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Hateful Anons, Trolls, & Chatrooms: How Cyberbullying Affected Me as a Disabled Person

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Bullying Prevention Observance Ribbon

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and I wanted to share my personal testimony regarding bullying for this observance, and to let others who have endured this that they are not alone.  National Bullying Prevention Month was established in 2006 by the PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center.  This campaign aims to unite communities, local and nationwide, through activities, education, and awareness building during the observance period.  In the month of October, schools and organizations by the hundreds sign up as partners to respond to bullying behaviors that exist and work to shift the way students, parents, and community residents view bullying from being simply “child’s play” or a “rite of passage” to a serious, and at times, life-threatening issue that needs to be addressed.

Why I Chose to Discuss Cyberbullying as an PwD:  

Discussing my experience with cyberbullying was not the topic I had chosen to write about this week.  The idea stemmed from a late-night conversation I had with a fellow PwD who shared with me the bullying they had witnessed a follower experience on Tumblr.  My friend decided to take action by writing a message to his follower, asking the anonymous bullies to come at him, instead of the targeted individual.  (On Tumblr, you can submit personal messages and ask questions anonymously; some people abuse this feature by sending hateful and cruel messages to bloggers.)  I was quite surprised at the action my friend took because very few people would stand up for someone being bullied, much less make themselves a target to receive the ridicule.  (Being that I have gotten to know this person, I am not shocked that he would come to the aid of a friend in need – that is just the kind of person he is.)

The person being bullied is someone who has a disability, and has endured severe health complications that affects their entire body functioning.  The comments the anonymous messengers (called “anons”) submitted were about the blogger’s facial and body appearance, derogatory slurs such as “freak,” and hints that they should not be around anymore.  What was most troubling is that the person’s mental state is very fragile due to their illnesses, and reading such disturbing hate messages did not help them cope with the frustrations of having a body that did not work the way they would like.  When I read some of the messages the person received, I was truly disgusted.  I thought, how could anyone say such hurtful and damaging things to someone that they do not even know?  What kind of individual takes “pleasure” in putting down someone who is already feeling low from issues that they have no control over?

Exposing the Darker Side of Social Media:  

Sadly, I have seen many disabled bloggers share brutally painful remarks by anons.  Many of those bloggers are like the ones that my friend followed – they are usually going through periods of mental and/or physical health challenges, or life struggles, and anons view their vulnerabilities as opportunities to tear them apart.  Cyberbullying through anons and trolling (trolling is when someone purposefully write upsetting comments/messages on blog posts, articles, chatroom forums, etc.) is the darker side of social media that does not get as much attention as it should, especially since we spend more time on our computers, tablets, and smartphones than we do interacting with people.  If we want to make social media a more open and safe space for everyone, we have to discuss what is really going on, and how it impacts our online experiences.

Here is my story.

Bullying in the Chatroom – An Experience I Will Never Forget:  

In summer 2009, I had joined a chatroom that a then nationally syndicated radio show host had created on their website.  I was a huge fan of their awesome mix of talk and music playing program (mostly R&B, with a bit of positive hip-hop), and I thought that participating in their chatroom would be a great way to cure my boredom from being at home post-undergrad.

For the first two months, it was nice meeting different people from across the country; the majority were older than I was (I was 23, going on 24 at the time).  There were a few Millennials present, but most were mid 30s and up; being that I have always been around older adults, the age difference did not bother me.  One thing that I noticed after the chatroom “newness” had worn off was the harassing comments, name-calling, and downright disrespect that permeated the whole chatroom regularly.  The bullying I witnessed others endure started off subtle, with light-hearted jabbing, and “picking,” and the targeted chatter brushing the comments off, and not taking them seriously.

Then one morning, I remember entering the chat, and seen that all Hades had broke loose.  There was a woman who was getting called every name but the child of God by several male chatters.  They called her a liar, and a few misogynistic words that I will dare not repeat on here.  Surprisingly, some of the female chatters joined in, and harassed the woman as well.  This blew my mind because it was the first time that I had seen older adults bully one another in such an aggressive manner, and I did not know how to comprehend what I was reading.

Several weeks later, some of the same chatters who were involved in the first bullying incident I witnessed made me their target when I tried to stand up for myself against a female chatter.  What took place shook me up greatly.  In the chatroom, I made it known that I was disabled, and that was used as the weapon of choice by the bullies.  They called me almost every disgusting, derogatory word and phrase you could utter to someone who had a physical disability.  The cliche, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was a total lie at that moment – what they wrote crushed me to the core, especially when some of the attackers were suppose to be my chatting friends.  What astounded me even further was that the bullying went on for several days, in two different chatrooms.  There were a few chatters who tried to defend me, but they ended up being bullied as well.

How Bullying Affected My Confidence as an PwD:

I felt a myriad of emotions during that time – anger, vulnerability, fear, and two that I had never experienced before:  self-hate and self-doubt.  The last two were profound because I never in my life felt so inferior because I was disabled, and those folks with their hateful words made me feel minuscule and worthless.  No one should ever perceive themselves as unworthy or disgusting simply because they are disabled – there is NOTHING grotesque or vile about being a person with a disability.  To cause someone to think and believe such things is downright sadistic and wicked.

