Fadhil is a 10-year old boy who lives in a small village on the outskirts of Pontianak in West Kalimantan. He has never been anywhere during his lifetime. Every day, his life revolves around a 700-metre rocky road that connects his home to his school. This is because he was struck down by polio at the age of three. The illness left him paralysed in both legs, making mobility a luxury.
His best friend is a pair of black shoes made specifically made for him and which resemble the letter 'S'; thus, making Fadhil look very different from those around him. In addition, a walking aid comprising four leg irons assembled by his father is his loyal companion. This has become a simple alternative to a wheelchair, which is too expensive, and a substitute for a shoulder of a non-existent friend.
Fadhil never participates in physical education at school; instead, he waits alone in a corner of the field. His eyes stare at his classmates running and playing while biting his lip and fighting back tears that gather in the corners of his eyes.
His classmates have nicknamed him Snail because he walks very slowly. The same classmates never stop mocking his simple lunch, which he usually eats alone in the corner of his classroom during recess because he would not have enough time to visit the school canteen. They are more often laughing than helping Fadhil whenever he falls. Taunting his dirty bag that is full of mud as he often falls while walking to school.
Unfortunately, however, Fadhil is just one of the many victims of bullying that is not only happening in schools, but also in homes and other public places worldwide.
For example, the Indonesian Commission on Child Protection (KPAI) recorded 147 cases of violence in schools during 2015. In addition, some surprising data compiled by UNICEF Indonesia reports that 50 percent of students aged between 13 and 15 face bullying in their schools. Reflecting on these figures, the Chairman of KPAI, Niam Sholeh, assesses the lack of exemplary values, both at home and in schools, as a major factor in the spread of bullying.
More specifically, studies conducted by the National Children's Bureau in 2007 and the Pacer Center in 2012 reveal that students with disabilities are more vulnerable to becoming targets of bullying, as illustrated by Fadhil's story. The social challenges faced by disabled children make them more likely to be the victims of discrimination.
This phenomenon, however, is not only happening in Indonesia, but also in many part of the world. In most cases, the most prevalent location for bullying is in schools.
Undeniably, the majority of disabled children are at risk of bullying in school. It is crucial to note that negative school experiences can have long-term deleterious implications that, if neglected, will interfere with the child's psychological development. There is a high absentee rate among disabled students because fear of going to school is a direct consequence of bullying.
Further, the trauma inflicted by bullying is also believed to result in loss of interest in high achievement, low levels of self-confidence, and limited trust in others. The situation has been worsened by the fact that teachers and parents frequently consider this phenomenon as normal and, hence, do nothing to eradicate it. Consequently, students who are bullied in school are more likely to feel fear and anxiety to report what they experience, resulting in bullying occurring for a prolonged period. Moreover, if the parents are not sensitive to the emotional changes that may be displayed by their children at home, it is feared that they will have moody and self-closing personalities.
Even though the rules and school policies through advocacy efforts of teachers could minimise physical bullying, the teachers' role in reducing verbal and psychological bullying, such as taunting, intimidation, discrimination, and exclusion from the community, will not be effective without the cultivation of the values of social awareness, mutual respect, and tolerance from an early age. A learning environment that fails to instill values of tolerance, especially towards those with disabilities, is fertile ground for bullying.
Efforts to protect children with disabilities from bullying should be made on an ongoing basis, both at home and in schools. Integration efforts by both in accommodating the needs of these children and in creating supportive social and academic environments will provide opportunities to maximise their potential and minimise the gaps with their 'normal' counterparts. Inclusive education that pays attention to those with special needs is the most fundamental step that needs to be taken to fix the stigma of society towards these individuals.
Another important issue is fairness in terms of access to education. Education is a platform from which individuals can develop his or her potential to grow into a formidable individual with a strong character and healthy social life. Equality of rights, whereby discrimination should be eradicated, must be interpreted with the improvement of the system and policy of educational institutions in the delivery of special facilities and curricula for students with disabilities. In doings so, students with disabilities like Fadhil will be able to enjoy access to viable education as part of the fulfillment of their constitutional rights.
This piece is co-authored with Dikanaya Tarahita. She pursued an M.Sc in Human Resource Management and Industrial Relations at the University of Manchester.