The recent Palo Alto Weekly reports about the bullying of a student with disabilities have evoked many comments, opinions and emotions. Many wonder how this could have happened in Palo Alto, often described as a wonderful community with great schools.
Some parents rush to the defense of the school district explaining how their child with a disability received a great education. Other community members believe the parents of the child who was bullied just need to face reality and accept that this is how life is in today's world. It may be more productive to try and understand the challenges faced by students with disabilities and their families and view this particular incident as an opportunity to learn how to prevent this happening again to any child.
The student had the right to not be bullied and the parents had the right to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights when the bullying did not stop. Rights like these were not always in place. Today, people with disabilities are the largest minority group in the United States. Similar to many other minority groups, they have created a strong and effective advocacy movement to ensure that people with disabilities have the same legal and civil rights as everyone else. This civil rights movement has succeeded in closing institutions, preventing abuse and neglect, and making it possible for people with disabilities to be active participants in community life.
Landmark legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) require access and the right to free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. The success of this civil rights movement is largely due to the persistence, determination and hard work of people with disabilities and their parents. Having fought so hard to gain these rights, they are very unlikely to allow any violations to go unchallenged. The current generation of young families with children with disabilities have learned well from those who went before them. They expect and believe that people with disabilities must be viewed as people first, not as the recipients of acts of charity, objects of pity or victims of exploitation or bullying. They expect their children with disabilities to be fully included in all aspects of community life.
If these laws and civil rights are in place, why then, do people with disabilities and their families still find themselves having to fight to get needed services and to have their rights upheld? Implementation of these often under-funded mandates seems key here. The implementation of ADA, IDEA and other laws by organizations, companies and individuals have varied depending on availability of resources, training and values. We all know of organizations that have ADA policies to accommodate employees with disabilities and personnel policies that contain no tolerance policies around harassment and discrimination. Policies alone and attempts to keep to the letter of the law are markedly ineffective unless such organizations embrace the spirit of such laws. This means that everyone has to be involved in understanding how these laws and policies translate into action for them as individuals.
Organizations that have successfully implemented these laws have done so because they have had strong and decisive leadership and a willingness to allocate resources to ensure the spirit of the law is upheld. More importantly, they have created an organizational culture where each person knows what to do if they witness, hear about, or are the recipient of any violation of these laws. Within organizations that have nurtured this culture of inclusion and diversity, incidents of discrimination, harassment and bullying jar their core values and are quickly reported, investigated and stopped. There is accountability for the perpetrators.
However, when all is said and done, the responsibility to eradicate civil rights violations, harassment and bullying; and to create a community where everyone is treated with dignity and respect rests with each and every one of us. We each have to ask ourselves some hard questions about our own values and those of others. When was the last time you explained to your child that using the term "retard" can be hurtful to people with disabilities? When did you last talk to a person using a wheelchair, bending down at their eye level, rather than talking to the caregiver pushing the chair? When did you last think about someone with a disability as a person who could add value to your life? We may have to realize that people who have no experience of disability may harbor feelings of discomfort, or even fear, about how to interact with someone with a disability. They may need help to express these not so "politically correct" concerns and learn how to overcome them. It may be easier to understand this through the experience of an eighth-grade student who was volunteering for the first time in a Palo Alto program serving people with disabilities:
"I was a little scared about being a volunteer because I had not been around people with disabilities before. I did not know what to expect or what I would do. And it was scary at first. But after I had been engaged in activities with Jane (a disabled child) and got to know her a little, things changed. I realized I was no longer scared. After a while I no longer saw the disability. I just saw Jane — and she was just like me."
This eighth grader "got it," and we can only hope that this will result in her being a champion for people with disabilities if she ever sees them being bullied or harassed. So in the end laws can only take us so far. Maybe that eighth grader's experience is the real answer. Creating experiences where people with and without disabilities live, work and play side by side is our responsibility. Community leaders and parents have to become role models for our children because a community that excludes even one of its members is no community at all.
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