The history of disablist bullying and harassment: A resource for teachers

July 7, 2016 by richard

Challenging bullying and harassment of disabled people in class: a resource for teachers

Read this before doing timeline activity with class


This resource was kindly written by UK Disability History Month Coordinator Richard Rieser and supported by the Anti-Bullying Alliance. It is designed to give teachers information about the history of bullying and harassment of disabled people and ideas/guidance about activities for the classroom.

Much of the media encourages young people to strive for a narrow and unrealistic ‘perfect’ look. This can lead to poor self-esteem, problems with body image and projection onto anyone who is does fit into this look. Francesca Martinez, disabled comedian and activist (with cerebral palsy) who was bullied in secondary school, says in her new book ‘What the **** is Normal: “What do you do when you’re labelled abnormal in a world obsessed with normality? In a world where wrinkles are practically illegal, going bald is cause for mental breakdown, and women over size ten are encouraged to shoot themselves, what the **** do you do if you’re, gasp… disabled?” Francesca, after a few years of low self esteem, having been happy and included in primary school, finally realised she had the power to stop judging herself by society’s unhealthy standards and create her own. So she did. This powerful new perspective changed her life forever.

Valuing and respecting difference and challenging those who seek to diminish our humanity is a key to eradicating the prejudice and harassment that makes so many disabled people’s lives a misery. We need to understand the roots of bigoted thinking. Where do the ideas that lead to bullying and harassment of disabled people come from? The lack of portrayal of disability in our society is not accidental. Western culture from Greek and Roman times, reinforced in Renaissance Europe, saw the “body beautiful” as an ideal. Those with physical or mental imperfections were seen to be receiving divine retribution, or expendable. The Bible accepts this but also offers pity towards disabled people as ‘sinners’. Until very recently, popular culture has seen disabled people as objects of fear or fun. Such ideas are deeply embedded in myths, legends and classical literature.

Today’s media continues to reinforce the tendency to judge people by their appearance. Current representations of disabled people in books, plays, films, TV, internet and the press draw on attitudes towards disabled people from the past, often fossilised in unquestioning ‘common-sense’, myths, literature, theatre, folklore, biography and history. Outdated and distorted ideas are continually recycled in these media and bolster negative attitudes. Here are some of the historical attitudes and responses to disability which have shaped views, still prevalent today in the UK and many cultures around the world.

Following the thinking of Plato and Aristotle, the ancient Greeks desired a population without blemish, they were the first Eugenicists. In Sparta disabled babies were left out on the mountain side to die. The Greek myth of Hephaestus (right) involved the other Gods making fun of him because he had a club foot. In Rome Julius Caesar disguised his epilepsy. Disabled gladiators were matched against wild animals for amusement. Disabled babies were thrown under chariots.

1480 to 1680 Witch hunts took place in Europe. Witches were often identified by either having a disabled child or being disabled themselves. Classic children’s stories such as Hansel and Gretel were based on such ideas. The Church supported this scapegoating and wrote the Malleus Mallifcarum, ‘The Witches’ Hammer’.

‘Disabled people all experience oppression as a result of the denial of our reality. If our reality is not reflected in the general culture, how can we assert rights? If we do not ‘appear’ as real people, with the need for love, affection, friendship and the right to a good quality of life, how can non-disabled people give any meaning to our lives?’ Jenny Morris, Channel 4, Pride Against Prejudice 1991. which linked disability with witchcraft. More than 8 million women were subsequently killed. Today, in nearly all children’s stories about witches, they are shown as disabled. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, said ‘take the changeling child to the river and drown him’, when speaking of disabled children. A recent inquiry into Victoria Climbie’s death established that 30 out of 90 abuse cases involved the exorcism of disabled children.

As the Enlightenment dawned and science was substituted for superstition, things began to change but not always for the better. Writers and artists began to use disability as a metaphor for uselessness, evil or pity. Despite the Enlightenment, in 1781 the ship Zong sailed to Jamaica. Sick and disabled slaves were thrown overboard allowing the captain to claim insurance for the drowned slaves, which was a common practice.

