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The Hidden Epidemic of Undiagnosed Disabilities Among Students of Color

To fix racial disproportionality in school discipline, we must first address the gap in the diagnosis and treatment of disabilities among children of color.

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The pathologization of normal behavior is another component feeding the disproportionality problem. Historically, people of color have been tagged with behavioral problems or mental illness for behaviors that wouldn’t attract attention among white people. For example, some black slaves were labeled with “drapetomania,” an alleged mental illness that drove them to attempt to flee captivity. This was regarded as a disease, rather than an entirely natural response to being enslaved.

Reports on the numbers of students of color in special education seem to suggest some diagnostic disparities across the US, which are in part related to the same tendency to refuse to consider social, cultural and environmental factors in the diagnosis and treatment of youth. In some cases, cultural cues may be missed during a diagnostic screening, leading to a label of a learning disability like a communication disorder when a student is in fact performing at a level comparable to his or her peers. Likewise, language barriers can lead to a decision to shunt a student into special education classes, where that student will not be well served.

Meanwhile, the opposite phenomenon is also an issue: While some students of color without intellectual disabilities end up placed in special education as a result of misdiagnosis, students who do have such disabilities (as well as mental illnesses) often fall through the cracks.

Take Terrence, a black nine-year-old whose mother repeatedly asked for a disability evaluation for her son, only to be denied. When she transferred him to another district, he became involved in an altercation at school with a white student. Terrence was punished and the white student was not – despite the fact that Terrence had an unrecognized disability that contributed to his behavioral problems. None of this was considered when it came time to level his punishment: suspension for the remainder of the school year.

In many ways Terrence was lucky – he was only suspended, not expelled. Black disabled boys are much more likely to be expelled than students of any other race or disability status, and when early diagnosis and interventions are missed, frustration and anger that manifest as behavioral issues tend to plague their entire academic careers. 

Poverty, race, and health problems combine to slam US students

Race and poverty are heavily intertwined in the United States, and they play an important role in the development of intellectual and cognitive disabilities. People of color are more likely to live in poverty and to live in dangerous neighborhoods with environmental pollutants and other health hazards, a phenomenon known as environmental racism.

As a result,  pregnant women of color are at higher risk of exposure to toxins known to interfere with fetal development. Many pregnant women of color also lack access to nutrition and health care that plays a key role in the success of the pregnancy. Consequently, their children can be at higher risk for intellectual and cognitive disabilities, and these problems don’t stop at birth; pollutants can also cause neurological damage in the long term. A student living next to a refinery, for instance, could develop cognitive impairments from chemicals used on site.

Before they even enter the classroom, then, students of color can be at a disadvantage created by the environment they live in. And when their disabilities aren’t identified, the consequences can be serious. Students with conditions like ADHD may appear unfocused as a result of their disabilities. In white children, this may lead to an intervention and evaluation to determine the cause of the student’s discipline problems. Black children may be labeled “troublemakers,” rather than being referred to a counselor for evaluation. The longer the disability remains undiagnosed, the more likely the student is to fall behind in school. Such often-punished students can also start to become suspicious of teachers and other authority figures, inspiring additional behavioral problems.