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On the Issue of Bullying and Students with Visual Impairments

The issue of bullying is one we have all heard about in recent years. In fact, it seems as though bullying in schools is becoming an ever-increasing problem, with the media regularly telling us stories of students who were tormented so frequently by their peers that they felt that there was nowhere left to turn.

Some may argue that the sheer number of bullying-related stories is not due to the increase in bullying, but instead, a consequence of better methods we now have today to share and distribute breaking news - almost instantly - through the media and online. Yet, students today have new methods of communicating with one another and socializing -- primarily, through social media and other online forums -- so it is not hard to imagine that with these new avenues come the potential for greater instances of bullying. Cyber-bullying is perhaps most allusive and disconcerting because it is difficult to monitor and control outside school walls.

Why is this a relevant issue to members of the blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted community? A story was recently published in the Globe & Mail about a young blind woman who was bullied during her adolescence. The story reads, in part:

“And then they smashed them [her crutches] against the tree and they broke them,” she said.
“And that’s when they all started laughing and ran away to class together, leaving me. I was alone, in a forest. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t walk. They took my crutches and my backpack. I had nothing. I had no one.”

Ms. Burke's story has a happy ending in that she now stands as a symbol of hope that things do get better, but her story is a reminder that for some students with disabilities - including those who are blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted - bullying is a relevant problem.

Ignorance (about blindness and about disability as a whole) leads to confusion. Sometimes, confusion can lead to fear of the unknown and to anger. After all, ignorance and fear about disability throughout history worked to maintain - and to justify - eugenics policies and other forms of wide-scale discrimination.

We also know that, for some students with visual impairments, social isolation and the lack of social acceptance among peer groups is a problem. The lack of opportunities to participate in social activities, due to their inaccessibility and visual nature (e.g. sports), leads to feelings of exclusion among some students with visual impairments. Despite the relative inaccessibility of many social media platforms, it is likely that some of these students turn to online socializing as an alternative, particularly if they lack the orientation and mobility training to travel independently and are, for whatever reason, excluded from certain social activities.

Schools should ensure that their activities are as inclusive as possible, of course, and there are also a number of blindness organizations, such as the CNIB, the MAB-MacKay Rehabilitation Center (in Quebec), and La Fondation Des Aveugles du Québec (in Québec), among many others, that develop summer camps and other social activities for children and adolescents with visual impairments, providing them with others who can relate to some of their experiences.

The potential for bullying aside, consider the often inaccurate portrayals of blindness and disability that are perpetuated online and through other media outlets (e.g. films, literature). Consider how these representations may potentially impact the self-image of those recently experiencing vision loss (and the perceptions of those around them) who lack any other frame of reference. Blindness is inaccurately used to elicit pity, to evoke fear, to provide inspiration (the implication being that if the "poor" blind can get up each day, then why should others complain?). If the blind are not portrayed as helpless, then they are often portrayed through the "supercrip" phenomenon -- the notion that the only visually impaired people worth talking about are those who have flown to the moon or swam to the bottom of the ocean. Kenneth Jernigan once wrote an interesting article about representations of blindness in literature that is worth the read.

School presentations can be effective when desensitizing sighted students and educating the public about blindness related themes. These presentations have the potential to be fun - particularly if braille is included among the topics discussed. It may be useful to have a set lesson plan or package to use as a general guide, to ensure that information conveyed during presentations is accurate and somewhat structured. Teachers may be able to find available guest speakers in their community. Similarly, educators should be aware of children's books that present blindness and visual impairment in more positive and realistic ways. Joya Bromeland, a teacher for students who are blind and visually impaired, has compiled just one of many lists of books that include characters who are blind or have low vision, organized into different grade levels. (As I have not read all the books on this list, teachers should review a particular book in advance, to ensure that it is appropriate and reflective of the image they wish to present.)

Blindness - and disability as a whole - could also be fused within the curriculum. In other words, rather than only discussing disability in a single unit, positive and accurate portrayals of disability could also be found naturally throughout the curriculum - in history, literature, science - to illustrate the contributions made by the visually impaired throughout history and society, and to break down the tendency to place disability in a separate category from the general public.

The truth is, blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted people learn, work and live alongside sighted members of society. Blindness does not mean the end of independence, dignity and pride. Success has very little to do with the level of vision we each possess, and indeed, there is more than one definition of success. People who are blind are parents, students, employees, employers, leaders and innovators. There are non-visual techniques to complete most of the daily tasks that others perform with their sight. Some of us are fast learners, while others need more time. Regardless of one's strengths and weaknesses, every single person - sighted or not - has value.

And, public education can go a long way.

Disclaimer:

This blog is curated by the AEBC, but welcomes contributions from members and non-members alike. The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in the Blind Canadians Blog are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the AEBC, its members, or any of its donors and partners.

Comments

Hi there is this other thing as well are schools for the blind really all that affective. I never had to much of a problem with bullying until i went to w ross macdonald the kids in my experienced to always be picking on me or each other things like that.
I think personally that people should be working to keep kids in their local schools and things.

Bullying is certainly not a reality that only plagues the regular school system. You are right that it can happen at schools for the blind as well.

Regardless of whether a child is placed in a regular school or a school for the blind, children - sighted or not - should learn to value acceptance and diversity, and to think twice about those stereotypes and misconceptions that are often taken for granted.

Thanks for your comment!

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