Entertaining as figures of fun Disabled people have historically been figures of fun. Court jesters, such as Henry VIII’s William Somner, were often disabled and dwarfs feature as freaks in many court pictures. In 18th century London, people visited ‘Bedlam’ (the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem) to laugh at the insane. Circuses and ‘freak shows’ continued the tradition. A ‘freak show’ is still in operation on Coney Island, USA. This curiosity/fear of the different confirms the non-disabled viewer in the security of his or her own ‘normality’.

Industrial Revolution 1750-1850 The new production methods led to the rejection of more people in factories. This led to the 1834 Poor Act and the Workhouse which housed many disabled people. They began to be seen as a threat to be contained and locked away (1850 Asylum Act). Galton applied his cousin Darwin’s thesis to human beings, leading to the New Eugenics. Disabled people were a threat to the ‘gene pool’. This ignores history, where despite prejudice, disabled people have often come to the fore in all areas. Psychology stepped in with false measures of IQ. The scene was set for locking away the ‘mentally deficient’ for the whole of their lives [1913 Mental Deficiency Act] being classified as ‘idiot’, ’imbecile’ and ‘mentally defective’. The same impetus led to segregated schools. This all encouraged the idea that disabled people didn’t belong.

1930s & 1940s Fascists throughout Europe, especially the Nazis in Germany, questioned the continuing existence of the burden of ‘disabled people.’ Why should honest working people put up with paying for the so called ‘useless-eaters’? The result was the ‘T4 programme’ and the murder of more than 1 million disabled people across the German Empire. Disabled people were forced to wear the black triangle, a symbol originating from the concentration camps marking people as ‘anti-social’.

1950s and 60s Small groups of disabled people, families and charities sought to improve their lives, from a position of pity and good works, not human rights. Leading to the eventual closure of long stay mental deficiency hospitals, when it was demonstrated people with learning difficulties could achieve, work and live independently.

In the 1970s a new worldwide movement campaigning for the human rights of disabled people was taking shape, following the example of the Civil Rights Movement. This was based on a ‘social model’ perspective, where people were disabled by barriers in attitudes, environments and organisation, not their impairments. The Disabled People’s Movement was born, later including people with learning difficulties and those with mental health issues. The rights we now defend are largely due to this Movement. This led to legislation and slowly changing attitudes. We now have the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2008) and the Equalities Act (2010), both of which outlaw harassment and bullying on grounds of disability. However, much of the thinking that denies disabled people their humanity still exists.

Common stereotypes to be avoided in literature and the media Literature and media are full of stereotypes of disabled people which come from the above history, reinforce negative attitudes and are continually recycled, reinforcing bullying and hate crime. Stereotypes are groups of attitudes which have little or no basis in reality and yet persist in cultures. They reduce the individuality and character of people to false social constructs. This leads to name-calling and violence, undercutting the humanity of the victims. There are ten main stereotypes of disabled people:

1. Pitiable and pathetic; sweet and innocent; a miracle cure: Tiny Tim, Pollyanna, The Elephant Man

2. Victim or an object of violence : Wait Until Dark, In the Company of Men, Blanche in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (applies particularly to Blind women)

3. Sinister or evil: Dr No, Richard III(Shakespeare), Mr Glass in Unbreakable, Treasure Island pirates

4. Atmosphere / curios or exotica in ‘freak shows’, comics, horror movies and science fiction: One armed man in The Fugitive, Freaks (1932), Phantom of the Opera, many horror films

5. ‘Super-crip’/ triumph over tragedy/noble warrior: The Men, Born 4th July, Daredevil

6. Laughable or the butt of jokes: Time Bandits, Mr Magoo, Something About Mary, Dumb &Dumber

7. Having a chip on their shoulder/ aggressive avenger: Ahab in Moby Dick, Claw in Dick Tracy, Hook

8. A burden/ outcast: Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mask, Nazi propaganda films

9. Non-sexual or incapable of a worthwhile relationship: Lady Chatterley, disabled adults viewed as children . Think of a film where a disabled woman has a healthy sexual relationship.

