Special Education and African-American Children

Parents should get involved in the process of determining whether special education is right for their children.

In this article, you will find:

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Special Education and African-American Children

When Corey was in first grade, I knew something was wrong, because she never wanted to go to school. She had loved kindergarten and had always cheerfully left the house for school. Now, every morning, like clockwork, Corey would develop a stomachache, headache, or some other malady that could possibly warrant her staying home from school. My grandmother baby-sat Corey and Chris from the time they were born, so Corey knew that if she didn't go to school she would be spending the day with Nanny. After a while, I began to get curious, especially when she reported one morning, "Mommy, I can't go to school today because I'm sick."

"What's hurting you today?" I responded on cue.

"My arthritis is acting up today, I think I'd better stay home."

When I asked her how long she had suffered from arthritis, she claimed to have caught it from Nanny.

I didn't bother to explain to her that arthritis is not contagious and is very rare in six-year-old girls. I instead made an appointment to visit her school. Something was seriously wrong and I was determined to get to the root of whatever it was. I asked to look at Corey's papers and her grades. I was so disappointed to learn that she had never passed a spelling test and her classroom assignments were incomplete.

"What is going on here? Corey is failing everything!" I exclaimed in disbelief. It was only the second month of first grade, but my bright little girl was so far behind it seemed impossible that she could catch up. I know that students learn at different rates and at different times, but I was looking at evidence that--at school, at least--she was just not getting any of it. This six-year-old child who took my telephone messages, kept track of everything that was needed in the household, and who had an advanced vocabulary, was a very poor student.

I went to her teacher and insisted, "I want her tested so we know how to help her."

"I felt that Corey was having problems," her teacher admitted, "but I didn't want to be the one to suggest that she be tested . . ." She never finished the statement, but I knew she wanted to say, "Because she is Black." I knew that Black kids were being placed in special ed classes in many schools, but I didn't care right then about the other kids. I wanted to get whatever help was needed for my child. I didn't care about the stigma or the stereotypes about Black kids in special ed. I cared about helping this intelligent girl over whatever disability she had so she would enjoy school and not look for excuses not to attend. I understood the teacher's dilemma. She felt we would be offended by the mere suggestion that Corey might have a disability, so she chose to ignore it rather than take a chance of insulting us.

Black children are nearly three times more likely than Whites to be labeled as mentally retarded, and nearly twice as likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed. In the 1998-1999 school year, more than 2.2 million children of color in U.S. schools were served by special education. Among high school youth with disabilities, about 75 percent of African Americans, compared to 39 percent of Whites, are still not employed three to five years out of school, according to the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the National Center for Education Statistics.

Following a couple of days of testing, it was determined that Corey had a reading disability called dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is a learning disability that affects writing abilities. It can manifest itself as difficulties with spelling, poor handwriting, and trouble putting thoughts on paper. At that time, Corey was having great difficulty printing. A lot of her letters were unrecognizable and often written backward. She had a terrible time reading and spelling words. Even though she was only in the first grade, she had been reading for a while. I thought that as soon as she started attending "real school," not kindergarten, she would better acquire the skills she needed to progress in these areas.