September 20, 2022

One Explanation for the Inequitable Treatment Black Children with Disabilities Face

By Harold Hinds

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Our latest research (released last week in partnership with Easterseals) describes the ways that education systems often fail children of color with disabilities, especially Black children. The families of color we spoke with across the country recounted many instances where educators refused to support their children’s learning needs, students had to wait months for evaluations and services, or parents were misled about the availability of critical services.

A Black mother from the Midwest raising two sons with autism offered a poignant and succinct explanation of how education systems treat families like hers: “Our children are the ones given the short end of the stick.”

One theory explains a likely root cause of these persistent disparities. Dr. Courtney Wilt, an assistant profession of education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, coined the term “organized disinvestment,” which occurs when students are subjected to “a denial of curricular and instructional support, organized manipulation of educational placement … and a lack of holistic support.”

Wilt’s research argues that the obstacles children of color with disabilities face — particularly Black children — aren’t a matter of happenstance, but the result of stakeholders (educators, school and district leaders, and policymakers) failing to see the value of investing in disabled Black youth. According to Wilt, this disinvestment is “organized” because it involves decisions that policymakers and school system leaders know will harm Black children.

Wilt shared the experience of one Black student she worked with:

“I had a student who had an intellectual disability … on her Individualized Education Plan, every year, she had reading goals … written as ‘specialized reading instruction.’ Specialized, so you would imagine that would be really high quality, right? But when I talked to her and her mother, she was just told to go read on the iPad; she was not given access to her peers during that time, who were [reading] together.”

Wilt’s theory of organized disinvestment echoes the experiences of the families Leonard D.T. Newby and I spoke with, whose children were often recommended for programs that routinely failed to address their academic needs.

The uncomfortable truth is that education systems in the U.S. don’t give children of color with disabilities, including Black children, the same attention, care, and support as their white peers. As we explain in the report, real investments are needed by educators, school and district leaders, and policymakers to ensure that students of color with disabilities and their families have equitable access to the supports they need.

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