10. Incapable of fully participating in everyday life: The Lost Prince, Children of a Lesser God.

There have been some films that challenge these stereotypes, such as Shrek, Finding Nemo, Coming Home, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and more recently Rust and Bone or The Sessions.

Disabled people want to be included without emphasis on our impairments, to be valued for who we are.

For more detail on stereotypes go to www.h t t p : / / a t t i t u d e s 2 d i s a b i l i t y . w o r d p r e s s . c o m

For more on Disabling Imagery go to

How to challenge disabilist bullying in the classroom.

Disabled People in the UK prefer to be known as disabled people. We have reclaimed the word. Under the ‘social model’ of disability we have different impairments or loss of function of our body or mind but we find other ways to do things. Barriers in the environment, organisation and negative attitudes disable us. In an inclusive school or social situation, barriers are removed or compensated for by various adjustments.

*The class can identify the various barriers for people with different impairments and what adjustments can be made inside and outside the school.

* Language used to describe disability or disabled people can often be offensive and is rooted in a history of oppression. It overlaps with other oppressions like racism, sexism and homophobia. Avoid Use (the) handicapped, (the) disabled disabled people afflicted by, suffers from, victim of has [name of condition or impairment] confined to a wheelchair, wheelchair-bound wheelchair user mentally handicapped, mentally defective, retarded, subnormal, idiot, imbecile, feeble-minded, stupid with a learning disability (singular) with learning disabilities (plural) cripple, invalid disabled person able-bodied non-disabled Spastic person with cerebral palsy mental patient, insane, mad person with a mental health condition, mental health system user deaf and dumb; deaf mute Deaf, user of British Sign Language (BSL), person with a hearing impairment the blind people with visual impairments; blind people; blind and partially sighted people an epileptic, diabetic, depressive, and so on person with epilepsy, diabetes, depression or someone who has epilepsy, diabetes, depression midget,dwarf someone with restricted growth or short stature fits, spells, attacks seizures Mongol, Downs person with learning difficulty

Challenging offensive language in class: Ask the class in groups to identify all the words associated with disabled people, to circle all those that are positive. & discuss the results.

Teach the history of offensive words e.g. ‘Idiot’, so children know why to avoid using them. Do not use the words unless they are brought up by pupils. Early Years & Primary Teachers need to promote an ethos where children feel able to talk about their lives and feelings and the class are encouraged to support one another.

The effects of disablism, racism, sexism, homophobia and prejudice can be explained and discussed so the children develop empathy, are able to challenge discrimination and include and support those who may feel excluded, within and outside the classroom. We need to teach where discriminatory attitudes come from, historically and currently. Young children can be taught this by drawing on their great sense of fairness.

‘Othering’ is a process of excluding an identified person or group from one’s normal social interaction because of some identifiable feature of the person’s ethnicity, gender, disability or other features. One’s own insecurities are projected onto others and it can increase at times of economic or social dislocation. It can start by unwanted comments and name calling, or jokes, then exclusion from social groups, followed by discrimination, violence and even death. These attitudes allow disability hate crimes to take place unchallenged, and give us a world where Fiona Pilkington killed herself and her disabled daughter, Francecca, after years of disabilist abuse which was ignored by police. A world where Gemma Hayter could be tortured and murdered by people she thought were her friends. A world where Kenneth Oakes could be regularly beaten until he died with 43 rib fractures.

Discuss the effects of ‘othering’ within class and how we can prevent it occurring.

