Teasing disabled children: facing the childhood shame of my actions

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Teasing a disabled child: facing the childhood shame of my actions

This is a true story of how a single incident of bullying and teasing a disabled child at school has led to a life of regret and pain.

How can a person claim to have lived a life with no regrets? Any search of a quotations website will throw up a long list of actors, artists, and authors tritely claiming: not only do they have no regrets but their fame and fortune were built on an absence of them. I suppose they are right. I guess. If you are famous, it’s possible to live a life without regret, or in the words of Frank Sinatra, have “too few to mention.”

I find it difficult to believe everyday people who say they don’t have regrets. At best, such a sentiment seems trite and inauthentic; at worst, assuming what they say is sincere, it is downright worrisome. If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard this assertion before; or at least something along that line. I think only people without self-audit or with an unhealthy dose of self-deception say they have no regrets. For me, I have learned, like Thoreau, “to regret deeply is to live afresh.”

Facts about bullying and teasing children with disabilities

“No child is immune from bullying. Children with physical, developmental, or other disabilities are at an increased risk of being bullied.”

PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center

“Children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers.”

STOMP Out Bullying

‘Students with disabilities are more likely to be chronically teased or bullied and develop related psychosocial problems.’

Judith A Vessey and Katherine M O’Neill

‘Children with disabilities can often be teased or excluded and it’s important to teach children that those words and behaviors can hurt.’

Goodstart Early Learning

‘Research by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) has shown that children with disabilities are more than three times more likely to be bully-victims than their non-disabled peers.’

The Good Schools Guide (UK)

‘Children with disabilities may be at increased risk of … shoving, spitting, taunting, teasing, racial slurs, verbal harassment (at school) …

HRSA Stop Bullying Now! Campaign

But I’m not famous. Most of us aren’t. I have regrets about teasing .

I deeply regret my actions as a young teenager in high school. My shame washes over me. My behavior shames the man I am today. Like just about every high school, mine could be a bit prison-like at times. You don’t want to stick out (especially for the wrong reasons), and you certainly don’t want to be made fun of.

As a 14-year-old kid, I hadn’t yet developed the thick skin of a mature adult. At my school, nothing was really off-limits between the students. People would tease you if you had an odd gait, liked the Spice Girls, or said something perceived as effeminate or gay. All bets were off; anyone or anything was fair game.

One lunchtime I was playing on one of the school’s football fields, and a kid, Zack*, was taunting me over something mundane. I don’t remember what was said; too many years have passed. It was probably harmless banter, as apparently, I couldn’t have been too distraught if I don’t recall what he said. Anyway, rather than ignore him—or even counter with an equivalent level of banter—I unleashed the nuclear option. See, the thing is, Zack only had one arm. From my memory, he was what was commonly called a thalidomide baby.


I remember my exact response, which I will not repeat here, but it was  nasty and along the lines of: “Well, at least I have two arms.” In case you couldn’t tell, I was sarcastic about the witty part. The irony is that I pride myself on my ability to come back with witty zingers. I could usually go toe-to-toe with the best of them. But, for some reason, that day I fell short. I was mean. Really mean. Rather than simply accept the barb and just say something harmless, I put my own pride above his. I resorted to teasing a disabled child.

“A man should never be ashamed to own he has been in the wrong, which is but saying... that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.”

Alexander Pope


I have regrets. I attacked his disability. I regret teasing a disabled child

Zack could’ve said the worst thing imaginable to me, but my response should never have been to go for a clumsy cheap shot: to tease him about his disability. In doing so, I lost his respect and, in all probability, caused him lasting harm, especially if other boys teased or bullied him in the same way.

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I always wondered why I was unable to let go of this isolated incident from childhood. I guess it is because over the years I have come to despise that boy who was me. Writing this article, even though anonymously, is cathartic. While I believe I have always had compassion, the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of others, it has taken a conscious effort to develop self-compassion, which is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own suffering. While in isolation this teasing incident might not seem that significant, but to me it was, and for Zack it clearly was.

What to make of all of this? I hope my story serves as a warning to anyone who receives an insult from someone who has a disability—or, indeed, the minority status of any kind. Sometimes, you need to be the bigger person and not try to win every battle at all costs. Don’t hit back at the very thing – their disability – that makes them different. To win at all costs is to cause sadness while simultaneously making yourself out to be an insensitive arsehole. It can also play on your mind years later, serving a reminder of what you once were, and how you have hopefully gown.

Today, some 15 years later, I say sorry to Zack and my teenage myself: “to regret deeply is to live afresh.”


I have regrets. I attacked his disability.