Towards life without fear
They smile at me when they walk past," says Sarah. Hardly cause for complaint, but you have to use a bit of imagination. Sarah, a 12-year-old with a learning disability, goes on to describe relentless physical bullying and harassment that happens in school on a daily basis. Last year Mencap's Living in Fear report, the first national inquiry into the extent of bullying of people with learning disabilities, found that much bullying was done by young people, who see vulnerability as an easy target. But prejudice and discrimination against people with learning disabilities is so widespread that the report suggests it is institutionalised throughout society. The survey found that 88 per cent of the many hundreds of respondents had experienced bullying in the previous year - a third of those on a regular basis. Many continue to experience bullying for the rest of their lives.
Mencap has called on the Government to implement an awareness campaign in which people with a learning disability are consulted at every stage, together with training and education packages in schools; and it has called for the citizenship component of the national curriculum to include the topic of bullying and harassment of people with learning disabilities. At the launch of the report, Positive Hearts, part of the Heart 'n' Soul theatre group (all with learning disabilities), performed a play to music about bullying. The "bullies" wore trilbies. I went to see them rehearsing at their workshop in the Albany Theatre, Deptford. One of the group, a girl from London, speaks of the suffering she had endured at school because of name-calling: "They made me angry because I couldn't do anything about it. I couldn't tell anyone."
Could it be that children who have experienced integration from an early age are less likely to become bullies? Annette Hames, consultant clinical psychologist at Newcastle NHS Trust, and Peter Carpenter, headteacher at Hexham East first school, Northumberland, set out to establish whether children as young as four or five-years-old understood special needs. Hexham East is integrated and has close links with a nearby special school. It was found that mainstream children of that age who attend a non-integrated school tend to assume that a child who cannot perform simple tasks is just being naughty. But the Hexham East children, when shown a video of a child with special needs speaking, counting fingers and constructing a simple toy, were easily able to recognise intellectual disabiity, and had an understanding of, and to a certain extent empathised with, children with special needs. "She might need help, because you've got to think really hard," was one response, even though most had experienced integration for less than one term.
Annette Hames says: "I found the children very tolerant. Those in reception classes were friendly towards children with disabilities. On the other hand, when they had spent longer in school with disabled children, they did begin to recognise that these children were different and less likely to have many friends. But they were supportive."
By the time children with learning disabilities reach a larger, secondary school, where they are integrated with those who may have come from schools with no first-hand experience of disability, it seems that bullying is more likely to occur.
"I found the first year of secondary tended to be the worst," says Carol, a semi-retired special needs teacher from London. "In primary schools I didn't see any evidence of bullying at all." No secondary heads, when approached, would comment, even in confidence. "It's too sensitive a subject," said one. As a primary teacher, Carol had followed the progress of many of her pupils through secondary school. She says of one girl: "She had multiple disabilities - a speech disorder, learning disability, deafness and slight mobility problems. During the first year the bullying became very unpleasant, to the point where she had to give money to the perpetrators. It was only after three attempts by her mother to get the school to intervene that the bullying stopped."
For the victim, the effect can be long lasting and damaging. People lose confidence, become depressed and withdrawn, or suffer from irrational outbursts of anger. Mencap found that the most frequent types of bullying cited were threats, name-calling, physical assault and theft. Fred Heddell, chief executive of Mencap, says: "Many ... are too scared to enter public places. The community has to be helped to confront its own prejudices."
So far the response to Mencap's survey has been good on a local level. Several authorities have got together with police, schools, people with learning disabilities and local groups to draw up anti-bullying campaigns. Eradicating bullying and harassment may be slow to happen but it could help to start them young.
'Living in Fear' from Mencap, 123 Golden Lane, London EC1Y 0RT. Tel: 020 7696 559303Annette Hames, Community Team Learning Disability, Sanderson Centre, North Avenue, Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 4DT