• Create a school culture that does not accept bullying. Respect, monitor and record all incidents

• Assemblies led by disabled people

• Include aspects of disability and disability equality throughout the curriculum

• Develop an understanding of oppression and its impact historically

• Develop an understanding of where disabilist bullying leads

• If an incident occurs stop the lesson to discuss it

• Fully involve pupils-peer mediators, bully busters, form and year councils and circles of friends

• Staff to model the behaviour they expect

• Share what you are doing with local parents and the community

There are many more activities to be found on and

For more information contact UKDHM coordinator. Don’t forget this year’s Anti-Bullying Week is focus on language and disability and is a good opportunity to challenge language based bullying of disabled children and young people in schools and colleges.

Find out more on the Anti-Bullying Alliance website:

Disability Time Line

by richard

This classroom resource aims to help you explain the history of disablism over the last 2,600 years. It was written by the World of Inclusion and should be used from upper primary to secondary.

A-Z Offensive disablist language and origins

by richard

July 7, 2016 by Richard Rieser

A to Z of Offensive Disablist Language

ORIGIN: Suggests that higher force has cast the person down (‘affligere’ is Latin for to knock
down, to weaken), or is causing them pain or suffering. Use ‘impairment’ or disabled people depending on the context.

ORIGIN: This word comes from Old English crypel or creopel, both related to the verb ‘to creep’. These, in turn, come from old (Middle) German ‘kripple’ meaning to be without power. The word is extremely offensive. Use person who has / person with….

Dumb or Dumbo
ORIGIN: a) Not to be able to speak. b) These words have come to mean lacking intelligence but people can communicate in different ways not just talking.

ORIGIN: Dwarf is used to describe short people or short stature, through folklore and common usage it has negative connotations.

ORIGIN: The word feeble comes from old French meaning ‘lacking strength’. It’s meaning was formalised in the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, to mean not an extremely pronounced mental deficiency, but one still requiring care, supervision and control.Use person with learning difficulty

ORIGIN: Associated with freak show where people who were very small, tall, large or with other visible differences or impairments were put on display for the public gaze in 17th, 18th and 19th century. It means strange or abnormal. This should not be used.


ORIGIN: Having an imposed disadvantage. The word may have several origins:
a) from horse races round the streets of Italian City States, such as Sienna, where really good riders had to ride one-handed, holding their hat in their other hand to make the race more equal.

b) by association with penitent sinners (often disabled people) in many parts of Europe who were forced into begging to survive and had to go up to people ‘cap in hand’.

ORIGIN: Coming from Old English lama Old German lahm and Old Norse lami meaning crippled, paralytic or weak. In Middle English came to mean ‘crippled’ in hands or feet. Lame duck is also used to mean any disabled person or thing or lame brain meaning learning difficulties. In modern slang ‘lame’ is used for someone or something that is un-cool, boring, not exciting, not funny, weak, annoying, inadequate or a loser. In this respect ‘lame’ is used like ‘gay’ and should be challenged. It is offensive.

ORIGIN: The word dates from the 13th century and comes from the Latin word idiota, meaning ‘ignorant person’. Again, it featured in the Mental Deficiency Act 1913 (see Feebleminded), where it meant someone who was so mentally deficient that they should be detained for the whole of their lives.

ORIGIN: This word has been around since the 16th century and comes from the Latin, imbecillus, meaning ‘feeble’ (it literally meant ‘without support’ and was originally used mainly in a physical sense). It was similarly defined in the Mental Deficiency Act, as someone incapable of managing their own affairs.

ORIGIN: Literally means not valid, from Latin ‘invalidus’. In the 17th century it came to have
a specific meaning, when referring to people, who were infirm, or disabled.

Mental or nutter or crazy
ORIGIN: All these are informal (slang) and offensive words for people with mental health issues. One in four people have a major bout ofmental distress or become mental health system users. The vast majority are not dangerous. 1 in 10 of school age students are diagnosed with mental health issues at some point in their schooling. Such young people need understanding, support and counselling, not harassment and name calling. Other names used Lunatic, Loony, Insane, Weird, Weirdo, Bonkers, Psycho and Mad to be avoided.

