Disparities in Special Education

Disparities in special education and health currently exist here in the United States. Below are some important information, research, related articles and suggested resources on this issue to help your child succeed at school.

Disparities in Special Education

Minority children with disabilities all too often experience inadequate services, low-quality curriculum and instruction, and unnecessary isolation from their nondisabled peers. Moreover, inappropriate practices in both general and special education classrooms have resulted in overrepresentation, misclassification, and hardship for minority students, particularly black children.

African American children are identified at one and a half to four times the rate of white children in the disability categories of mental retardation and emotional disturbance.

In the national data, Latino and Asian American children are under identified in cognitive disability categories compared to whites, raising questions about whether the special education needs of these children are being met. However, school and district data showing instances of Latino overrepresentation suggest that there are both over and under representation concerns for these minority groups.

Most minority students are significantly more likely to be removed from the general education program and be educated in a more restrictive environment. For instance, African American and Latino students are about twice as likely as white students to be educated in a restrictive, substantially separate educational setting. Given that students with special needs benefit most when they are educated in the least restrictive environment to the maximum extent appropriate, the data on educational settings raise serious questions about the quality of special education provided to Latino, black, and other minority students compared to whites.

The concern about racial inequity in special education is really part of a much larger concern about inequity in education generally. We know that most children are deemed eligible for special education only after their general education teachers refer them for evaluation. Because general and special education are linked, our research and recommendations address special education as it is encompassed by the larger general education system.

Additional Findings

  • In wealthier districts, contrary to researcher's expectations, black children, especially males, were more likely to be labeled mentally retarded. Native American children also showed this unexpected trend, but to a lesser degree than black children. Usually, poverty correlates with poor prenatal care, low birth rates and other factors and therefore an increased risk for disabilities, while wealth usually correlates with a decreased risk.

  • Minority children with disabilities are underserved: Black children with emotional disturbance often do not receive high quality early intervention and received far fewer hours of counseling and related services than white students with emotional disturbance. The lack of early intervention for minority children may exacerbate their learning and behavior problems and contribute to racial disproportionality in our juvenile justice system.

  • Disturbing racial disparities are found in outcomes and in rates of discipline: Among high school youth with disabilities, about 75 percent of African American students, as compared to 47 percent of white students, are not employed two years out of school. Three to five years out of school the arrest rate for African Americans with disabilities is 40 percent, as compared to 27 percent for Whites. New data also depicts substantially higher rates of school disciplinary action and placement in correctional facilities for minority students with disabilities.

  • The process of identification and placement is rife with subjectivity: Qualitative research indicates that subjective decisions creep into all elements of the evaluation process, including whom to test, what test to use, when to use alternative tests, and how to interpret the results.

  • Black identification for mental retardation is pronounced in the South: Southern states constituted nearly three quarters of the states with unusually high incidence levels; where between 2.75 and 5.41 percent of the blacks enrolled were labeled as mentally retarded. The prevalence of mental retardation for whites nationally was approximately 0.75 percent in 2001, and in no state did the incidence of mental retardation among Whites rise above 2.32 percent.

  • The theory that poverty can explain overrepresentation in mental retardation or emotional disturbance is contradicted by national trends revealed by the data: For example, poverty theory fails to explain: (a) why gross racial disparities are only found in mental retardation (MR) and emotional disturbance (ED), and not in the category of specific learning disability or any medically diagnosed disabilities; or (b) why Latinos have a far lower identification rate for MR and ED than both blacks and Whites, despite the fact that blacks and Latinos share a far greater risk than whites for poverty, exposure to environmental toxins, and low academic achievement.

  • The research suggests that the observed racial, ethnic, and gender disparities are the result of many complex and interacting factors including: unconscious racial bias on the part of school authorities; large resource inequalities (such as the lack of high quality teachers) that run along lines of race and class; unjustifiable reliance on IQ and other evaluation tools; educators' inappropriate responses to the pressures of high-stakes testing; and power differentials between minority parents and school officials.

Excerpts from Racial Inequity in Special Education, 2002, Daniel J. Losen & Gary Orfield, Editors, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Disparities in Special
Education Resources

Action Kit: Special Education

Discrimination in Special Education offers parents brief information on special education laws and other topics.

Related Research

Challenging Disparities in Special Education:
Moving Parents from Disempowered Team Members to
Ardent Advocates

Minority students are more likely than white students to have poor experiences in special education for several reasons. African-Americans in particular, are harmed because of improper identification. The percentage of African-American students with mental retardation and emotional disturbance disabilities is considerably higher than any other racial or ethnic group.

African-American students represent twenty-five percent of those classified as having an emotional or behavioral disturbance and are overrepresented in special education programs. Although race does correlate with poverty, these disparities cannot be explained by poverty alone.

