Bullying. You’ve either been on the receiving end, the administering end, or somewhere in between. For the past 12 years I’ve had insults hurled at me because I have cerebral palsy. I’m Penelope and this is my tale of bullying, disability and me.
Throughout my life I’ve experienced a myriad of unjust treatment, ranging from snide stares to cutting comments people have only had the confidence to say because they believed – due to my disability – I won’t hear them. But I did. You’d think hearing their foul language would wound me the most but it doesn’t. What does is cyberbullying. Stealthy keyboard warriors who pick my social media posts apart while cowering under a blanket of anonymity.
My first experience of this occurred at the hands of a girl whom I’m calling Isabella last year. She and I were friends, we were virtually like sisters. I soon learned that watered-down blood was useless in the face of comments and behaviour bullying.
Isabella had a friend, who will be referred to as John, and he and I had polar opposite beliefs. I’d say every woman was entitled to live her truth, he’d say they should get back to the kitchen. In spite of this, I kept quiet because he really intimidated me. The intimidation soon transformed in to him isolating me from Isabella by excluding me from hanging out with them, and then plummeted in to him mocking me. The mockery evolved into a sick and twisted type of disability discrimination.
It started when John came to school after breaking his leg. “It looks like you’re not the only cripple around here anymore,” he bellowed at me laughing. Isabella stood there and said nothing. I couldn’t comprehend what he’d just said – or that Isabella hadn’t defended me. So, in my quest to educate John and not sob in shock, I politely told him the word “cripple” was offensive and advised him to not let it roll off his tongue. He persisted and said the word whenever I saw him; it made me sick to my stomach. It was evident he paid no regard to what I said.
I asked Isabella to explain to John why his use of the word upset me. She didn’t. Instead, whenever I complained about John saying it, Isabella defended him and brushed me off proclaiming it was just a word and I shouldn’t get offended. As awful as it was to admit to myself, I knew the pair of them were bullying me.
Following my school’s procedure for dealing with bullying, I informed an art teacher I trusted about what was happening and how I felt. I told her about John’s constant use of the term “cripple” around me, him calling me a Nazi (I have dual German and British citizenship), and his misogynistic behaviour and jokes about sexual assault. Thankfully she believed how distressed I felt by this bullying and emailed the head of sixth firm about the situation.
Not long after, Isabella caught wind of the news John was going to receive disciplinary action. She immediately demanded I tell the head I was lying so John could get out of trouble. I refused to.
That night, my phone started to ping. Like many people my age, I rely on my phone and see owning it as a blessing. However, each ping was the delivery of an abusive message or comment on my social media from Isabella.
In an attempt to salvage my sanity, I sent screenshots of the messages to my keyworker and placed my phone face down on the dining table so I couldn’t see the abuse being sent to me.
I went upstairs and wept into my bedsheets. My sanity felt shattered and it remained that way for a week. Every night without fail, I battled to get to sleep. During the day I slouched around with half‐closed eyes when I was supposed to be concentrating. As soon as I went to bed I became an insomniac. I was so tired that whenever friends didn’t reply to my messages immediately I’d well up, worrying they didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I - ‘the girl who could talk Eskimos into buying ice’ – even stopped talking to people at school because Isabella told them her version of what happened with me and John.
Eventually, the screenshots and the other issues were addressed by the school- but not how they should’ve been. John didn’t receive a detention and he wasn’t excluded from school. He was instructed to apologise to me, and he did this by mumbling through it. Isabella was given ‘a talking to’ but not told to apologise. Despite feeling like there weren’t any consequences of their behaviour, I’m proud I survived their bullying.
Since then time has since gone by and I’ve made a wealth of new friends, created even stronger bonds with my old ones, and learned to love myself. Now I’m more deeply involved in the fight for disabled rights than I’ve ever been. A noticeable part of this is the work I do is with the disabled young people’s charity Whizz‐ Kidz, which is funded by the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery.
Having given me my first usable wheelchair at age five, Whizz-Kidz has continued to support my equipment needs. It has also given me the confidence to speak out about a stigmatised issue like bullying. I know what happened to me wasn’t right, and the damaging impact of it deserves to be known.