Wavebreak Media / Corbis

Public schools’ disturbing conflation of race and disability

Too often, inequality in special education programs follows socioeconomic and racial divides

September 4, 2015 2:00AM ET

Special education is the last bastion of separate but equal in our public schools. But unlike the painful legacy of Jim Crow, some form of separation — whether specialized facilities or more accommodating treatment in an otherwise mainstream classroom — is generally considered necessary to provide an equitable education for children with special needs. But drawing the line between inclusion and exclusion in school is an ethically fraught process, and the division between different and inferior often cuts unnervingly close to the color line.

In July the Justice Department issued a scathing report condemning Georgia public schools for segregating students with disabilities in a way that systematically violated the rights of youths diagnosed with behavioral problems. They were subjected to not only substandard facilities but also inhumane treatment that made children and families feel stigmatized and inferior, as if in a prison, they recalled.

In a haunting evocation of Jim Crow’s legacy, the students were placed in segregated facilities once used to contain black children. Paradoxically, their condition was the result of a law intended to protect children with disabilities: Special education laws mandate therapeutic treatment, but often a lack of resources, misguided good intentions or malign ignorance on the part of educators can lead to unnecessary and harmful exclusion of children with special needs. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which builds on the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), provides federal resources for complying with federal civil rights laws' educational provisions, with the requirement that children be placed in the “least restrictive environment” possible. That means perhaps a tutor or classroom aide instead of a separate class or extra time on tests instead of a completely different academic standard. Clearly, the Georgia schools failed here.

Yet educational equality is always out of reach in the midst of massive social inequity. Too many children of color wind up in inappropriate, underresourced programs or receive unnecessarily intrusive treatment. Biased teachers may assume black kids are prone to defiance and label them as overly disruptive, segregate them from peers or impose disciplinary suspension. A Latino boy may be prone to haphazard placement in an English language learner class when he really has a reading disorder.

Race and disability intersect at many angles in special education. Federal statistics show black kids generally get suspended and expelled at a rate about three times that for whites. Blacks are placed in special education programs at about 1.4 times the rate of their white peers. Among children with disabilities, about a quarter of Native American and blacks boys receive out-of-school suspension, compared with 12 percent of whites; Native American and black girls with disabilities are suspended at about triple the rate for whites.


Inequality in disability-focused educational programming folds into socioeconomic and racial divides, with vast disparities in the quality of special education and the types of diagnoses and treatments that children of color receive.

To get integration right, we should understand that equality means different things to different communities.

There is a raging debate as to why this is the case. Some civil rights advocates argue that children of color are more likely to be profiled as disruptive or defiant by condescending white teachers. Others say children from disadvantaged communities have suffered so much discrimination and deprivation in other areas of life that they manifest genuine disabilities in school performance.

Responding to long-standing critiques of disproportionality in special education, a controversial new study contends there is underrepresentation of children of color in some special education categories. Researchers at Pennsylvania State and the University of California at Irvine argue that children of color with real needs are neglected when they should be identified as having learning disabilities and emotional disturbances.

So are we overpathologizing kids or neglecting them? Is racial difference inadvertently masking needs, or does prejudice amplify discrimination in care? Whether they are misdiagnosed or unnecessarily segregated, the key problem is that racial difference and educational impairment aren’t afforded the dignified, fair solutions they deserve.

As attorney Robert Borelle of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund pointed out in a speech at the recent Mind Science and Social Justice Conference, “Assumptions and stereotypes regarding people with disabilities are similar to and in fact historically interrelated with assumptions and stereotypes about people of color.” As we saw with the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, the sheer fact of having a different skin color or supposedly undesirable physical trait was seen as freakish and grotesque. People with cognitive impairments or physical deformity were to be quarantined, banished or euthanized.

Intersectional approach

Today disability advocates call for an intersectional approach that recognizes the inherent harm of mislabeling while recognizing real needs. Often the need for therapy exists in tandem with and often because of pervasive racial bias — including teachers’ stereotypes and chronic funding disparities across school districts. In sum, in many cases kids’ problems are neglected and in others are treated in ways that hurt more than help.

“The long-term consequences of disciplinary disproportionality include lower rates of graduation, employment and secondary education, as well as lower wages and higher arrest rates compared to white peers,” the National Association of School Psychologists argued in a 2013 position paper. While that pattern may stem largely from misperceptions, it reproduces itself with very real consequences across generations, which only further entrenches stereotypes and perpetuates social and academic gaps.

Educational authorities have long struggled to integrate the twin missions of meeting students’ individual needs and treating the disability community with fairness and dignity. To get integration right, we should understand that equality means different things to different communities. Unless we strive collaboratively for justice first and foremost — inside the classroom and out — we’ll fail to achieve the central principle of equality: ensuring that every child is equally valued. 

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, an associate editor at CultureStrike and a blogger at The Nation. She is a co-producer of “Asia Pacific Forum” on Pacifica’s WBAI and Dissent magazine’s “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter