Sunday / May 19

Bullying and Students With Disabilities

Bullying Students With Disabilities


Bullying Students With DisabilitiesPeter was always bullied. Throughout his elementary school years, classmates made fun of his inability to recall words, and the way he would stare off into space in the classroom. As he became older he became taller than most of his classmates and appeared to have athletic ability. He made the middle school basketball team and it looked like the sixth grade was off to a good start. One weekend a group of boys from the team made plans to go to the local fast food restaurant but called Peter at the last minute to tell him the plans were changed. Disappointed and sad, his father wanted to change his mood and suggested going to the restaurant themselves. Imagine the pain Peter and his dad experienced when they entered the restaurant to find the seven teammates having a wonderful time as they ate their hamburgers and fries with their friends. Peter and his dad made a quick exit and drove home.

October is Bullying Prevention Month and there are innumerable public service announcements and media coverage of the dangers of bullying. However, one group that is relatively ignored in all of this is students with disabilities. The scene above is true and is repeated in many different forms over and over again. The incidence figures for these students is startling, with some reports of over 50% and some groups as high as 80%.  Forty nine states have some type of legislation dealing with bullying, yet many of these students do not have access to these programs simply because of the nature of their disability. Why are students with disabilities more likely to be targeted and what can schools due to reduce this serious problem?


The most obvious reason is their vulnerability. Students who are bullied are less likely to be able to defend themselves. Depending on the specific disability, students may display a range of characteristics that their classmates prey upon. Bullying is all about power and these students are frequently less powerful, either physically, intellectually, or emotionally. Additionally, they may misread social cues and not be able to benefit from a school wide bullying prevention program because it was not appropriate for their level of ability. For example, a student who reads significantly below level will not be able to read the information presented in these programs. What about students who have difficulty attending to tasks, lack adequate memory skills, or simply do not grasp the concept of bullying due to their intellectual disability?


The first step is to modify the needs assessment typically used in most bullying prevention programs. This process must be collaborative. Teachers, support personnel (reading occupational and physical therapists, speech and language pathologists), special educators who have experience in teaching students who are deaf or students who are blind, and school nurses should be included. Questions that guide this process will include the following:

  • Can the student read the questions?
  • Can the student comprehend the questions?
  • Does the student have adequate motor skills?
  • Is the student’s vision adequate?
  • Does the student need an interpreter for the deaf?
  • How long can the student attend for this task?
  • Does the student have the intellectual ability to understand the concept of bullying or victimization?

The more expertise you have in your building, the more exhaustive the list will be. Also, staff will be able to share common characteristics of specific disabilities and how they will manifest themselves in the classroom.

Once you have addressed these concerns you are ready to modify the content and delivery of the program. Program modifications and adaptations are listed below.

  1. Differentiate the Content and Delivery
  2. Vary the Method of Presentation
  3. Use a Variety of Reading Materials
  4. Vary the Level of Difficulty
  5. Teach Attending Skills
  6. Teach Memory Skills

Unless we recognize the students with disabilities are more likely to be victimized than their classmates they will continue to suffer at alarming rates. In addition to not attending school, many are depressed and some feel they have no other option than committing suicide. Some simple modifications and adaptations can be made in the typical program to ensure the ALL student can learn in a safe, kind, and caring environment. 

Written by

Dr. Barry Edwards McNamara is a Professor of Special Education at Dowling College in Oakdale, New York. He received his BA from St. Benedict’s College, his MS Ed. from University of Kansas (Special Education: Learning Disabilities), and his doctorate from Columbia University’s Teachers College in Special Education: Learning Disabilities. In addition to teaching at the college level, Dr. McNamara was a special education teacher in a self-contained classroom setting and a resource room. He was also a Learning Disability Teacher Consultant. He is the author of Bullying and Students With Disabilities.

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