INCLUDEnyc Voices

Students of Color and Disability Classifications

Ruth DiRoma meeting with a mother

Many times, students of color are overrepresented in some of the official 13 disability classifications and underrepresented in others. Nationally, for example, fewer African American students are classified under “ADHD” than white students. Likewise, they are underrepresented in the category of “Autism” and overrepresented in the “Emotional Disturbance” category. As a former special education teacher and an INCLUDEnyc Senior Family Educator, I’ve also seen that students of color are more likely to be classified with intellectual disabilities or emotional disturbances.

After an evaluation, the student receives a classification and it determines the type and frequency of services, such as speech or occupational therapy. However, if a child’s classification is incorrect, the student may not receive appropriate support services. An incorrect classification can take years to correct and can have serious ramifications on a child’s progress.

There may be a few reasons for the disparities. First, educators’ implicit bias can reinforce and support classifications. For example, instead of considering that a child on the autism spectrum might be experiencing a meltdown due to the pressure of public speaking in class, a teacher might choose disciplinary action and further reinforce that the child has an emotional disturbance.

Second, many families don’t have a background in disability studies! It is hard to know what to do or what your child needs when you hear terms, like “auditory processing disorder,” for the first time. Parents often turn to the library to learn about conditions and to INCLUDEnyc to learn about their right to request first time evaluations (and annual future evaluations), which determines their child’s legal right to services in the IEP.

Thirdly, stigma is a factor. Families may think one classification, like speech or learning disability, is “better” than another. It is not always clear that without the appropriate classification, their child is receiving completely different or fewer services than needed. How will a few speech therapy hours help a child who needs more intensive 1-on-1 support?

Lastly, language can be a barrier. It is hard enough to navigate the disability systems when you speak English. It is even harder when you are new to English or do not speak it at all.

To learn more about this issue and to ensure your child is receiving services that meet their needs, please join me for my session “Challenging the Classification: What to Do When You Know It's Wrong” at the Brooklyn Public Library’s upcoming conference on May 10th. The workshop is at 11:45am. The full conference runs from 8:30 am to 1pm.

The conference is “Overlapping Identities, Overlapping Barriers: At the Intersection of Disability, Race and Gender,” and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, founder of the Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network, is the keynote speaker. It will also cover special education services for English Language Learners, strategies for autistic trans people and growing up disabled in the Caribbean-American community.

Register today.

This blog was authored in partnership with Carrie Banks of the Brooklyn Public Library.


- Ruth DiRoma