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Race and the Diagnosis of Disability in Students

Race and the Diagnosis of Disability in Students
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It has long been known that African American students are disproportionately diagnosed — over-diagnosed? — with learning and other disabilities. Ed Week cites 2008 government data from the Equity Alliance at Arizona State University according to which African-American students are “nearly or greater than twice as likely as white students to be classified with emotional or intellectual disabilities.” Nirvi Shaf at Ed Week’s On Special Education blog provides more statistics to underscore the extent of the problem:

While African Americans make up approximately 17 percent of public school enrollment, they account for 31 percent of students identified as having mental retardation or intellectual disabilities, 28 percent of students labeled as having an emotional disturbance, and 21 percent of students who have learning disabilities. Some of these categories aren’t pure medical diagnoses, calling judgment, and perhaps bias, into play.

The National Association for the Education of African American Children with Learning Disabilities is addressing this discrepancy by seeking to train parents to better advocate for their children. The Association aims to use grant money from the Oak Foundation to create 20 African American master teachers and train more than 1,100 parents to advocate for their children.

Stating that “advocacy and special education go hand in hand,” Shah points out that parents who are the proverbial “squeaky wheel” and actively seek out diagnoses and services “do have a leg up over parents who rely on schools to do the heavy lifting.” Parents should not be faulted for needing to learn how to advocate for a child. My husband and I have been advocating for our son Charlie‘s education for the past 12-plus years and it is never easy. Education doesn’t just teach Charlie academics, but is preparing him for his whole life. When you have this thought in mind, and you’re trying to figure out “goals and objectives,” “services” and a “behavior intervention plan” for your child, emotions readily intrude into a parent’s carefully thought out requests and a little training in advocacy can go a long way.

Race and the Diagnosis of Autism

In a parenthetical remark, Shah makes an observation that suggests the extent to which race plays an unacknowledged role in “what” a child is diagnosed with:

I have been told by some special educators that while some white students are diagnosed with having autism based on their characteristics, sometimes, black children with identical behavior will wind up with a diagnosis of emotional or behavioral disturbance based on parents’ persistence, or lack thereof.

Such a claim may sound shocking. But race and ethnicity do play a role in what diagnosis a child might receive. 

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22 comments

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9:38AM PST on Jan 27, 2012

Kristina: Thanks for the article. I learned something today. I hope the diagnosis' will become more accurate.

1:40PM PST on Jan 18, 2012

"to the mistaken idea that intellectual parents were emotionally withdrawn from their children."

Would not the breakdown of the family/family values contribute to the rise of such disabilities regardless of racial/cultural differences?

1:20PM PST on Jan 18, 2012

Agree with Rebecca S. We need to be careful about labelling any child. Children have a way of fulfilling the prophesies we make for them.

9:57AM PST on Jan 18, 2012

but some of that will be that the teachers in primary and secondary schools don't stretch these children, nor even try to get them interested in learning, how can a child show he/she is intelligent, if nobody cared enough to even try to engage with them ? I was darned lucky insofar as my son's school picked up on his interests and used them to get him to read and write, he'd had a bad experience in his (state run)nursery school which knocked him back,nearly two years, whilst in(private) kindergarten school he had been ahead of his peers, had he been left to just go on as he was, he would never have got anywhere with his life, he'd just have been another failed student, but he's at university now doing a BA

7:57AM PST on Jan 18, 2012

Yep, it is still there, discrimination and stereotypes and people judging by race and disability

9:04PM PST on Jan 17, 2012

Cultural bias has always played an ugly part in "diagnosing" children's behavior. A few decades ago, Hispanic and Asian students were being described as sneaky and dishonest because "they won't look you in the eye."

Well, that's a cultural thing. By the cultural norms form which these students came, looking an adult in the eye was defiance. Keeping the eyes down was a sign of respect. So was not talking back to an adult, regardless how dumb and culturally benighted that adult might be.

8:57PM PST on Jan 17, 2012

We need to be careful in labeling any mental illness especially in a child, without even bringing race into the discussion.

7:30PM PST on Jan 17, 2012

We still must continue fighting racial bias.

6:44PM PST on Jan 17, 2012

Thanks for exposing the racial bias my people face in the educational system.

3:04PM PST on Jan 17, 2012

Racism and ignorance cause so much harm

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