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Adults Who Bully Kids With Special Needs: How Low Can You Go?

The YouTube video is disturbing to watch. It’s said to be filmed by the grandmother of a girl in East Sparta, Ohio. Hope Holcomb, 10, has cerebral palsy and walks with the help of braces. Reportedly, the boy next door has been bullying her—and then his father allegedly started in.

The video shows the father picking up his son from the bus stop he shares with Hope; both then limp, exaggeratedly, to a car. One word: WTF?!

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emCfrLn2AmI[/youtube]

The full story is still emerging. “It started last year, we had trouble on the bus, she was miserable and didn’t want to ride the bus, cried every morning,” Hope’s mother, Tricia Knight, told Fox 8 News in Cleveland. “He treats her like crap, and most recently the dad got involved.” In a recent interview, Tricia tells of the son calling Hope names and tearing down Halloween decorations. “I’m really at a loss for words,” Hope’s dad says. “I understand kids are kids, and I mean they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do, but for the dad to act the way he did and  do what he did to mock and imitate my daughter, that’s unbelievable. That makes me sick to even think that a grown man would make fun of her like that.

The accused man’s wife says the families are involved in a dispute, and that the way the father and son were limping “was no offense to Hope”—but offered no further explanation. Right.

In the past few years, much attention has been paid to kid-on-kid bullying; organizations have been formed to prevent it, school programs created nationwide to raise awareness. What’s gotten little attention is adult bullying of kids, particularly those with special needs. It may not take the same form as kid-on-kid bullying, but it’s out there, and it’s even more disturbing—and harder to understand.

Recently, a number of incidents of teachers bullying kids with special needs have come to light, including the case of Akian Chaifetz, whose father caught a teacher on tape saying “Oh, Akian, you are a bastard.” On the web, I constantly see cruelty directed toward kids with special needs. It happened to a girl with Down syndrome who became the years-long subject of a cruel meme, her photo imposed beneath captions like “I can count to potato!” (Google “Down syndrome memes” if you really want to be enraged.) It happens every time I speak out against the use of the word “retard, a pejorative word that has come to mean “stupid” and demeans kids like my son; inevitably, people like comments calling him retarded. It happens on sites like Cracked, who think it is totally hysterical to run articles like “Raising Your Mentally Retarded Child.” (Excerpt: “Most retards can be trained to achieve the obedience of a moderately well-behaved house pet.”)

Whether someone’s directly bullying one kid or slamming an entire population of kids, the truth is these are children who are less able to defend themselves then other kids are. Some may not possess the ability to tell anyone what’s happening to them. This is the most cowardly form of bullying there is.

Last year, in honor of Spread The Word To End The Word Day (part of an ongoing campaign created by The Special Olympics), I made a video “Would You Call My Child A Retard?” to help people better understand why the word is so wrong even if you’re just using it as a joke. At least several times I week, I erase comments on the video like “I spy a retard!” and “What a retard.” I also get those comments on my blog. It’s gotten to the point where friends in the blogosphere look out for me. Weeks ago, someone left a comment on a video of Max playing baseball saying that was what a “retard” playing baseball looks like. My friend Dave messaged me on Twitter about it, then wrote this comment in response: “Max has worked so hard to get where he is today. He makes everyone around him SO proud of these little achievements. For you it’s just an easy laugh at a little boy who can’t fight back. Hang your head in shame.”

Are these teens leaving these comments? Sometimes. But just as often they are adults, always men. Leaving derogatory comments where my son could feasibly someday see them, if I wasn’t there to kick them off.

October is a month of disability awareness days: It’s Down Syndrome Awareness Month, Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Colleges and museums are having Disability Awareness Month events. Maybe people like that dad who mocked Hope are beyond salvation, but there are plenty of others to reach. This is a good time to think about the way we treat people with disabilities, the words we use, the views we have of them. This is a good time to point out to those who use the word “retard” that it’s demeaning. Obviously, reducing the use of a word isn’t going to wholly change the way people with disabilities are viewed in this country. But this is a way start the conversation, a way to help give kids with special needs a leg up in this world—and a way to encourage people to give kids like Hope and Max respect.

Image: Screen grab/Fox 8 Cleveland

Read more from Ellen at Love That Max

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More to read from 1000 Perplexing Things About Parenthood:

• 16 Things I Forgive My Kid For
• Motherhood IS The Most Important Job When You Have A Kid With Special Needs
• What To Teach Your Children About Kids With Special Needs

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