1 in 10 adults have used abusive language towards a disabled person

Results of a new survey, released today by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, hosted by leading children’s charity the National Children’s Bureau, suggest that adults are perpetuating and normalising bullying behaviour by using discriminatory language in their everyday conversations, with some directing abusive words at disabled people or those with special educational needs (SEN).

The findings, launched today to mark the start of Anti-Bullying Week, show that  four in ten (44%) adults use the words ‘spaz’, ‘spastic’, ‘retard’ or ‘mong’ in ‘casual’ conversation; half of whom justify doing so as part of ‘banter’.  In addition, 65% hear others using these words in conversation, with over a third (37%) witnessing them being used online.

When it came to using the words directly towards another person; almost a third (30%) admitted to doing so; with 1 in 5 saying they had done so just as ‘banter’ and 1 in 10 to be deliberately insulting.

Further findings suggest that children have also adopted this cursory use of bullying language; 70% of teachers polled hear their pupils using the words ‘spaz’, ‘spastic’, ‘retard’ or ‘mong’ at school. When it came to how children used this language; half of those teachers overheard pupils using it in ‘casual’ conversation, with the same number employing the words to insult their peers.

The survey also showed that more than 1 in 10 adults have directed these words at a disabled person/person with SEN, with half of those doing so to be insulting; findings which were echoed amongst the younger generation:

  • more than half of teachers (55%) hear children directing discriminatory language at a disabled child/child with SEN, with just under half of these instances directed as insults.

Despite the prolific conversational use of these words; over half of adults (53%) said that it was always offensive to use these words. However, nearly a third (30%) said that they don’t consider these words to be offensive if used in’ banter’.

Most adults are ignorant of the meaning of offensive bullying language

When asked if they knew what these words meant and where they originated:

  • over half of adults surveyed didn’t know the history of the word ‘mong’
  • over a third didn’t know where the word ‘spastic’ came from
  • with a quarter unaware of the origins of the word ‘retard’.

After reading the origins of the words, with an explanation that they are offensive to disabled people/ people with SEN, over a quarter (28%) said they would still continue to use the words.

This is completely unacceptable. No child should ever say or hear these words whether used in conversation or as an insult. Schools have a responsibility to ensure that children can learn in an environment free from prejudice. To help tackle this we have given more power to heads to punish bad behaviour and there’s also now a greater focus on behaviour and bullying in school inspections.

Minister for Children and Families, Edward Timpson

1 in 5 children of school age have a special educational need, those who existing evidence shows us are significantly more likely to suffer bullying. Our findings show that children are using these bullying words in general conversation, and worse still, to deliberately insult each other and their disabled peers or those with special educational needs. As adults we need to ask ourselves what our role is in this, when it became acceptable to use these and other discriminatory words as part of ‘banter’ and why we feel disabled people and those with special educational needs are fair game. Existing evidence demonstrates just how pervasive the bullying of disabled children and those with special education needs is, yet as a society we are using discriminatory and hurtful language that is perpetuating the bullying of these vulnerable children in our schools. We must challenge the normalisation of this language and recognise the impact it is having on the attitudes of generations to come.

National Coordinator of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, Lauren Seager-Smith

Children with special educational needs and disabled children are more likely to be bullied

  • Primary school pupils with special educational needs are twice as likely as other children to suffer from persistent bullying1
  • 83% of young people with learning difficulties have suffered bullying 2
  • over 90% of parents of children with Asperger Syndrome have reported the bullying of their child in the previous year.3


For more information please contact the National Children's Bureau's media office on 0207 843 6045 / 47 or email [email protected]. For urgent enquiries out of office hours call 07721 097 033.  

Notes to editors

The Survey

The poll was conducted with 400 teachers (200 primary and 200 secondary) and 1000 adults by OnePoll in November 2014.

The Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) is a unique coalition of organisations and individuals, who work together to reduce bullying and create safer environments in which children and young people can live, grow, play and learn. ABA is hosted by the National Children's Bureau. For more information visit www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk

Anti-Bullying Week 2014 takes place 17-21 November 2014. For more information on how you can get involved in Anti-Bullying Week 2014 visit www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk

The National Children's Bureau (NCB) 
The National Children's Bureau is a leading charity that for 50 years has been improving the lives of children and young people, especially the most vulnerable. We work with children and for children, to influence government policy, be a strong voice for young people and practitioners, and provide creative solutions on a range of social issues. For more information visit www.ncb.org.uk

Further information:

  • As part of the government’s special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) reforms the Department for Education have given the Anti Bullying Alliance, hosted by the national Children’s Bureau, £1.5 million over two years to help develop strategies to tackle SEND bullying specifically.
  • Since September, schools have been urged to also make clear the measures they take to prevent SEND pupils being bullied. This must include guidance which is accessible to those who need it.
  • The Department for Education has also produced a factsheet which outlines schools’ responsibilities to support children who are bullied, including sections on SEND.

Evidence cited

1.Primary school pupils with special educational needs are twice as likely as other children to suffer from persistent bullying, according to new research published by the Institute of Education<http://www.ioe.ac.uk/> (IOE), University of London.

The study, the largest of its kind to be carried out in England, analysed information on more than 19,000 children and adolescents born in the early 1990s and 2000s.

Researchers from the IOE’s Centre for Longitudinal Studies<http://www.cls.ioe.ac.uk/> and the London School of Economics<http://www.lse.ac.uk/> examined the prevalence of bullying at ages 7 and 15 among children with different types of cognitive and physical impairments.

Seventeen per cent of children and teenagers had special educational needs, of whom 4 to 5 per cent had a ‘statement’ outlining what additional support they should receive at school. Children with statements of need are generally those with the most severe learning difficulties.

At age 7, 12 per cent of children with special needs and 11 per cent of those with a statement said they were bullied ‘all of the time’ by other pupils, compared to just 6 per cent of their non-disabled peers.

2. Research indicates that the rates of vulnerability to bullying for young people with SEN and/or disabilities are very significant. Reports suggest that, for example, bullying may have been experienced by:

83 per cent (or roughly eight out of ten) of young people with learning difficulties (see, for example, Luciano and Savage 2007, and Mencap 2007)

3. Over 90 per cent of parents of children with Asperger Syndrome reported that their child had been bullied in the previous 12 months.L. Little, 'Middle-Class Mothers' Perceptions of Peer and Sibling Victimisation among Children with Asperger's Syndrome and Non-Verbal Learning Disorders' (2002) 25(1) Issues in Comprehensive Paediatric Nursing pp. 43 - 57.

Further statistics regarding the bullying of disabled children and those with special educational needs

Research and literature indicates that the rates of vulnerability to bullying for young people with SEN and/or disabilities are very significant. Reports suggest that, for example, bullying may have been experienced by:

  • 82 per cent of young people who are disfluent (those with a stammer),
  • 59 per cent of them at least once a week, and 91 per cent by name calling (Mooney and Smith 1995)
  • 70 per cent of children with autistic spectrum disorders combined with other characteristics (for example, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (Bejerot and Mortberg 2009)
  • 39 per cent of children with speech and language difficulties (Sweeting and West 2001), while Savage (2005) argues that young people with speech difficulties are three times more likely to be bullied than their peers
  • 30 per cent of children with reading difficulties (Sweeting and West 2001).
  • 56% of children with a learning disability said they cried because of bullying, and 33% hid away in their bedroom. Nearly half of children with a learning disability had been bullied for over a year, and many were bullied for even longer. MENCAP (2007) Bullying wrecks lives: the experiences of children and young people with a learning disability. London: Mencap. 15pp.
  • There is a growing evidence base linking bullying to mental health problems which has changed both government and societal attitudes to bullying. Findings showed that 61.5 per cent of participants reported being bullied, with 62.5 per cent of bullied participants reporting that being bullied was an important reason for their attendance at the CAMH service. DYER, K. and TEGGART, T. (2007) Bullying experiences of child and adolescent mental health service-users: a pilot survey. Child Care in Practice, vol.13, no.4 (Oct). pp351-365.