Once the bullying hellstorm finally subsided, I never felt safe there again.  I stayed for several more months because I had gotten to know a few people on there who were phenomenal (and I still communicate with a handful to this day), but the damage was done.  I purposefully avoided going into the chatroom when I saw the bullies in there, and I knew that they still talked about me from the snide comments they would post.  At one point, I became paranoid about the bullies finding me on other social media platforms (especially Facebook), and I locked up my personal pages so that they could not add or find me.  I was not about to be harassed and mocked outside of the chatroom – I was going to protect the online spaces and pages I had that I could control.  Protecting my identity greatly influenced what I shared online, especially my first name since it is unique.  It was not until I established RYV! that I started to use my actual name online and on social media, instead of the moniker I had adopted.

It was indeed an unhealthy and emotionally draining environment, and I finally left the chatroom when I started making plans to go to graduate school late spring 2010, after getting accepted into the MSW (Master’s in Social Work) programs I applied to.  Having this “escape” made things “easier” to overcome when bullying flare-ups occurred – I knew that my time on there was coming to an end, on my accord.  I made sure that those I had befriended knew how to contact me once I signed off for the final time, and I never looked back after that day.

Cyberbullying Is A Horrible Experience Disabled People Encounter Every Day:

Those 9-10 months impacted me in ways that I never imagined, particularly when it came to my confidence about being disabled.  I have always struggled with embracing my disability status growing up because I wanted to be “normal” – able to walk, run around, and play without stares, whispers, and finger pointing; or drawing unnecessary attention from others by doing ordinary tasks and activities.  Despite my struggles, I never “hated” being disabled; it was more of an “inconvenience” that “hindered” me from doing what others did.  Being in that chatroom caused me to feel lowly about myself; that I was some “freak of nature,” “ugly,” and “undesirable.”  To say that was a dark time for me, self-esteem and confidence wise, would be an understatement.  Did I know that what was said about me were untruths?  Yes, but when several people say something negative and vile about you long enough, it begins to slowly seep into your psyche.

Luckily for me, the darkness that developed did not linger for long, but for others who experience online bullying, that is not always the case.  Those who said such mean things about me were strangers, folks who did not exist once I signed off that chatroom.  For many disabled online users, much of the cyberbullying they undergo are from those they do know – classmates, acquaintances, and sadly, even adults (sometimes those adults are parents/guardians, other relatives, teachers, etc.).  For these individuals, it may not be possible to avoid such persons, which means that the bullying may never stop or lessen over time.  I could not even fathom hearing or reading such hatefulness every day, but that is the life a disturbingly disproportionate number of us in this community endure.

The Key Lessons I Learned From My Bullying Experience:  

I strongly believe that you cannot persevere through something like cyberbullying without it affecting you long afterwards.  Here are the 3 key lessons being bullied as taught me:

  1. Words have immense power, and you must be careful how you use them.  It is without saying that I am more mindful as to what I say to others, especially during times when I am asked to be critical or when I am joking.  When I am asked to be brutally honest, I always put myself in that person’s shoes, and I try to word my responses so that they do not come across as “attacking,” but instead are focused on the issue or concern being addressed.In regards to my humor (which can be risque at times), I make sure that the person knows that I am joking, and if I say something that may have unintentionally struck a nerve, I apologize immediately.  My intentions, regardless of tone or the subject matter of the conversation, is to never hurt, but to help and make someone feel better through humor.  Words, no matter how grande or minute they are, can pack a huge punch if used to harm someone mentally or emotionally.  I know what it is like to be bullied – I never want to be considered a bully to anyone.
  2. Try to be supportive of those whom I see are going to life challenges.  This is particularly true for individuals and bloggers I know who were/are bullied and living through trials and tribulations.  When I am on Tumblr and I see someone post about school/work, family, money, relationships, health, and other life stresses, I do take a second to reach out with words of encouragement.  Why?  Because I, and a few other blogging friends, may be the only ones they receive positive statements from.  We have to remember that not everyone has a strong support system they can lean on – being online may be their way of creating the kind of “family” or “community” they lack in their “real” lives.  Though I am not as brave as my friend to take on the bullies directly, I can let those I know who have been wounded by the words and actions of others that they are beautiful, loved, smart, courageous, and that their life matters.  Maya Angelou’s quote describes this lesson perfectly:

    Maya Angelou, Rainbow & Cloud 3

    “Try to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” – Maya Angelou

  3. No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.  My bullying experience taught me the greatest lesson of all.  Never again will someone make me believe that I am less than or unpretty because I am disabled, short, Black, female, and every other identifying label I cause to describe myself.  Again, the legendary Maya Angelou said it best:

    Maya Angelou, I'll Rise 4

    “You may shoot me with your words, You may cut me with your eyes, You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I’ll rise.” – Maya Angelou


Final Thoughts:

Though being as candid as I have in this article can be nerve-racking to some degree, if my testimony helps at least one person realize that they are not alone, and that bullying does not last forever, then I have done my job.  We cannot fight problems like bullying by remaining silent; sharing our stories puts a human face on such issues and make the harsh realities hit close to home.  I know that I am not the only disabled person who have survived cyberbullying.  I use the term “survive” because I overcame this incident, and grew stronger than I was before it happened.  The battle wound has healed, but the scar that remains shows me that I triumphed over something that did not kill or break my spirit.

Share Your Stories, RYV! Readers:

If you are a disabled person who is a survivor of bullying, including cyberbullying, please share your stories with me.  I know that for some of you, being raw in your storytelling may evoke emotions that you thought had healed, and I want you to know that it is okay to feel the sadness and pain that surrounded that experience.  Do realize with every fiber within you that you are not the hurtful names and words used by others – you are wonderful, lovely, important, and worthy.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Don’t Just Go Pink! on Tumblr.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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