Scholars suggest many reasons for the disproportionate representation of minority students in special education programs, including misidentification, misuse of testing protocols, inadequate regular education programs, under-resourced classrooms, and teacher bias. Once improperly identified for special education, minority students suffer greatly because special education programs restrict access to "high-currency educational programs and opportunities" and limit long-term educational prospects.

Minority students with disabilities are far less likely than white students with disabilities to be educated in a general education classroom and far more likely to be educated in highly separate settings. African-American and Latino students are twice as likely as white students to be educated in substantially separate educational settings.

Minority students with disabilities "experience inadequate services, low-quality curriculum and instruction." After becoming eligible for special education programs, only ten percent of identified African-American boys return to and remain in the mainstream classroom, and only twenty-seven percent graduate.

To view full text of Challenging Disparities in Special Education: Moving Parents from Disempowered Team Members to Ardent Advocates, click link above. Source: 3 NW J. L. & Soc. Pol'y 263 at http://www.law.northwestern.edu/journals/njlsp/v3/n2/6

Teacher Inequality: How Poor and Minority Students
are Shortchanged on Teacher Quality

Heather G. Peske & Kati Haycock

A report on the impact of teacher quality on studentachievement, offering states specific steps to remedy the persistent practice of denying the best teachers to the children who need them the most.

The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University Racial Inequity in Special Education, Executive Summary for Federal Policy Makers, June, 2002

Free Guides To Help Your Child Succeed At School

A Guide for African-American Parents: How to Help Your Child Prepare for College and a Career

A Guide for Hispanic Parents: How to Help Your Child Prepare for College and a Career

A Guide to Homework for Parents Who Want to Help Their Children Succeed

En Espanol:
Guia para Tareas Para Padres que Quieren Ayudar a que sus Hijos Tengan Exito

Discrimination in Special Education

This study highlights how inappropriate practices in both general and special education classrooms have resulted in overrepresentation, misclassification, and hardship for minority students, particularly black children.

Still Separate and Unequal
The Education of Children with Disabilities in New Jersey
2004 Report of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities

A published study found that in New Jersey, African-Americans are over represented in special education, are much more likely placed in a most restrictive and segregated settings and are greatly underrepresented in pre-school special education programs.

Discrimination in Schools Discipline

Zero Tolerance Policies Have an Unequal Impact on Minority Children and Children with Disabilities

Disparities in Special Education Resources

For more information on disparities in special education resources contact the Children's Defense Fund.

Related Books

Racial inequities pervade special education in U.S. schools today. Minority children-especially African Americans-are far more likely than white children to be designated mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed and therefore in need of special education. Even when appropriately placed in special education classes, minority children often receive poorer services than disabled white children.

This book explores the inequities experienced by minority school children in special education. These issues are examined as problems in their own right, and as reflections of persistent racial inequities in our system of public education. Racial Inequity in Special Education describes the scope of these problems, and provides a comprehensive review of attempts by legislators, child advocates, and educational and civil rights enforcement agencies to address these complex issues. The authors outline essential areas for further research and dialogue.

An illuminating account of a widespread problem that has received little attention until now, Racial Inequity in Special Education sets the stage for a more fruitful discussion about special education and racial justice-a discussion that aims to advance racial equity in both special and general education.

Losen, D. & Orfield, G. (Eds.) (2002). Racial Inequity in Special Education, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

How can we help overturn these disparities?

We can begin to overturn these disparities and help African Americans with autism reach their full capabilities by taking six powerful steps.

Be persistent! Parents and caregivers must be persistent and get their child's healthcare providers to listen and act in response to your concerns.

Know your child's rights! Learn about the federal special education laws and state regulations that exist to make certain your child with a disability receives an Individualized Education Plan and/or related services they can benefit from in the least restrictive environment.

Seek help! There are advocacy groups and educational advocates accessible to help you get a "free and appropriate public education" that every child with autism is legally entitled to. Access any needed supports and services provided by your state.

Join a national autism organization. There is power in numbers. Our voices can and will be heard within a powerful group message.

Get involved! Attend local parent support group meetings to learn what issues are important to persons with autism and their families, and what steps are necessary to address them. Start networking with other parents.

Take action! Write or call on local and congressional lawmakers to report your issues and concerns. Make them alert to how autism affects your child and family.

Autism is not hopeless, and parents are not helpless.

We can learn about important issues, advocate for our loved ones and cause immediate reform for better outcomes.

Suggested Resources

NAACP is a 21st century advocacy organization that fights for the advancement of minority groups by bridging the gaps in seven advocacy areas including education, economic empowerment, healthcare, criminal justice, civic engagement, international affairs and poverty issues.

Dr. Mary Harris at Journey to Wellness provides healthcare and health literacy information through syndicated radio programming on public radio stations and on CNN Radio network to inform, inspire, and enable African-Americans to take charge of their health.

The book Covenant With Black America outlines ways to effectively address challenging issues facing us today, such as health and education issues.

For more information about African Americans and autism view the article, Disparities Among African Americans With Autism.

Click here for more information on disparities in health.

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