Kayla Whaley has a BA in political science and is currently finishing her Master’s in Public Administration with an emphasis in nonprofit management. She interns for both the Atlanta Young Writer’s Institute and Month9Books. Her bookshelves consist almost entirely of kidlit and she writes YA fantasy and contemporary.
Kayla was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy III, a neuromuscular disease, and uses a power wheelchair.
I don’t remember the first time I was bullied, but I do remember the moment I finally realized that I had been bullied. It was a couple years ago. I had just presented my undergraduate thesis, the last big hurdle before graduation, and a group of us went out to celebrate after. I don’t know why I was telling this particular story, because I’m sure they’d all heard it before.
The story goes like this: All through high school, almost daily, I’d be driving down the hallway and someone would throw their friend against the lockers screaming, “I saved you! She would have KILLED you!” Different people every time, too. It was hilarious for them, and the way I always told it, with a bemused “Kids, eh?” attitude, made it hilarious for everyone I told.
That night, as I was telling it for the millionth time, something clicked. I stopped mid-story and said, “Oh my God. I was bullied.”
In retrospect, it was obvious that’s what that was. I thought back to how those incidents always made me feel: confused, embarrassed, ashamed. I’d duck my head, and drive faster down the hall. By that night in the restaurant, four years after high school, I’d forgotten how I always used to stare at the ground when I drove, hiding behind the binders and books I held against my chest.
I wondered how I could have missed it. I thought about how I have always dealt with what I now recognize as bullying with a nonchalant, play-along kind of humor. Because, like I said, it never FELT like bullying. It certainly didn’t feel good, but I didn’t have the language to understand what it actually was.
In one of the early episodes of Glee, there’s a scene where Artie, who uses a wheelchair, is stuffed into a porta-potty by a group of football players. While Glee obviously aired well after my formative years, this is the same portrayal of bullying I’d seen growing up time and time and time again. Bullies were violent; they beat you, pulled your hair, knocked your books down. Or they were verbally abusive, cussing you, calling you names. Bullying was something done TO YOU. It was obvious and hateful.
Nothing was being done to me, only around me. No one ever directly assaulted me (physically or verbally). And I hadn’t been given the tools to understand what was happening.
As soon as I had that realization in the restaurant that night, I also realized exactly how often I’d been bullied. In elementary school, in middle school, in high school, and even in college. It was always relatively subtle. Just subtle enough for me to ignore my feelings, and for me to think I needed to be in on the joke or else I was being too sensitive. No one ever said this to me, but I could see the relief on my friends’ faces every time I joked about those incidents. It made them so much more comfortable if I laughed about it, if I encouraged them to laugh about it, too. Because that meant it wasn’t a big deal.
I could give you a list of all the times someone has belittled me, insulted me, or dismissed me because of my disability. I could tell you about the times even my closest friends did it without realizing, because I didn’t even realize. I could tell you about all the guilt I felt after that night, thinking I was stupid for not seeing it sooner, blaming myself for not stopping it.
But this post isn’t about that. It’s about the fact that, as always, representation matters. Bullying as violence/verbal abuse should not be the only view of it we see, because it is not the only manifestation of it. Does it happen? Absolutely. Should we talk about the fact that it happens? Absolutely. But that should not be the end of the discussion.
If you’re writing a disabled character who deals with bullying, I’d encourage you to consider a more nuanced portrayal. The big, mean jock beating the kid in the chair is not the only story to tell. And frankly, bullying was not that big a deal for me. It happened, yes, and I can see now how it affected me, but at the time? I had scores of friends. I was near the top of my class. People liked me. And I had so many other, more important problems to deal with than the idiots in the hallway.
I guess what I’m saying is that it’s complicated. As most things are. Bullying may very well be a part of your character’s life, but it may not be the most important part.