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March 8, 2015

Bullying is a subject that no one ever wants to deal with, but the reality is that people with developmental disabilities are at far greater risk of being bullied than other individuals. Their perceived vulnerability makes them tempting targets for those who prey on people who have done nothing to deserve such treatment. And, unfortunately, bullying appears to be on the increase in our society.

For those of us who have family members, friends and coworkers who are at risk, it is sickening when the people we love and care about are subjected to threats, intimidation and cruelty. It is impossible to understand why anyone would purposely want to hurt them. There is no justifiable excuse for engaging in this type of behavior. To assault someone simply because of who they are is indefensible.

People with developmental disabilities are often bullied because of the way they look, the way they move, the way they talk or the way they behave. They are particularly at risk because their willingness to trust others is often used against them in the most ruthless possible way. They are attacked by those who certainly know better but who cannot resist the momentary feeling of power they achieve when they tear down another human being.

The psychological damage inflicted by bullying can have serious repercussions. A person’s self-esteem and self-image can be permanently harmed. To be exploited by another person can be demoralizing. Victims can become fearful and anxious. They can become suspicious, always wondering if an individual is going to take advantage of them. That can inhibit their ability to trust others; therefore it can become difficult for them to have healthy relationships.

Bullying can occur one on one or it can happen as part of a group. If more than one aggressor is involved they sometimes feed off each other, and the attack can quickly escalate. People often believe there is safety in numbers, so when one person does it others are tempted to join in. Bullying can also result from peer pressure. If you don’t participate you are considered weak and not a member of the group. The need to be accepted can drive people to behave in ways they know are inappropriate, but their desire to belong takes precedence over their judgment. They tell themselves that it is harmless fun, or that the person actually deserved it, all in an attempt to justify what they know is wrong. But when someone is so desperate to win the approval of others that they are willing to hurt an innocent person they are clearly demonstrating a lack of character and morality.

Bullying is often an act of cowardice. Typically those who feel the need to intimidate others pick out targets who they believe will be the easiest to attack. They single out individuals who are isolated and are less likely to have someone to stand up for them. Because people with developmental disabilities sometimes do not enjoy full inclusion in social groups they can be alone and vulnerable. Additionally, because those with intellectual challenges are sometimes considered to be less than equal by the self-centered people who engage in such activity, it may not seem as wrong in their minds to bully them.

That is why we must continue to advocate and educate so that everyone understands that people with developmental disabilities are in fact equal members of society with the same rights as everyone else. They do not deserve to be subjected to senseless attacks just because someone considers them to be different. It is the unwillingness to even try to understand others that induces people to make quick judgments and to foster misconceptions. That in turn leads to the hurtful behavior that we see so much of in our culture.

Parents of children with intellectual challenges are both heartbroken and rightfully furious when they discover that their child is the victim of bullying. When a person you love with all your heart is mistreated it can be devastating. Sometimes tremendous progress that has been made by families with those individuals is set back significantly or even permanently destroyed by a constant barrage of harassment and humiliation.

Physically, emotionally and intellectually people with developmental disabilities may not be able to fend off the attacks of those who choose to hurt them. Therefore we have an obligation to intervene and stop this kind of activity. We each have a moral responsibility to stand up for those who have difficulty speaking up for themselves, and we must ensure that all people with intellectual challenges are treated with dignity.

If the verbal taunting, demeaning language and even physical abuse that are associated with bullying are allowed to go unchecked the public becomes desensitized, and they begin to think it is acceptable. They are more willing to look the other way. Meanwhile the victims are forced to suffer without any hope of relief. When society is willing to tolerate bullying it gives a green light to those who have no qualms about taking advantage of those who can’t fight back.

If we witness the bullying of a person with a developmental disability and do nothing to stop it we must share the blame for the results. By refusing to take action, we silently condone the behavior. To understand what is happening and to allow it to continue makes us a partner in the abuse. To shrug it off and say that, “kids will be kids” is wrong. To attempt to justify it by claiming, “They didn’t mean for it to go that far” or that “it just got out of hand” is not a valid excuse. Adults, adolescents and even children all know that it is not right to pick on another person.

Bullying should never be ignored or swept under the rug because once it occurs there is the increased likelihood that it will happen again and again. Unless it is made clear that this form of intimidation has no place in our world, there will continue to be innocent people who are persecuted simply because of their diagnosis. We each have an obligation to take a stand against such conduct. No one has the right to belittle, ridicule or threaten another person, and they certainly have no right to physically harm them in any way. That type of criminal behavior must be prosecuted.

Bullying is something that must be dealt with firmly because it doesn’t just affect the victim. It also hurts their family and others who care about them, and it harms society as well. It increases disrespect for those with developmental disabilities and it hinders their right to be accepted. It sets an inappropriate example for others to copy and imitate. It encourages people to take advantage of those who, through their innocence, are left unprotected. As a compassionate society we cannot justify any type of bullying, but it is particularly deplorable when it is aimed at individuals who may not understand why they are being targeted or may not have the capacity to defend themselves.

Because bullying can cause tremendous physical, psychological and emotional pain, the devastating effects can last a lifetime.