Battling bullying — Abuse still exists, but disabled see progress

Published: Sunday, June 19 2011 10:27 p.m. MDT

17-year-old Hannah Gilbert, who has Down's Syndrome was holds her tiara she wore when she was crowned Prom Queen at Alta High School this year,Tuesday, June 14, 2011, in Sandy, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SANDY — At 12 years old, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Hannah Gilbert sat down at the computer, chose a fancy font and, using short, simple sentences, laid out her life's dream in an essay.

"My dream is to help little kids with special needs like me," wrote the little blonde, who has Down syndrome. "Please treat special needs kids good and don't be mean."

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 85 percent of children with disabilities are targets of bullying. In a recent study conducted by Community Gatepath, a California-based nonprofit that serves people with disabilities, researchers found maltreatment wasn't isolated to verbal abuse or ridicule, but also included physical abuses like tying children up or force feeding them dog food and alcohol. Sixty percent of children with disabilities are harassed to the point of physical injury. "It's harsh, but it's reality," said Claire Mantonya, executive director of the Utah Developmental Disabilities Council. "Nearly every kid with a disability has experienced bullying to some extent."

In many ways Gilbert, now a bubbly 17 year old, seems to have led a charmed life. Gilbert can recall only one time when a classmate, who was pressuring her to complete a too-difficult math worksheet, made her cry. Her Facebook wall is full of posts from her 452 friends saying things like, "Hannah!!! I love you!!!!" And upstairs, in her bedroom, she has a sparkling, rhinestone tiara and a silver-specked dress — mementos of the day earlier this year that she was selected Alta High School's prom queen.

In other ways, though, Gilbert's experience represents changing attitudes toward people with disabilities. In 1997, when a Down syndrome girl was crowned homecoming queen at Murray High School, the unusual story made national news, inspired a book and was adapted for television. This year high school students across the Salt Lake Valley bestowed "royalty" titles to four teens with disabilities. All accepted their crowns to a standing ovation but little outside fanfare.

"I think it is absolutely an illustration of changing attitudes," Mantonya said. "This kind of behavior isn't an anomaly anymore. We've come a long way when it comes to acceptance and awareness."

When the Utah Developmental Disabilities Council was founded 40 years ago, people with disabilities had no protected civil rights. Most were institutionalized at birth and shut away from society, Mantonya said.

When Gilbert's mom, Sheila, a stay-at-home mother of four, was growing up, she said she never saw a child with a disability at her school.

"They were there, I am sure," she said. "But they kept them tucked away in a room somewhere where no one could see them."

The first time she met someone with Down syndrome, she said, "it scared me. It was kind of weird. I was uncomfortable."

When she discovered, shortly after giving birth, that her own daughter had Down syndrome, she went into shock.

"I grieved the loss of the child that would have been," she said. "I cried for all the lost opportunities. I worried that she wouldn't be accepted, that she wouldn't have friends. I thought, 'She's never going to drive a car, go to school dances or get married.'"

Subsequent years have seen the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, though, which made it a national goal to integrate people with disabilities into mainstream society. The Utah Developmental Disability Council, a group of nonprofit organizations that specialize in everything from law to education, has been able to get people with disabilities out of institutions and into smaller, individualized houses. With the help of community programs, some even purchase their own homes. The council has also instituted early intervention programs, after school programs and therapy for disabled children. The organization funds numerous training programs that help doctors, teachers and parents support people with disabilities.

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