Bullying experience for children with disabilities: findings close to home

Published 5 August 2021
A woman in blue academic gown with a woman in red academic gown. Dr Louisa Salmon (left) with Associate Professor Gail Moloney at the Coffs Harbour campus graduation ceremony (credit: Seen Australia).

The social isolation experienced by children with severe disabilities might leave them ill-equipped to deal with bullying, a Southern Cross University researcher has found.

Most children face varying degrees of bullying growing up but for those with disabilities the experience is more stressful. Children with disabilities often lack the emotional support of friends, a known mechanism that children use effectively to cope with being bullied.

“For children with severe disabilities, it may be that they do not get to develop the kinds of meaningful relationships necessary to be resilient to bullying,” said Dr Louisa Salmon.

Dr Salmon, who has cerebral palsy, was recently awarded a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) by Southern Cross University for her thesis, ‘Social experiences of children with disabilities: resilience, social identity and bullying’. Her supervisor was Associate Professor Gail Moloney.

The research looked at how differences in social inclusiveness influence a child’s resilience to negative social situations or situations where the interaction was unfriendly.

“I investigated whether children with severe disabilities were less able to deal with stressful situations if, as previous research suggested, they do not experience as many stressors growing up as children with milder disabilities,” Dr Salmon said.

Among Dr Salmon's findings was that while children with cerebral palsy seemed to report being bullied at similar rates as their siblings without disabilities, they seemed to be able to cope less well with bullying.

No difference was found between children with different levels of cerebral palsy with regards to bullying or their ability to cope with stressful situations.

"The results suggest children with disabilities felt excluded by others," Dr Salmon said.

“Further, my research indicates that children without disabilities might have little experience of interacting with peers with disabilities, and even less experience with those who are perceived as having a severe disability.

“Given that having good social support is an effective way for children to cope with bullying, this might explain why children with disabilities are less able to cope when bullying occurs.”

Investigating bullying

The overall study included four incremental studies, conducted over seven years, that focused on bullying; how well children cope with bullying; and attitudes toward bullying.

  • Study One looked at the bullying experiences of children without disabilities and how they cope with negative social experiences.
  • Study Two extended Study One’s findings by examining how to better measure children without disabilities’ experience of bullying and their resilience to the notion of being bullied and the notion of having had a fight with a friend.
  • Study Three investigated the experiences of bullying and the resilience of children with cerebral palsy and their siblings.
  • Study Four looked at whether or not it was possible to manipulate thoughts on how acceptable bullying might be if the victim of the bullying had a particular level of disability.

Embarking on a lifechanging journey

Dr Salmon knows only too well the different challenges faced by people with severe disability. Even though Dr Salmon’s cerebral palsy means she is confined to a wheelchair and uses a computer to communicate, that didn’t stop the Coffs Harbour local embarking on a PhD after completing a Bachelor of Psychology with Honours (also with Southern Cross University).

“I wanted to get a university education because I was ambitious at school and I had a lot to prove,” said Dr Salmon.

“In my mind there was no question as to whether I would attend university, but where and what I would study. Psychology was not my first choice, but I pursued it because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of people who had profound disabilities.

“Conducting research was very challenging for me; in particular, collecting data. I guess I was good with books and theory, but I really struggled to plan out and implement the physical aspects of my studies.”

Dr Salmon achieved her PhD goal, made possible with the support of supervisors Associate Professor Gail Moloney of Southern Cross University, Professor Lewis Bizo of the University of Technology Sydney and Professor Iona Novak at the Cerebral Palsy Institute; Southern Cross University’s Student Equity & Inclusion team including Maddison Norton; along with Duncan Blair (Technical Services) and Dr Salmon’s parents, friends and carers.

Professor Moloney praised Louisa for her remarkable fortitude.

“We supported and encouraged Louisa just as we do with all our PhD researchers,” said Dr Moloney, an Associate Professor in Psychology in the Faculty of Health.

“She always amazed me with her tenacity, wicked sense of humour, independence and capacity to overcome barriers. For example, Louisa made her own arrangements to collect data for her second study from a local primary school in Coffs Harbour, visiting the school in person with her carer.”

Data collection is the cornerstone of any PhD thesis.

“I approached data collection for Study One and Study Two differently to Study Three,” said Dr Salmon, reflecting on the process.

“Study One involved me going to a local school and similarly, I went to several schools for Study Two. I visited each school twice. Once to ask the principal for assistance in obtaining parental consent for the children to participate in my study and again ask the children, personally, to participate, and then I was present while they did the study. I needed a lot of assistance various people from the University to do this.

“Study Three was conducted completely online, via email. I had help from the Cerebral Palsy Register (where people indicate an interest in participating in research) as well as a number of organisations for people with cerebral palsy.

“I was very careful to try to make sure none of my participants were coerced into taking part. Between Study One and Study Three I developed a way of letting children privately decline to participate if they wanted to.”

A woman wearing academic gown in a wheelchair exchanging conversation with a man also in academic gown.

Dr Louisa Salmon receives her Doctor of Philosophy from the Vice Chancellor Professor Tyrone Carlin.

Celebrating success

Dr Salmon received a round of applause at the Coffs Harbour graduation ceremony on 26 June 2021.

“It was a wonderful to be awarded my Doctor of Philosophy by the Vice Chancellor,” Dr Salmon said.

“Working on a thesis for a decade, it was hard to see the end. I am a quiet achiever, but it really was great to be acknowledged for the years of work I put into my studies, along with all the other graduates.”

Dr Salmon is now looking for research assistant jobs in academia or government. She is also keen to set up her own business as an advocate/mentor.

“I would like to help people with disabilities have more control of their lives,” she said.

Media contact: Sharlene King, media office at Southern Cross University +61 429 661 349 or scumedia@scu.edu.au