By Nadine Vogel
President, Springboard Consulting LLC

Harassment of people with disabilities starts young. Nearly forty percent of children bullied in our schools are students with disabilities, says Joyce Bender in Bullycide. A survey by British disability advocacy organization Mencap reported that eighty-two percent of students with intellectual disabilities had experienced some form of bullying and sixty percent had experienced physical injury as part of the bullying. About half of the children and youth reported that the bullying was chronic.

It doesn’t get much better as those children move into the workforce: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that “harassment” tops the list of formal complaints received from both people with mental disabilities and with physical disabilities. A poll conducted by UNISON (a British trade union) found that more than a third of workers with disabilities said they were being bullied at work. Twenty-two percent reported the problem as ongoing. Another British poll found that workers with disabilities were not only subject to lower expectations and negative social treatment, but they experienced workplace violence at nearly twice the rate of non-disabled workers.

Why are people with disabilities targets? Bullies target others they see as vulnerable. They also focus on those who are outsiders, who don’t appear to have a social peer group who will stand up for them. People with intellectual disabilities may not pick up on social cues, making them an easy target. Sometimes it’s the sense of “difference” that surrounds the victim: bullies and those who encourage them may not even know about the existence of a disability.

What’s to be done? Training, especially training that focuses on disability etiquette and awareness, helps companies to head off harassment and bullying issues before they begin. Though the root causes of bullying are many, education about disability can dispel myths and fears that make people with disabilities easy targets. Perhaps more importantly, it can encourage “fence sitters” to stand up for their colleagues with disabilities, instead of becoming observers or participants. Although employers understand the value of such training, making it a top global best practice, they often express frustration that such training is not provided earlier, perhaps in college or in K-12 school diversity programs. Interestingly enough, parents of students with disabilities ask the same question.

Though bullies may continue to pick on those who are different, education can and often does help by explaining and minimizing the differences surrounding disability and at the same time, providing guidance on how best to work side by side, communicate and engage with someone with a disability and doing so in a way that make them and the other individual comfortable. By providing training that provides accurate information and offers a “safe” environment for managers, recruiters, and others to ask questions, much of the fear and misinformation surrounding employing someone with a disability can be negated and co-workers can become workplace allies.

Nadine Vogel

Nadine Vogel

Nadine Vogel is the CEO of Springboard Consulting LLC. Founded in 2005, Springboard is recognized as the expert in mainstreaming disability in the global workforce, workplace, and marketplace. Serving corporations and organizations throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia, Springboard has become a trusted partner in relation to disability issues and initiatives across virtually every business category. For more information, please contact Nadine Vogel at Springboard Consulting. Nadine is also the author of Dive In: Springboard into the Profitability, Productivity, and Potential of the Special Needs Workforce.