U.S. Department of Education

Here's How You Can Support Students of Color Who Have Disabilities

The intersection of race and disability is often forgotten, minimized or ignored, especially in the lives of African-Americans and African-American students. A 2016 press release from the Department of Education emphasizes that many children of color—particularly Black and American Indian youth—are identified for special education services at substantially higher rates than their peers, a sign of potential misidentification. Both misidentification and disproportional discipline are challenges that stakeholders must address to encourage the success of students of color with disabilities. Lack of inclusion is due, in part, to the low number of disability research studies involving people of color as well as the lack of awareness about the experiences of African-American people with disabilities. Educators must be able to support diverse student needs. Academic accommodations can be particularly empowering when they are correctly identified and applied in both pre-K-12 and post-secondary learning. Accommodations provided to students with disabilities are vital in situations when students may feel uncomfortable disclosing needs related to a disability, which can cause them to miss out on required support. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting students with disabilities but there are some things educators can do to help accelerate their success.
  1. Encourage students to explore and be proud of their identity. Students have differing levels of comfort with identities within race and disability and the intersection of the two. There are several books on being an African-American female with a disability that can provide a relatable and inspiring narrative for those who identify as a triple minority.
  2. Create an open space for conversation. Make sure that students with disabilities and their parents feel safe discussing their disability and appropriate accommodations. It is also important to create an inclusive classroom where students with and without disabilities interact, so that all students have a sense of understanding, respect and belonging.
  3. Provide resources and mentorship. Let students and parents know about mentoring and tutoring programs that can assist them further in academics, in extracurricular activities, and in other settings.
  4. Rethink disciplinary actions. Work to replace punitive measures with innovative preventative and restorative justice measures, encouraging students to actively participate in the learning environment, instead of being excluded and punished for having a disability.
  5. Assist students with transitioning from secondary to post-secondary education. There are rights and responsibilities students and parents should know about concerning the transition to college, which can be prepared for with the support of teachers.
Students of color with disabilities make vital contributions to our community and society. Building awareness, acknowledging their experiences and supporting their needs empowers them to continue that work, which benefits families, strengthens communities, and elevates our country.
Damiana Dendy is an intern with the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education and is a senior at the College of William and Mary.

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