Battling bullying — Abuse still exists, but disabled see progress

Published: Sunday, June 19 2011 10:00 p.m. MDT

"People who were once labeled as un-trainable are now working in communities alongside their non disabled peers," said Adina Zahradnikova, executive director of the Disability Law Center, a Salt Lake City nonprofit that handles civil rights cases. "Children are no longer segregated in school. Federal and state laws protect basic civil rights."

So far, Hannah Gilbert has defied so many of her mother's expectations that Sheila Gilbert has ceased trying to figure out the teen's future. Friends regularly phone the house asking to take Hannah Gilbert out to get a Dr. Pepper or see a movie. She gets invitations to birthday parties and slumber parties. She's even had a boyfriend.

Sheila Gilbert credits school programs like Peer Leadership Team, a school program that pairs disabled teens up with a peer tutor for most of the day, and supportive teachers and counselors who helped Hannah Gilbert develop better social skills.

"It's touched me to see how much the kids just love Hannah," she said. "When it came time to vote for prom queen it wasn't about who was the prettiest or the most popular. They were able to look at her soul and who she really was. That would not have happened in my day."

Still, many people with disabilities struggle to achieve acceptance.

Research indicates children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be victims of bullying than their non-disabled peers. While efforts to include children with disabilities in mainstream programs have opened doors for many children, a 2008 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found they have also made students more vulnerable to bullying. Special classes, extra help and visible assistance make them stand out from other children as being different.

"We've come a long ways, but we have a long ways to go," Zahradnikova said.

Special needs children have made national headlines several times in recent months because of brutal bullying. Kevin Kaneta, a Colorado teen who has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects body movement and muscle coordination, told media outlets that classmates tripped him, pinned him down and force fed him dog food. In Oklahoma, classmates fed Austin Avery, whose premature birth resulted in a developmental disability, hand sanitizer until he started hallucinating. Seventeen-year-old Tyler Long committed suicide after years of bullying. Classmates took the autistic teen's things, spat in his food and called him names.

In Utah, the Disability Law Center gets between 4,000 and 5,000 discrimination complaints annually from people with disabilities, Zahradnikova said. A high school teacher recently tied an autistic boy to his desk. In March, a disabled woman, who police say was hung crucifixion-style inside a small closet, was found dead in her home.

Communities continue to protest the construction of group homes for people with disabilities, she said. In 2010, the center investigated 107 cases of abuse and neglect.

"Hannah has been blessed, but I still worry," Sheila Gilbert said. "She's so vulnerable. I worry about rape and things like that."

Hannah prefers to worry about things like dancing, spelling and teasing her friends.

"I can be difficult sometimes," she said. "But people like me. I am a special person."

Email: estuart@desnews.com

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