Mentally handicapped

ORIGIN: Was and is still used to refer to people with Learning difficulties the origin of the word handicap is as above. In the UK over 150,000 people with learning difficulties were locked away in Mental Handicap Hospitals because tests showed they had low Intelligence Quotients (IQ). These tests have since been shown to be culturally biased and only to measure one small part of how the brain works. People with learning difficulties have chosen the name “people with learning difficulties” for themselves because they think that, through education, which they have largely been denied, they can improve their situation.

ORIGIN: Langdon Down was a doctor who worked at the London Hospital in Whitechapel in the 1860s. He noticed that around 1 in 800 babies was born with pronounced different features and capabilities. Their features reminded him of the Mongolian peoples. He postulated that there was a hierarchy of races (in descending order) – European, Asian,African and Mongols. Each was genetically inferior to the group above them. This was a racist theory. People with Down’s Syndrome find it extremely offensive.

ORIGIN: Moron, Greek, meaning ‘foolish, dull, sluggish’

Raspberry Ripple
ORIGIN: Cockney rhyming slang for ‘cripple’, and offensive.

ORIGIN: Still in common use in the USA for people with a learning difficulty; from the word retarded meaning held back in development – offensive.

Spazz, spazzie or spastic
ORIGIN: People with cerebral palsy are subject to muscle spasms or spasticity. These offensive words are sometimes used in reference to this. People with this impairment wish to be known as people with cerebral palsy or disabled people

ORIGIN: Stupid’ was used in America at the start 20th century ‘scientifically’ to denote ‘one deficient in judgment and sense’.

The blind; The deaf; The disabled
ORIGIN: To call any group of people ‘the’ anything is to dehumanise them. Use blind people, deaf people or disabled people.

Victim or sufferer
ORIGIN: Disabled people are not victims of their impairment because this implies they are consciously singled out for punishment by God or a higher being. Similarly, the word sufferer can imply someone upon whom something has been imposed as a punishment by a deity.

ORIGIN: Wheelchair users see their wheelchair as a means of mobility and freedom, not something that restricts them, apart from problems with lack of access.

Notes for teachers:
1. All teaching staff should understand this guidance and be able to explain to children the
history of disablist terms and appropriate language.
2. Avoid using medical labels as this may promote a view of disabled people as patients. It also implies the medical label is the over-riding characteristic, which is
3. If it is necessary to refer to a condition, it is better to say, for example, ‘a person with
epilepsy’ not an epileptic, or ‘s/he has cerebral palsy’ not a spastic.
4. The word disabled should not be used as a collective noun (for example as in ‘the disabled’).
5. Although disabled people have impairments, they are not people with disabilities.
They are disabled by outside forces. They choose to be called “Disabled People” in the UK
because of collective oppression and solidarity.

Richard Rieser World of Inclusion
A to Z of offensive disablist language

10 tips to tackle disablist language based bullying in school: A guide for staff

by richard

10 tips to tackle disablist language based bullying in school: A guide for staff The use of verbal abuse as a form of bullying of disabled children and young people is widespread. This has a significant negative impact on self-esteem and achievement. To challenge it requires a consistent wholeschool approach involving staff, pupils, parents and carers. All members of the school community need to be equipped to always challenge and explain why such language is unacceptable. Disablism is a relatively new word and teachers will be more familiar with the need to challenge ‘sexism, racism and homophobia’. The Oxford Dictionary defines disablism as ‘discrimination or prejudice against people who are disabled’. Words such as ‘retard’, ‘spastic’, ‘mong’, ‘cripple’, ‘lame’, ‘mental’, ‘nutter’, ‘idiot’, ‘moron’ ‘drrr.. brain’, ‘dumb’, ‘four eyes’, ‘cloth ears’, ’flid’, ‘gimp’, ‘stupid’, ‘thick’ are linked to impairment. Even when used without any intent to cause hurt they create an environment where disabled pupils, staff, parents and carers are more likely to feel intimidated and at risk of harm. Schools should create a positive ethos towards disabled people, and demonstrate the negative impact of disablist language on their lives. Successful prevention strategies include:  Understanding where disablist language comes from  Why it should be avoided  The damaging impact that language based disablist bullying has on the self esteem, mental health and achievement of young disabled people. This has to be owned by children and young people so they understand that namecalling and derogatory jokes are all part of ‘othering’ and diminishing the essential humanness of the disabled person.

