Since becoming a disability studies minor, my conceptions of disability have radically evolved. There is, of course, the legal definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act: “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” In many ways, this definition does provide substantial value. Chronic migraines—for example— can obstruct concentration and focus while dispensing generalized pain, meaning that major life activities like sleep, work, or relationships can be impeded. However, the nature of disability is closer to a theoretical framework than a legal definition. This framework centers the spectrum of needs and interdependence as a fundamental fact of life. All people have needs, and all people are reliant upon one another to have those needs met. People exist at different points along this spectrum of interdependence, and where they are located changes with time — often most profoundly at the beginning and end stages of life. Independence, even for the most able-bodied adult, is a myth; all of our bodies and minds rely upon structures, institutions, and people to meet our needs. Disability is most prominent when those supports fail. This is why disability theorists often reject the medical model— which believes that disability is an individual defect meant to be cured— and say that while impairment may exist within an individual, disability is located and constructed in society (hence the name, the social model). I find this framework easiest to envision through the following thought exercise I was taught: Imagine you are walking to your class on the fifth floor. When you enter the building, you find that something unusual has happened. There are no stairs. No elevators. No ramps. No way to get to the fifth floor at all. However, a few of your classmates have wings and simply fly to class, either through the central atrium or the window. You, however, are stuck. Your impairment is that you cannot fly. The disability, however, is that this structure offers no way to get to your classroom. This is the central paradigm of disability theory, that every human being has accessibility needs, some of which are normalized and others are stigmatized. While this rings true for intellectual, mental, and physical disabilities, from wheelchair users who require ramps to autistic students who require muted sensory learning environments, there are concrete harms surrounding disability that are perpetrated by both systems of ableism and the nature of the impairment. Disability is not only a condition or a systemic failure, but also an action done by someone to someone else. Children with learning disabilities are disabled by governmental failures to provide lead-free water. Prisoners experiencing PTSD and increased mental illness are disabled by a penal system that perpetuates violence upon its inmates. Disability is often a choice imposed by some sector of society onto another, which is why racial justice, environmental justice, and disability justice are all connected. Furthermore, there are real health hazards imposed on disabled people, from both systemic ableism and the nature of their impairments. Theorists debate how much of this harm, like quality of life reduction, decline in life expectancy, etc., can be attributed to ableism versus impairment, but regardless there are widespread costs to the act of disabling.
So, what is disability? It’s an impairment that inhibits life functions. It’s a framework. It is a truth of life. It is the quintessential human condition. It is a spectrum of interdependence that changes with time. It is a failure of systems to meet the needs of certain body-minds. It is the refusal to treat some accessibility needs as equal to others. It is the culmination of societal decision-making involving allocation of resources. It is an action imposed by some of society onto another. Disability is complicated and difficult to define. But so are all things that matter.
The status of racial, cultural, and linguistic minority students in special education remains one of the most hotly debated topics in the field of educational justice today. Despite its contemporary relevance, the roots of the debate can be traced back as far as the late 1960s, when researcher Lloyd Dunn noted the frequency with which students of color were removed from mainstream classrooms on account of supposed intellectual disability (Dunn, 1968). In the modern-day, his argument is typically framed as follows: as compared to the percentage of the total student body that they compose, students from under-represented backgrounds make up a notably greater proportion of those receiving special education services (Grindal et al., 2019; Voulgarides et al., 2017). Moreover, these discrepancies are most apparent in certain categories of disability, such as intellectual and emotional disabilities, rather than physical disabilities or those with a genetic (ie Down syndrome) or biological basis such as blindness or challenges to mobility (Skiba et al., 2008). Taken at their worst, these findings suggest a systematic bias within the school system that results in the false identification of typically-developing minority students as having a disability.
In contrast to this prevailing perspective, recent evidence from Morgan and colleagues has introduced significant controversy to the contemporary debate. According to this alternative view, due to their increased risk of poverty, ACEs, and other obstacles to intellectual development, minority students should be expected to benefit from services at higher rates than their more privileged peers. In a series of highly-publicized studies, the team at Penn State University’s Center for Educational Disparities Research reported that, when controlling for socioeconomic status and past performance on standardized tests, Black and Hispanic students were, in fact, less likely to be referred for aid than comparable white peers (Morgan et al., 2017). These findings continue to spark both praise and criticism across the public sphere, especially since they have been adopted as evidence that IDEA provisions intended to combat disparities may actually bar minority students from being referred for an IEP (Morgan & Farkas, 2015; Samuels, 2016; Connor et al., 2019). Complicating the issue further, the most recent data from Elder and colleagues reveals that Black and Hispanic children in a large Floridian sample do exhibit greater rates of SPED referral than white children with similar medical histories—but only in districts where students of color comprise a population minority. As the diversity of the student body increases, this trend reverses, resulting in the simultaneous under-identification of students in primarily Black and Hispanic schools (Elder et al., 2021). This finding is particularly consequential, for it implies that the problems of over- and under-representation may coexist—a reality that would only encumber efforts to address educational disparities.
