In 2022, Easterseals Southern California (ESSC) had the privilege of contributing to a Bellwether study examining the disparities children of color with disabilities face in education, with a particular focus on Black children. The in-depth study uses research, data, and anecdotal experiences to better understand the discrimination that children of color with disabilities and their families experience in educational settings and make recommendations.
We sat down with Michele Dew M.S., CCC-SLP, the Director of Therapy Services at Easterseals-South, to get her thoughts on the findings of the report from both a personal and professional lens.
Q. Please tell us why you think it’s important for people to understand the experiences and outcomes for Black children with disabilities during Black History Month?
A. It’s important for everyone to understand these experiences and outcomes specifically during Black History Month because this is not only a time of celebration of accomplishments, but a time to reflect and determine if what we are doing is enough. Though the education system has come a long way from segregation, there is still a lot to be done to support Black children (and other ethnicities) with disabilities in the school system. This is a great month to highlight Black children, but also emphasize this is not the only month we need to pay attention.
Q. What was Easterseals SoCal’s role in this study?
A. Easterseals SoCal provided input through interviews and discussions with one of the study’s authors. We also connected a current participant’s mother with an author, and she participated in an interview.
Q. Who is this study for and how do you feel it should be used?
A. Honestly, I feel this study is for everyone. It may be geared toward those who are educators, families of children and supporting team members, but everyone can benefit from this type of information. Studies like this should be used to update those in the education system and inform those who are not. When the government is deciding on funding for schools, this study should be part of the conversation.
Q. Is there anything in the key findings that stood out to you?
A. There were so many points in the key findings that stood out to me. It was so relatable as a Black student and as a Black woman who worked in the education system or collaborated with the education system for almost 10 years.
- Parents of color are more likely to report major difficulties in accessing services. As someone who has worked in schools and seen it with my own eyes, often the family members have been treated so unfairly or with disrespect that they either come in ready for a fight or give up on the whole process.
- Educators less frequently recommend students of color for services under Section 504, depriving these students of the academic supports these services provide. A section 504 plan could be VERY beneficial for many students. This type of plan would allow for accommodations such as more test time, a quiet area to take tests, using a “fidget” in class, and more.
- Students of color with disabilities are disproportionately recommended for self-contained special education classes, depriving them of the opportunity for socialization and the higher academic expectations more common in integrated settings. This point really hit home for me. I went to a high school outside of Seattle with about 1,500 students and less than 100 students were Black. My senior year of high school, I realized I only had one class with two of the other Black students. In college, I learned this statistic and realized, most of them were in special education classes or what were called the “remedial classes.” Since I was in general education, I only saw them at lunch or in sports.
- Families of children with disabilities whose primary language is not English face acute challenges and obstacles in accessing special education services. This is very prevalent in every state I’ve lived and worked in or with schools, D.C., Hawaii, Washington, and California. Though people are provided interpreters or translators, the communication is not as thorough and people who are learning English (or are deaf) are often addressed as if they are not as intelligent.
- When families of color advocate for their children, they are often ignored or met with hostility — by contrast, white families are often listened to, and their interests accommodated. My mother would send my father to school for any conversations related to our educational path because he’s half white, has lighter skin with green eyes, and people reacted to him differently speaking his mind than they did with my mom’s heavy New York accent and confident spirit. He is known in our community, and she realized early he had to be the “face” of the family, especially when it came to school visits. I’ve also seen this in the school settings where Black women are deemed “crazy” or “demanding” when they are asking the same thing as white mothers.
Q. What are additional examples of some of the disparities impacting Black children with disabilities in education?
A. Some examples are:
- You’ll see in the article that white toddlers were five times more likely to receive early intervention support than Black toddlers.
- 9% of Black students and fewer than 8% of Hispanic students with disabilities were identified for special education services in kindergarten, while nearly 12% of white students with disabilities were identified in this early grade.
- White students receive services under Section 504 at higher rates than students of color.
- Nearly 68% of all white students with disabilities spent at least 80% of their time in inclusive general education classes. Only about 63% of Hispanic students, 60% of Black students, and 57% of Asian students with disabilities spent that much time in inclusive classes.
- During the 2017-2018 school year, Black students made up roughly 15% of the United States’ total student population, but 38% of students suspended and 39% of students expelled. White students, by contrast, made up roughly 47% of total students, yet just 33% of students suspended or expelled.
Q. How do you feel this study may change the way Black children with disabilities are treated in the education system?
A. I hope this study opens the eyes of those who make decisions for students. I feel this study will inform those who are unaware of the injustices Black children with disabilities suffer from and support those who are trying to change the system.
Q. Can you share some of the things Easterseals Southern California is working on to address these concerns?
A. In addition to taking part in this study, ESSC is working with a variety of professionals and companies on providing implicit bias training, courses on multi-culturalism and a variety of education options for underserved and at-risk populations.
As a member of the “Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibly (IDEA)” team within ESSC, I have first-hand knowledge and experience of the action items ESSC is taking. We are hoping to train all levels of staff on cultural sensitivity and other related topics. Though ESSC is not a school system, we have a Child Developmental Services line with classroom settings and we work with school districts, private schools, students, and parents in multiple ways. Our staff being equipped with this knowledge will better help us serve our participants across the lifespan.