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Special Education Opinion

The ADA Has Fallen Short for Black Students. It’s Past Time to Fix That

By Laura Schifter — July 24, 2020 4 min read
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When I was 7, my parents received my evaluation results: dyslexia. They were told by the expert not to expect much from me academically. Two years later, on July 26, 1990, the day the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law, I was entering 4th grade. Even though my parents were still unaware what my academic trajectory might hold, they now had new legal tools at their disposal to advocate for my success and ensure I had equal opportunity to benefit from an education.

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the law, I am aware that while the ADA has played a role in advancing my academic success, so has my economic background and race. In many ways, the promise of the ADA worked for me because of my whiteness and affluence; for far too many Black students, it has not. We must acknowledge where the ADA has fallen short and do more to address the needs of students it left behind.

My parents had the resources and power to advocate that I receive my full accommodations under the law. When my parents brought concerns to the school, they were addressed, not dismissed. The evaluations I needed were designed with students like me in mind.

If my disability experience was easier because of the color of my skin, the opposite is true for Black students. In schools, racism affects Black students with disabilities at alarming rates.

Black students with disabilities do not have equal opportunity to benefit from public education as do white students with disabilities.

At 67 percent, the high school graduation rate for students with disabilities remains far lower than the 85 percent rate for all students. Of students exiting special education, Black students with disabilities are 1.5 times more likely to drop out of school than white students with disabilities. When still in school, Black students with disabilities face disproportionately harsher discipline, ultimately losing 2.8 times the number of instructional days on average from suspension as white students with disabilities.

Simply put, Black students with disabilities do not have equal opportunity to benefit from public education as do white students with disabilities, despite the best intent of the ADA and other laws like it. These gaps in outcomes should drive the disability community to further advocate racial equity in special education.

Black students with disabilities are also disproportionately identified for special education. For instance, Black students are twice as likely as white students to be diagnosed with an emotional disability, one of the more stigmatized labels. This identification depends on a variety of factors, including perceptions of student behavior, assumptions about families, and bias in assessment decisions and our school policies.

Researchers have also argued that higher identification of Black students in special education is “appropriate” because Black students are more likely to live in poverty, with less access to nutritional food and increased exposure to environmental toxins and trauma. However, we should not accept this outcome as “appropriate”; we must instead address the systemic racism that prevents access to healthy foods, permits higher levels of lead in drinking water and poorer quality air in some communities more than others, and precludes the building of wealth among Black families.

Systemic racism in one part of our society begets systemic racism in another, with the effects multiplying. We must be willing to acknowledge and dismantle the interconnected systems that keep Black people behind. And many of the disparities I have noted for Black students with disabilities are also pronounced in Indigenous and Latinx communities.

Vigorous enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act offers an opportunity to advance racial justice. In a significant move, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Georgia in 2016, charging that the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support Program, which serves predominantly Black boys with emotional and behavioral disabilities, violated the ADA. The DOJ argued that the program unnecessarily segregates students with disabilities, preventing equal opportunity for education. In the findings, the DOJ noted that students in this program receive low-quality instruction, lack access to electives and extracurriculars, and are housed in inferior buildings, some of which were previously used as Black schools during the Jim Crow era. This May, a U.S. District Court denied the state’s motion to dismiss. This ruling keeps alive the hope that legal defenses of the ADA can address issues at the intersection of disability and race.

Dismantling systems is a big job, but we must recognize that disability justice and racial justice are inextricably linked and use the tools we have at our disposal to fulfill the promise of equal opportunity for people with disabilities. In the next 30 years of the ADA and beyond, we in the disability community must harness the power of the ADA to fight for both disability and racial justice.

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