From the lack of proper diagnosis and support for students with dyslexia and ADHD to the stigmatization of disorders like autism and Down syndrome, students with disabilities are not treated equally in our education system. And Black students with disabilities often have extremely different — and more difficult — school experiences than their peers, disabled or otherwise.
That’s the finding of a new Bellwether report that looked at the experiences of Black students with disabilities. Researchers found that starting from birth, these students have a harder time getting the resources and support they need.
Though it might seem obvious, there are potential life-long consequences of not getting the right services to achieve at grade level, says Dr. Amelia Malone, the director of research and innovation at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
“If they consistently are not receiving the services they need,” Malone says, “then they are going to experience greater rates of poverty or low-paying jobs and the like.”
Black Students With Disabilities Receive High Levels of Discipline
Black students across the board face among the highest discipline levels of all K-12 students. And it’s no different when it comes to students with disabilities.
Black children are subjected to adultification, which means being seen as older than they are, says Dr. Elizabeth Drame, a professor of teaching and learning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Education. And this influences the way teachers interpret their behavior. If a Black child and a white child are acting the same way, the behavior is often seen much more negatively compared to the white child.
This also affects the reasons students are referred for disciplinary action. For white children, it’s clear behavior, like bringing a weapon or vandalism. But for Black children, it’s more subjective things, like disrespect, threatening behavior, and disruption.
“For me, a lot of the work needs to be on individual adults — educators, administrators, paraprofessionals, security — really confronting the ideas that they have about Black people, Black children, Black behavior,” Drame says. “All of that needs to be at the forefront because no matter what strategies or programs you put in place, they’re always going to be influenced by those ideas.”
Though exclusionary discipline — being removed from the class setting, usually through an in-school or out-of-school suspension — is a concern for any student with disabilities, students of color face this consequence at much higher rates. Nationally, in the 2015-2016 school year, Black students with disabilities made up about 2% of the total student population in this country, but they accounted for nearly 9% of all students suspended, according to the Bellwether report.
These discipline disparities are on display at Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest public school district in the country. In both the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years, Black students with disabilities faced the highest suspension rates of all students with disabilities, despite comprising only 11% of all students with disabilities.
In both school years, the most common reason for suspension was a violent incident without injury.
Further, Black students with disabilities are far more likely to face physical restraints. This includes handcuffing, straight jackets, being restrained in a chair — any method to keep key parts of a student’s body immobile.
In the 2017-2018 school year, about 18% of students with disabilities were Black. Despite this, they accounted for 26% of students with disabilities who were subjected to physical restraint and 34% who were mechanically restrained.
NCLD, along with its civil and disability rights partners, is working to end the use of restraint and seclusion in schools.
“It’s a product of the continued criminalization of Black people in this country,” says Lindsay Kubatzky, the director of policy and advocacy at NCLD. NCLD is advocating for the Keeping All Students Safe Act, which would end the use of these practices that “we know disproportionately impact these students and lead to these students being more involved in the juvenile justice system, and then later the criminal justice system.”
Isolation Doesn’t Benefit Anyone
Black students with disabilities are further segregated from their peers, being left out of inclusive class settings at higher rates than white students with disabilities.
In the 2019-2020 school year, about 65% of all students with disabilities were placed in inclusive classes — or classes with non-disabled students — for more than 80% of the school day, Bellwether found. But this was not split evenly. Among the students with disabilities who were placed in inclusive settings, 68% were white, 63% were Hispanic, 60% were Black, and 57% were Asian.
“What happens a lot is teachers are overwhelmed, and sometimes they feel threatened by specific behaviors,” Drame says. “Sometimes they don’t feel skilled, and they’re like, ‘I can’t do anything with this kid, this kid needs to be able to get some help somewhere else.’”
One of the problems with being in an isolated environment for most of the day is that there aren’t many dual-licensed special education and general education teachers, meaning special education teachers don’t necessarily have the content knowledge for general education.
“They might be given curriculum that’s scripted curriculum, but that curriculum isn’t necessarily high-quality or rigorous curriculum that’s aligned with general education standards,” Drame says. “Students who have disabilities need to be in general education classrooms because they’re general education students first, and then they have additional supports that they might need.”
Overall, Drame says, inclusive classrooms aren’t enough; decision-makers should be focused on creating inclusive schools. Education is supposed to be designed in a way to support all learners, whether that means a general education student who needs a smaller environment for a sensory break or a student with special needs who needs to be around a lot of people learning in a group.
“There’s a lot of research to say that students typically benefit greatly from inclusive environments, as well,” Drame says. “We are so invested in creating schools within the school and microcosms within microcosms.”
Kubatzky echoes this sentiment, saying it’s important to have high expectations and access to high-quality educators for all students.
“When we segregate students with disabilities into other classrooms, we are perpetuating that idea that these students can not perform as well as their peers,” Kubatzky says. “We’ve seen, when given the right supports and accommodations, that they can perform just as well as their peers.”
