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​​John Feehan

john feehanJohn Feehan’s experience of bullying goes as far back as he can remember.

He attended a mainstream primary school, and between the ages of nine and 12, he was the butt of jokes and the frequent target of name-calling and cruel jibes.

“I got bullied there because I was not as fast as some of the other kids,” he recalls.

“Just before I started secondary school, all the years of bullying came to a head and I snapped. On the way into the dinner hall was a set of stairs. I got a hold of a relentless bully and bounced him up and down each one. I got into trouble for that.”

John was released from primary school half a day a week to attend St Leonards School in Ayr, for children who have educational support needs. With a smaller school roll, more tolerant attitudes and greater understanding, John asked his parents if he could attend full time.

“Although there was less abuse at this school, bullying still went on within the community. The difference was, I was better able to deal with it,” says John (41).

“I didn’t tell my mum and dad about what went on, and the things they called me. You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but I was really quite shy back them and lacked confidence.”

He went on to study operational skills at college and, at the age of 22, left the parental home and moved into supported living accommodation in Prestwick. And although he lived there for nearly three years, the environment did not give him the level of independence he craved.

“I didn’t like having to ask for permission to have a friend stay over. I was an adult. Why shouldn’t I be able to make that choice?” he said.

“I told the support worker I wanted to leave, stand on my own two feet and start paying my own bills. I didn’t have an electricity bill and a phone bill to pay – it was all taken care of for me. Come to mention it, I didn’t even have a phone. I wanted to have the right to take control of mundane tasks like that – tasks that other people took for granted.”

Fifteen years ago, John left the supported living accommodation and moved into a Prestwick council house, which he shares with his cat, Jock. His home and his car are his pride and joy.

“When I got my wheels, I didn’t have to wait at bus stops anymore, which is where a lot of the abuse in the community went on. So, at that point, a large part of the bullying stopped. But maybe that’s because I got bigger – and tougher.”

John has been a member of ENABLE Scotland – the country’s leading charity for people who have learning disabilities – for a decade. An active member of the advisory committee of ENABLE (ACE), he has been employed as a participation officer by the organisation for three years, and fronted its campaign to show people who have learning disabilities how to vote in last September’s referendum.

He is among the growing number of people who are supporting ENABLE’s #bethechange campaign.

The bold campaign calls for the use of abusive, spiteful language to stop – once and for all.

Recent Crown Office statistics show that reported incidents of disability hate crime in Scotland are on the increase.  Disability prejudice accounted for 154 charges in 2013/14. It is, however, widely accepted that disability-related hate crime is significantly under-reported, and the actual figures are much higher.  Behind every statistic lies an individual’s experience, and ENABLE hears too many such stories from people like John.

Supporters of the campaign are urged to sign an online declaration wall confirming they are no longer prepared to tolerate offensive language. ENABLE Scotland is appealing to them to write to MSPs, asking for their support for #bethechange lesson plans to be delivered in schools, and to donate £2 to help promote more honesty about offensive language.

John continued: “We are living in a modern world, so why is this still happening? Nelson Mandela managed to beat apartheid in South Africa, so why are we still fighting a different sort of apartheid here? Never mind ‘sticks and stones.’ Names do hurt. And why do people who witness bullying turn a blind eye and walk away? How would they feel about being called names every day of the week? It can do an untold amount of psychological damage. It’s time it stopped.”

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