Top 10 Tips

1. Ensure all staff and pupils understand that disablement is socially created. We, as disabled people, have impairments. This can cause us pain and may shorten our lives, but for most disabled people that is just the way we are. It is the barriers we encounter that disable us. Negative attitudes and prejudice lead to restrictions in the environment and the way organisations, such as schools, function. These barriers can be changed. We cannot. This is called the ‘social model of disability’.

2. All disabled people are entitled to internationally recognised Human Rights. These are in the Equality Act (2010) with a requirement that all harassment towards disabled people and other social groups is eliminated. Schools must develop zero tolerance for disablist language. All staff must be equipped to challenge any pejorative language and other forms of bullying, by explaining the impact of such language. All such occurrences, however seemingly minor, should be recorded and followed up. Tackling disablist language in schools: 10 top tips

3. Hold regular year group or whole school assemblies with disabled speakers and draw on work from pupils examining the consequences of the use of disablist language, bullying and hate crime. Demonstrate how these are all part of a negative escalating process of ‘othering’. Develop both a sense of injustice and an empathetic response.

4. Recruit and train young people (including disabled young people) as peer mentors or anti-bullying ambassadors.

5. Set up working groups in each subject department or primary school to develop effective ways to introduce disability equality into the programmes of study of each subject and year. Monitor the frequency and effectiveness of these disability equality themed lessons.

6. Challenge conformity and notions of ‘normality’ by celebrating the difference in all of us. Use the corridors, notice boards, classroom walls and books to reflect the inclusion of disabled people.

7. Ensure all children and students are educated about the history of disablist language Link this work with an understanding of the history of disabled people’s oppression and what specific attitudes and behaviour it can lead to. Include what is acceptable and what is offensive language about disabled people.

8. Regularly challenge wrong thinking and stereotypes about disabled people. Use newspapers, magazines, films, TV, jokes, literature and social media. Look at Eugenics as an example of false science. Include work in factual English (newspaper coverage, writing and discussion on position of disabled people), Literature (classic texts and examples of positive presence), Maths (statistics and geometry of access), Art (disabled artists and visual portrayal), Drama (analyse stereotypes in drama/films), History (attitudes and treatment at different times), Geography (analyse mapped distributions and environmental barriers), D&T (universal design), Modern and Classical languages (words and meanings, customs), PE and Sport (adaptations and disabled sports) and ICT (cyber bullying and access).

9. Recognise the multiple discrimination/prejudice that a young disabled person may face. We know that young disabled people are at significant risk of sexual bullying and need to understand more about how they are impacted by racist, homophobic and transphobic bullying Make sure your school discusses these issues and provide circles of friends and support.

10. The whole school, including all staff and governors need to agree to challenge disablist language in schools. Develop a non-bullying ethos throughout the school. In the short-term ensure the use of disablist language, name calling and jokes that demean are routinely reported and dealt with.1 1 A much more detailed analysis, responses, suggestions and resources for activities can be found in the ABA/World of Inclusion publication: Tackling disablist language based bullying in school: A Teachers Guide.

Richard Rieser World of Inclusion and Anti Bullying Alliance  November 2014

Tackling Disablist Based Language Bullying in School

July 6, 2016 by richard

Written by Richard Rieser of World of Inclusion and the Anti Bullying Alliance

Present in My Past

July 3, 2016 by richard

Purple Patch Arts

A short animation which brings to life the social history of people with learning disabilities and how they have been treated by society. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and developed in partnership with staff at The University of Leeds.

Please play in HD.