Posted April 25, 2022, 11:57 a.m.
Penn State/The Conversation
When I was a special education teacher at Myrtle Grove Elementary School in Miami in 2010, my colleagues and I recommended that a black girl receive special education services because she had difficulty reading. However, her mother disagreed. When I asked her why, she explained to me that she too had been identified as having a learning disability when she was a student.
She was placed in a small classroom away from her other classmates. She remembered reading books below her grade level and frequent conflicts between classmates and teachers. Because of this, she thought she received a lower quality education. She didn’t want her daughter to have the same experience.
In the end, the mother and I co-designed an individualized education plan – known in the special education world as an IEP – for her daughter where she would be removed from class for only an hour. per day for intensive reading instruction.
Compared to white students with disabilities, students of color with disabilities are more likely to be placed in separate classrooms. This can lead to lower academic achievement for students of color in special education because students with disabilities do better in math and reading when they are in general education classrooms.
Researchers, such as Adai Tefera, an education specialist at the University of Arizona, and Catherine Voulgarides, an educational sociologist at CUNY-Hunter College, argue that systemic racism – along with biased interpretations of behavior students of color – explain these discrepancies. For example, compared to students with similar test scores, black students with disabilities are less likely to be included in the general education classroom than their non-black peers. To curb this, teachers can take steps to be more inclusive of students of color with disabilities.
As a black feminist scholar who focuses on the intersection of race and disability, here are three recommendations that I believe can help teachers better support students of color with disabilities.
1. Inform families of their rights
Federal law requires schools to provide parents and guardians with Notices of Procedural Safeguards, a full explanation of all of a parent’s rights when their child is referred or receives special education services. These notices must be put in writing and explained to families in “easily understood language”.
However, research shows that in many states, procedural safeguards notices are written in a way that is difficult to read. This can make it harder for families, especially immigrant families, to know their rights. Additionally, families of color report facing greater resistance when applying for disability services than white families.
When meeting with families, teachers can take the time to break down any confusing language written in the procedural safeguards notice. This can ensure that families of students of color are fully aware of their options.
For example, families have the right to invite an outside lawyer to represent their interests in meetings with school officials. These advocates can speak on behalf of the family and often help resolve disagreements between schools and families.
Educators can talk to families about organizations that serve children with disabilities and help them navigate school systems. The Color of Autism, The Arc and Easterseals work to address racial inequalities in access to advocacy supports. These organizations create culturally appropriate resources and connect families of color with scholarships to receive training in how to defend themselves.
2. Talk about race and disability
Despite growing diversity within K-12 classrooms, conversations about race are often left out of special education. That leaves a lack of attention to the issues that students of color face, like higher suspension rates and lower grades and test scores than their white peers in special education.
When teachers talk about race and disability with their colleagues, it can help reduce any implicit biases they may have. Additionally, dialogue about race and disability can help reduce negative school interactions with students of color with disabilities.
Andrea Weinberg, a teacher trainer at Arizona State University, and I have developed protocols that encourage educators to talk about race, disability, class, and other social identities with each other. These include questions for teachers such as:
Do any of your students of color have an IEP?
Has a student with a disability or their family shared something about their cultural background that sets them apart from their peers?
Are there student models that do not respond to instructions?
The protocols also encourage educators to consider their own social identities and how these may shape how they interpret student behaviors and academic needs:
Who do you work with to help you better understand and meet the diverse needs of students?
In what ways do students and teachers benefit from the diversity represented in the classroom?
Educators using these questions in the South West, for example, say they are helping a majority white teaching workforce understand their role in breaking inequality. One study participant said, “These things are not discussed and talked about among teachers.
3. Showcase people of color with disabilities in the classroom
Often, classroom content portrays people with disabilities – especially those of color – as people on the margins of society. For example, in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Tom Robinson, a physically handicapped black character, is killed after being falsely accused of a crime. Teachers can incorporate thoughtful examples of people with disabilities of color into their lesson plans to help students better understand their experiences.
When teaching about Harriet Tubman, educators can mention how she freed slaves while dealing with the permanent effects of a head injury. Tubman’s political activism provides a historic example of people with disabilities of color helping to improve society for all.
Art teachers can highlight Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and how she boldly addressed her physical disabilities in self-portraits. The experiences of people with disabilities are often presented from the perspective of people without disabilities. In her art, Kahlo displayed herself with bandages and seated in a wheelchair. His portraits presented his own reactions to disability.
PE teachers can discuss current affairs, such as recent news about Olympian Simone Biles’ Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Anxiety. Her open-mindedness sparked international conversations about less visible disabilities.
Teaching students about the contributions people with disabilities of color make to our society emphasizes that neither race nor disability should be equated with inferiority.
Associate Professor of Special Education, Penn State
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