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We’re failing to protect disabled kids. Here’s how to change that.

We’re failing to protect disabled kids. Here’s how to change that.

This month, a Disability Royal Commission of Australia met to hear testimony about violence, abuse, and neglect of people with disability in public places. Closer to home, in Texas, a healthcare worker was arrested after she was caught abusing a disabled child patient, and a recent Connecticut report outlines extensive use of restraint and seclusion to manage behavior, oftentimes of disabled children, in K-12 settings. Reports of abuse against disabled people -including children – abound, whether or not we hear about it in the media. It’s a story I know firsthand.

Several years ago, I heard a knock on my university office door. A kind, bright, successful, multi-sport athlete and student in the last year of the university’s teacher education program entered a few moments later, on the verge of tears. When I asked them why, they confided that a faculty member had decided that the student shouldn’t pursue teaching due to their “communication disorders.”

At times, the student used hearing support, like amplification, spoke slowly, or tripped over their words – as we all do.

I was shocked. The comments were vicious and unfair. But they hinted at a bigger problem. While we hope no one would intentionally hurt a disabled child, disabled children experience more physical and emotional abuse than their non-disabled peers. A clinical report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that ability non-normative kids are at least three times more likely to experience abuse and neglect than non-disabled kids. Another study published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health reported that, “…children with disabilities experience a high burden of all forms of violence, despite advances in awareness and policy in the past 10 years.”

The number of children impacted is huge. “We’re talking millions of children,” according to the study’s co-author, Ilan Cerna-Turoff.

As a dis/abled and chronically ill person who has worked in education for more than 20 years, I know too many disabled people who get yelled at or hit because their bodies do the unique things their bodies do. Too many kids who endure the unimaginable because they are afraid to tell someone they feel unwell or ask for help.

This kind of physical and mental abuse is heartbreaking. Beyond that, it’s more costly than we dare imagine. When young people carry abuse from childhood into young adulthood, it can result in the loss of priceless human potential. But there’s so much parents, caregivers, and educators can do to protect kids who are disabled, to safeguard their present and future selves.

More people who come into frequent contact with disabled kids – like family members, medical professionals, school-based workers – need to know how frequently they are abused and step up measures (like raising awareness of the problem and learning the signs of abuse) to protect them Additionally, given the statistical reality of abuse rates, caregivers can become perpetrators. The people who surround disabled kids need to know the data, so that they might identify and stop abusive behavior before it begins. Demands on caregivers may be heavy, but the return on investment here is high.

Flipping the narrative about who benefits from caregiving is a crucial piece of the puzzle. We need to recognize the fact that disabled people provide care for those around them, to counterbalance the damage of cultural norms that position them overwhelmingly as burdens.

The former teacher education student I described above told me that they couldn’t share their struggle with their parents because they didn’t want to worry or disappoint them. In a time of great need, that young person went without family support in a gesture of care that minimized parental stress and concern. Caregiving works in many ways and is far more complex than the stereotypical river that runs in one direction, from the non-disabled toward the disabled. As author and activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha shares in a 2021 interview, “…there’s an idea out there that … disabled people are these passive recipients of care, that we’re just kind of waiting around, we’re these invalids in beds, … we can’t do anything for ourselves, and the reality is that disabled people keep each other alive all the time. … we’re not waiting for somebody else to save us, we’re saving each other.”

The core tenets of disability liberation can help change minds.  Disability liberation argues for the value, power, and capacity of ability-diverse people and positions disability as a point of pride, identity, and culture. It points toward systems that need to change to better support natural human variation. As access and exposure to its ideas spreads, social change will follow.

To be sure, it will take hard work and time to increase awareness and change dominant mindsets surrounding this terrible problem, but the lives of so very many young people are at stake.

We can get there faster by working together, starting with one simple thing: we can share this information with someone we know who comes into close contact with a disabled kid. It’s a beginning.

Despite one person’s abuse of power, the kind, bright, athletic student with hearing and speech differences is in the midst of a successful teaching career today. Had they heeded that cruel, devaluing comment and moved away from teaching, our schools would be less diverse and a teaching-career’s worth of young people would have lost access to the remarkable gifts this individual has to share. Now imagine this to scale — millions of young people better able to fulfill their potential and contribute to our world. If, as a society we truly value diversity and inclusion, we must do a better job to support and protect the ability-based diversity in our lives.

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