Nonetheless, the question remains: if the very purpose of special education is to support students in their learning, what is the harm in referring children for services—even, perhaps, inappropriately? Unfortunately, however, reality tells a more complicated story: fueled by the misinformation still clouding public conceptions of disability, the designation of “special-education student” remains far too frequently associated with social stigma, lowered expectations, and physical or social isolation from mainstream-educated peers (Raj, 2016). Without a doubt, access to appropriate supports—delivered in a strengths-based and inclusive format individualized to each student’s unique and ever-developing needs—are crucial to promoting the educational flourishing of children with disabilities. Nonetheless, when underlying weaknesses in the vastly-underfunded school system intertwine with racial bias to place some groups of children in environments that ultimately prevent them from reaching their full capacity, these efforts are complicated substantially.
Reviews conducted within SPED classrooms trace an even more problematic trend. For instance, Skiba and colleagues found that Black students face a significantly greater likelihood of being placed in a substantially separate classroom, even when compared to white students with the same disability (Skiba et al., 2006). The rates of suspension from these classrooms differ as well; on average, Black enrollees in special education lose nearly three times as many days of learning to disciplinary action each year as do their white counterparts (Losen, 2018). Particularly in the case of low-income children, for whom school-based services may constitute the only source of formal intervention, the impact of these lost opportunities for support can be devastating. In combination, the implications of these findings are striking: wholly aside from questions of quantity, there appears to be a clear disproportionality in the quality of services that minority students receive.
Clearly, the question of minority representation in special education is as complex and nuanced as the population which it seeks to characterize. Ultimately, however, the classification of each student is far less consequential than our efforts to support every child in learning and developing to the fullest extent of their capacity. The disproportionalities observed in special education are just one manifestation of a much broader gap in educational opportunities for children belonging to marginalized communities (Carnoy & García, 2017). Nonetheless, they are only problematic so long as special education continues to constitute a ‘hindrance’ rather than the opportunity that it was intended to be. In the end, the conversation is far from over; we must continue to challenge ourselves and our institutions to grapple with these intersecting questions if we truly hope to foster educational equity.
Carnoy, M., & García, E. (2017). Five key trends in U.S. student performance. Washington DC: Economic Policy Institute. epi.org/113217
Connor, D., Cavendish, W., Gonzalez, T., & Jean-Pierre, P. (2019). Is a bridge even possible over troubled waters? The field of special education negates the overrepresentation of minority students: a DisCrit analysis. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 22(6), 723-745. 10.1080/13613324.2019.1599343
Dunn, L. M. (1968). Special education for the mildly retarded—is much of it justifiable? Exceptional Children, 35(1), 5-22. 10.1177/001440296803500101
Elder, T. E., Figlio, D. N., Imberman, S. A., & Persico, C. L. (2021). School segregation and racial gaps in special education identification. Journal of Labor Economics, 39, S151-S197. 10.1086/711421
Grindal, T., Schifter, L. A., Schwartz, G., & Hehir, T. (2019). Racial differences in special education identification and placement: evidence across three states. Harvard Educational Review, 89(4), 525-553. 10.17763/1943-5045-89.4.525
Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Hillemeier, M. M., & Maczuga, S. (2017). Replicated evidence of racial and ethnic disparities in disability identification in U.S. schools. Educational Researcher, 46(6), 305-322. 10.3102/0013189X17726282
Schifter, L. A. (2016). Using survival analysis to understand graduation of students with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 82(4), 479-496. 10.1177/0014402915619418
Skiba, R. J., Poloni-Staudinger, L., Gallini, S., Simmons, A. B., & Feggins-Azziz, R. (2006). Disparate access: the disproportionality of African American students with disabilities across educational environments. Exceptional Children, 72(4), 411-424. 10.1177/001440290607200402
Skiba, R. J., Simmons, A. B., Ritter, S., Gibb, A. C., Rausch, M. K., Cuadrado, J., & Chung, C. (2008). Achieving equity in special education: history, status, and current challenges. Exceptional Children, 74(3), 264-288. 10.1177/001440290807400301
Voulgarides, C. K., Fergus, E., & Thorius, K. A. K. (2017). Pursuing equity: disproportionality in special education and the reframing of technical solutions to address systemic inequities. Review of Research in Education, 41, 61-87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44668687