Black Students Are Often Misdiagnosed — or Not Diagnosed at All
While billions of dollars are being allocated to research, the researchers aren’t incorporating “substantive numbers of Black children in their samples,” Drame says. Not only does it impact the data in reports like Bellwether’s, but it also impacts strategies and policies that are discussed based on the findings.
“They’re not being grounded in culturally relevant practices for the population that’s going to be subjected to those approaches,” Drame says of these strategies and policies. “It’s systemic because the federal government is researching and investing in these types of practices, and yet those practices aren’t being validated with the populations that are going to be exposed to it.”
For example, one of the reasons Black children are less likely than their white peers to be diagnosed with autism is the lack of Black families being included in research studies. The most influential autism studies have only 2.3% of Black participants compared to 85% white, according to the Bellwether report.
So, once children enter the education system and it’s the job of adults in the building to recognize learning disabilities, diagnosis becomes very subjective and less clinical, like determining if a student has a vision or hearing disability.
“There’s a certain amount of subjectiveness, and we know that there’s institutional bias within the education system that can impact how we identify these students of color,” Kubatzky says.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, there are exclusionary factors, meaning the individualized education program team has to rule out certain things — inadequate instruction, cultural factors, environmental factors, if they’re an English learner, if they’re from a community impacted by poverty — before identifying a student with a learning disability. As if it wasn’t already tricky enough, COVID-19 made the process even more difficult due to setbacks from virtual learning.
But there are also cultural factors IEP teams have to take into account. There’s a professional advisory board at NCLD that focuses on Black students and how their language impacts whether they’re identified as having a language disability.
“They might come from a community that doesn’t speak what’s described as ‘mainstream English,’” Kubatzky says. “It’s a cultural factor that the system is not set up to identify accurately, whether that’s a learning disability or not.”
And students of color are disproportionately identified as having an emotional disturbance disorder rather than ADHD, Malone says. There’s a “leveled disproportionality of the more socially acceptable categories versus those deemed not quite as socially acceptable,” which is “obviously a constructed system,” she says.
Black students with disabilities in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest district in the country, were most likely to have a specific learning disability, with 37% having this. Following that, 23% had an “other health impairment,” followed by 19% with autism. Black students were among the least likely to have a speech or language impairment, or an intellectual disability.
So why is it so much harder for Black students to be identified? High-poverty schools are largely made up of Black students, and those schools are also the least likely to have the necessary resources, meaning it impacts educators’ ability to go through the identification process in an impactful way.
“There’s been a very long history on what criteria should identify learning disabilities,” Malone says. “And some of that history, unfortunately, is fraught with bias, as well.”
Who Gets Special Education Plans?
Not everyone gets a special education plan — which ranges from getting extra time on a test to one-on-one teaching. The chain gets broken in a variety of ways, from perceptions to barriers to advocacy. And it all starts with the referral process.
Sometimes, parents recognize early on, before their child is in the school system, that something is going on. They might go to their pediatrician, and that person might not have the content knowledge or be doing the screening.
If a child is identified through a school, teachers are the ones doing that referral and asking parents to agree to an evaluation. Depending on how that comes to a parent, they might not agree, and the back and forth can cause delays.
“You have to have a high level of engagement and advocacy and fight in you to just get in the door. And then, once you’re in the door, to be able to make sure that you’re getting the appropriate evaluation, you’re getting the right diagnosis,” Drame says. “And then after you get the right diagnosis, you’re getting the right services, and you’re getting access to all of the right types of services.”
What Can We Do?
So how do we improve the school experiences of Black students with disabilities? Well, there are policy, practice, and human elements to consider.
In terms of policies, Drame would like to see schools reevaluate exclusionary discipline, like putting budgets toward creating spaces for students to have sensory breaks or one-on-one time instead of toward school police or security officers. And, we need to redesign policies around inclusion and belonging to center self-worth and relationships.
In classrooms, Malone says educators need to be “adequately prepared to deliver high-quality, evidence-based instruction to the general education classroom that’s going to give everyone within that classroom the best opportunity to learn.” This also lends itself to making sure general education teachers better understand the early signs for learning disabilities to progress, monitor, and respond to what they’re seeing in the classroom, which would lead to more equitable outcomes.
But we also have to consider who is in the classroom. Schools that have majority students of color often have more early career teachers and higher rates of teacher turnover, which leads to people who are less prepared or experienced to be less likely to see the signs.
Ultimately, people have to know that they’re loved, Drame says. Schools need to improve relationships with students, who often show up and are treated in dismissive and cruel ways, and adults need to understand how their words and actions can change the course of a child’s life.
“If we understood the weight of that responsibility, the human impact, and if we also understood ourselves as human beings, that we need certain things, then we might reorganize schools in ways that are healthier for the adults, too,” Drame says. “People don’t get into the teaching profession — special education or general education — to harm children or to harm families.”