Special Needs & Children of Color
Last week in Jen’s post about special needs, she touched on the topic of children of color being overlooked for diagnosis of disabilities, learning or otherwise. She spoke to a professional about diagnosis, who clued her in that “white teachers see kids of color and think they can help or save them on their own. They want to save the brown kids.”
I’ve personally had quite a bit of experience with this and it hits pretty close to home, since my husband, who’s Dyslexic, was one of those special needs kids. He’s also one of those men who volunteers to help other kids of color with special needs. So, we’ve seen a variety of situations and there is a disappointing trend that emerges. The problem is that many white teachers, and even some brown teachers, make blanket generalizations about children of color being “at-risk” or having “emotional” problems. They think that they can help them work through their “attitude problems” and often don’t consider a special needs element because they may see brown kids as naturally aggressive and opposed to learning. That’s what happened in my husband’s case and he saw the same things happening with his kids when he taught in “at-risk” middle schools in recent years. The assumption is that these “personalities” are “normal” for brown children, and especially, for brown boys.
The big problem is that men like my husband don’t get diagnosed until they’re well out of the public education system. Why is this problematic? Well, aside from the fact that these children won’t benefit from the same education as their peers because their needs aren’t being met, there is also the problem of their severely slighted self-esteem. Special needs children may often blame themselves for their “inability to learn”. They are too often labelled by the education system as being “lazy”, having “attitude problems” and “not applying themselves”. Worst of all, parents, motivated by frequent complaints from teachers, may also begin to doubt the abilities of their child. I don’t have to tell you how fast this can damage a child’s esteem and their drive to excel in a learning environment.
My husband faked his way through school, avoided homework assignments and continued to underachieve with poor grades and distant behavior, yet teachers and school authorities were able to dismiss his shortcomings as “typical behavior” for brown boys. Instead of creating solutions, teachers can often fall into the traps of stereotyping and dismissing our childrens’ potential.
It wasn’t until after we were married that I was able to talk my husband into getting a diagnosis so that he could go back to school and qualify for special help. This wasn’t an easy process and he was very fearful about what the outcome would be. Was he really as stupid as everyone had told him all these years? Could he really have a learning disability? Did he deserve better? If so, why didn’t his teachers encourage him all these years? Why did they discourage him from attending college? Did having a learning disability mean that it wasn’t his fault or did it still equal the same answer…”you’re too dumb to learn”? We were lucky to have found an individual who uplifted my husband and provided words of encouragement about his situation, along with help, a diagnosis and the acknowledgement that he was not to blame for his learning difficulties.
Sadder still, is the fact that this practice of generalizing children of color as having “attitude problems” or being “troubled” isn’t only related to special needs. There is an abundance of stereotyping going on in the public education system…all of which ingrains this message to brown kids…”you are inferior”. We’ve seen many of the same thoughts and fears in students without disabilities and the simple answer is a systematic disheartening of brown children. It’s a system based on stereotypes about the abilities of brown children, about their supposed “innate” aggression and their “misguided” priorities (education apparently not being one of them).
Well, let me say this…if a brown child doesn’t take an interest in education, it’s likely because they don’t feel that they have the right or power to claim that for themselves. Knowing you have the ability to choose your own path isn’t something that everyone is born into…it’s something that has to be instilled. It’s the responsibility of parents, teachers and authority figures to instill these behaviors and there’s no way for that to happen if we’re consistently doubting the abilities of our brown youth. We have to look beyond the stereotypes about brown children and find ways to instill a strength in them that allows them to believe in themselves. For children with disabilities, recognizing our assumptions is key in diagnosing disabilities that might otherwise be seen as “typical” behavior. We must change our thought processes by addressing the privilege and prejudices that allow us to see brown children as “naturally” less capable and more obstinate than their white peers.