My interest in investigative journalism began in 2018. Seated on the floor with some girls in my high school dance company, I listened to story after story of denied requests for disability accommodations (AKA 504 and Individualized Education Plans or IEPs) and the accompanying frustration as they witnessed their white male peers easily accessing these much needed resources. I decided to carry out a number of interviews and, as suspected, there was a vast disparity leaving students of color (girls especially) without urgently needed accommodations.
American education, with deep and wide roots in racist, ableist and elitist practices, has always failed Black and brown children. Black children experience pervasive disparities regarding the identification of and care for learning disabilities. This disparity is not a coincidence, but a calculated strategy with decades of historical context to criminalize Black children and strengthen the school-to-prison pipeline.
In their 2016 journal article, Paul Morgan and George Farkas state that Black children are 64% less likely to be diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Michelle Healy earlier recognized that Black children are 70% less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than their white peers. Yet there is no reason to think that Black and brown children actually experience ADHD less than white children, according to Myles Moody.
Additionally, in medical institutions, Black communities face continual ostracization and dismissal. From the forced sterilization of Black enslaved women to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, Black Americans have been perpetually abused by medical practitioners. When Black people (especially Black women) do seek medical attention, they routinely experience malpractice, leading to pain, trauma and even death, resulting in a strong distrust for medical intervention and avoidance of medical institutions within many Black communities.
These intersecting oppressions generate an access gap in medical disability knowledge. The realm of disability information, including disability studies, has been dominated by whiteness and as such fails to include Black communities and Black disabled people. In fact, Moody writes that around 70% of the Black parents in their study interviewed did not know about ADHD. This is not the fault of Black parents, but the result of a system formed to function without, and at the expense of, Black families.
Circling back to education, research shows that ADHD can lead to aggressive, hyperactive behavior, often labeled in education as “acting out.” Disabled or not, Black students face disproportionate punishment for so-called bad behavior, which only further skyrockets with their often underdiagnosed disability.
Morgan and Farkas conclude that underdiagnosis and over-punishment can be traced to the absence of relationships formed by white educators with Black parents; that white teachers are undoubtedly biased against Black students’ behavior but lack communicative relationships with these students and their families regarding behavioral concerns. An anonymous Black teacher interviewed by Goerge and Farkas says, “I think a lot of teachers are really afraid of African-American parents. They’re afraid parents are going to be upset when suggesting the child should be tested for ADHD”. In educational institutions, “disruptive behavior” displayed by white children is medicalized but for Black children is criminalized. White teachers with racial prejudice expect Black children to fail and thus punish without connecting to the parents or trying to understand the child holistically. These factors make for a perfect cocktail of under-identification and care and over-punishment for disabled Black children.
Another factor contributing to this racial disparity is the racism involved in defining academic success. George and Farkas found then when a student falls below the academic achievement norm, educators are more likely to attribute this to some medical explanation for white students, and to a lack of natural ability for Black students. White schools expect Black kids to fail, so when Black children fall behind in schools crafted for white success, little care is given to understanding factors are at play. White teachers attribute any “poor performance” of white children to external factors but to internal, natural factors for Black children. Here, racism and ableism combine in a marriage of neglect and violence.
Schools are carceral institutions for Black children, preparing many of them for a lifetime of disproportionate punishment. There are many connections between the diagnosis disparity and the school-to-prison pipeline contextualized by Moody. He first acknowledges the correlation between ADHD and punished behavior and then addresses the higher rate at which Black children face permanent-record level punishment. Students being expelled and suspended also land in prisons at a much higher rate than those who do not have a record. These factors all coalesce a perfected system of criminalization.
While diagnosis has the power to be weaponized and dispose of disabled children from the classroom, causing isolation, it can also provide educational access. Disability justice must entail much more than just access to diagnosis — and, with an overall intention of prison abolition and disability justice, there must also be some tangible actions in education so Black children are not left unsupported.
Schools must reject working from the scarcity model, where disability staff and resources are meager, and begin funding full special education workforces with enough educators, counselors and nurses with developed understandings of disability justice. Special education teachers must teach with an abolitionist mission, defined by the Abolitionist Teaching Network as the quest to “develop and support those in the struggle for educational freedom by utilizing the intellectual work and direct action of Abolitionists in many forms”. Educators must work to understand the links between the neglect of Black students with disability and their mass incarceration. We must integrate more ways to check teachers’ biases to ensure all educators are aware of their own racist and ableist prejudices. Special education programs must move from scarce and reactionary tactics to specific and sustained attention and care in order to fully do their students justice.