Many African American and Hispanic children are classified as mildly disabled. Although this makes special education services available to these and other children who need them, contention endures as to whether disability classification also is racially (and ethnically) biased. The authors view disability classification as status competition, in which minorities are overrepresented in low-status categories such as intellectual disability and emotional disturbance, and whites are overrepresented in high-status categories such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism. The authors address the racialized construction and evolution of the mild disability classification system along with mechanisms that perpetuate racial segmentation in contemporary classification. They analyze a large federal longitudinal data set (1998–2007) to examine racialization and find that classification continues to operate at least in part as a racial sorting scheme. Implications for research and policy are discussed.
From the article:
Black and Hispanic students are overrepresented in ID, ED, and LD across nearly all grades. Whites, on the other hand, are overrepresented in ADHD and autism, but in specific ways across the grade span. They appear to leverage ADHD at key transition points: before elementary school and before middle school, in each case to help with potential issues in later grades. As for autism, whites become overrepresented in it only cumulatively, meaning that autism becomes disproportionately white over time as whites switch from nonautism categories to autism across the grade span, a strategy that reduces stigma and provides new resources and services. Our findings on whitening of autism are consistent with those of Travers et al. (2014) and Travers, Tincani, and Krezmien (2013), who attributed the pattern to changes in diagnostic procedures and standards in the 2000s. But if patterns in autism are affected by changing diagnostic methods in those years, the results likely would have been the same for autism regardless of whether students had other labels prior to autism or not. This is not what we find, however.
...More recent data, however, suggest that the pattern may have changed.
IDEA, the law that regulates classification, brings coherence and a degree of monitoring and accountability to the classification process.10 But it fails to target factors sustaining racialized patterns. In Senate hearings prior to passage of IDEA’s original legislation, experts recognized that parents may be differentially equipped to exercise legal rights. Kirp, Buss, and Kuriloff (1974) argued for open IEP meetings and due-process hearings with nonprofit advocacy groups involved. These and other scholars also argued that beyond their value in maximizing the potential of individual children, parent participation and due-process rights were essential to realizing reforms for improving practice. They saw the hearings as a means to put pressure on schools to make changes. Toward that end, experts and advocates wanted results of due process cases to become broadly applied precedents. They envisioned an open, collectively advocated, and precedent-based system, leading to continuous improvement nationally through diffusion of common norms. Instead, actual IEP meetings and due-process hearings are private affairs centered on the student’s individualized educational plan (Ong-Dean 2009), subverting reform and reinforcing inequity. Our recommendation is to reappropriate the originally envisioned system as a blueprint to address IDEA’s flaws.