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.
"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."