorance. In recognising the distinctive life circumstance of others, and the need to acknowledge and welcome that diversity, education is transformative.

With all the focus on benchmarking, standardised tests, literacy, numeracy and league tables, Just Like You is a reminder that we teach what we need to learn.

Tara Brabazon is professor of education and head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University in Australia.

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Tara Brabazon

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