The language of discrimination that uses terms offensive to disabled people is commonplace. That is the disturbing picture painted by an Anti-Bullying Alliance survey published to coincide with Anti-Bullying Week. One in 10 adults freely admit to using words such as “spaz”, “spastic”, “mong” and “retard” directly at people with disabilities and SEN – and half of those do so to be deliberately insulting. As many as 44 per cent of all adults use such terms in casual conversation, half of whom justify this as “banter”.
But is banter as harmless as its definition proposes? Earlier this month, there were media reports about a secondary school teacher from Norfolk who banned the word “banter” from his classroom in order to tackle bullying, because he claimed that it was used as a “Get Out of Jail Free card” to legitimise bullying through “victim blaming”.
By using these derisory terms in everyday conversation adults may be perpetuating and normalising bullying behaviour, and setting a dangerous example for children and young people. The survey found that 70 per cent of teachers hear their pupils using disablist taunts at school, often towards a child with a disability or SEN, which can cause considerable distress.
One in five children of school age have SEN, those who existing evidence shows are significantly more likely to suffer bullying. And the impact can be profound: eroding a child’s self-esteem and how they feel about their impairments, their ability to concentrate and their attendance at school.
Children and families minister Edward Timpson was clear in his reaction to the survey that progress is being made. He said: “To help tackle this we have given more power to heads to punish bad behaviour and there’s also now a greater focus on behaviour and bullying in school inspections.”
The government’s approach, coupled with the dedicated work of schools, charities and other agencies appears to be having an effect. A study by the Department for Education involving two cohorts of tens of thousands of 13-year-olds from 2004 and 2013, shows bullying among year 9 pupils has fallen considerably since 2004.
This is good news, but efforts to tackle bullying should not be relaxed. Each new intake of pupils needs to be educated that bullying is unacceptable and encouraged to challenge and report incidences when they occur. We need to be particularly sensitive to the challenges facing disabled children and those with SENs who are particularly vulnerable.
Support is available to schools who want to make a step-change to address disablist bullying. Achievement for All, in partnership with the Anti-Bullying Alliance, the Council for Disabled Children, Mencap, and Contact a Family, is providing a programme of sessions across the country to build the capability and specialist skills in the teaching workforce and help safeguard children with SEN and disabilities from bullying in schools.
The programme draws on effective practice already taking place to help educators understand the distinct vulnerabilities of these children to bullying. It includes advice on how to support children with SEN and disabilities to build independence, resilience, self-esteem and relationships with others, and how to work with their wider peer group to build empathy.
Work within schools is necessary and productive, and by educating the next generation we can start to shift patterns of discrimination that have become ingrained in adult society. Much progress has been made to tackle the use of discriminatory language with the casual use of racist and sexist terms widely recognised as abhorrent. Similarly, Stonewall published research over the summer that showed that homophobic bullying has fallen. But the use of disablist insults appears to remain widespread in a significant portion of the adult population. Of course the majority of us understand that this is wrong. We now need to take a stand, and recognise the impact it is having on the attitudes of the young.