Special Needs & Children of Color

Special needs black latino students

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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.

 

Comments

  1. says

    i'm very sensitive to this issue, having had a family member that I suspect suffered from misdiagnosis of ADHD and other learning disabilities b/c of his color…I'm not 100% certain, but there were (in retrospect) too many indicators. Thanks for bringing this to the forefront… sharing!

    • says

      Thank you for sharing Bren.  I’m sorry that your family had to experience this situation, it’s a terrible feeling and even worse, many don’t even want to acknowledge the practice.  It’s not always intentional, be regardless, getting awareness out on the topic is so important.  Thank you for your comment and for sharing!  :)  *Abrazos*

    • says

      Thank you for sharing Bren.  I'm sorry that your family had to experience this situation, it's a terrible feeling and even worse, many don't even want to acknowledge the practice.  It's not always intentional, be regardless, getting awareness out on the topic is so important.  Thank you for your comment and for sharing!  :)  *Abrazos*

  2. says

    Thank you for this article!  There are so many factors that come into play with children of color and diagnosis.  Many disabilities are invisable and are labeled as something else: laziness, attitude etc.  Often teachers are not trained or overwhelmed in crowded classrooms to recognize a learning disability.  And then there are the parents who refuse to label their children out of fear or shame.  And those parents who simply don't know how to help their children.  Hopefully, these posts will broaden perspectives and help future children.   

    • says

      Amiga, thank you!  Such great points!  Definitely, there are many factors and I think this is one that we often avoid talking about, but it's just as valid as all the others.  I'm so glad that you're bringing attention to these topics too and you can count on my mutual support!  :)

    • says

      Amiga, thank you!  Such great points!  Definitely, there are many factors and I think this is one that we often avoid talking about, but it’s just as valid as all the others.  I’m so glad that you’re bringing attention to these topics too and you can count on my mutual support!  :)

  3. says

    Really interesting stuff! I had never thought about it that way, but it makes perfect sense. Brown kids are often seen as natural-born "troublemakers," and that assumption may very well be masking an underlying problem. Thank you!

  4. Cristina Duffy says

    Very interesting! Especially when we are working hard to eliminate stereotypes or "labels".

  5. says

    Well put, mujer! I was a special education teacher for 2 years and most of the students were boys of color. It was shocking to see that their behavior was often dismissed as something they carried because of their skin color. My experience as a special education teacher opened my eyes to a sad reality.

  6. rachel says

    My mother was a school district psychologist. She spent most of her life fighting the politics behind these labels. Great post. 

  7. says

    Love. This. Post. With abandon. Thank you for speaking up about this issue—and for putting your finger on the politics and bias that plays into the diagnoses. I think, too, we need to address the fact that all too many parents of color do not seek out diagnoses because we're afraid of the stigma for our children—specifically because there's that history of teachers, principals and administrators labeling our kids and tossing our boys into special ed classes WITHOUT evaluating if they really need to be there. It's sort of a damned if you do/damned if you don't situation. And our kids keep getting lost in the mix as the adults duke it out. That's the saddest of all.

    • says

      Denene, thank you for pointing that out.  That's one thing I didn't include here, but it is so important.  My husband was one of those kids in "resource" a program that seems to do just that…explain away brown kids.  He wasn't diagnosed with special needs, but him along with many other children, who likely didn't have special needs, were piled into inadequate class situations with very few RESOURCES and plenty of discouraging words and abusive actions from teachers and school authorities.  There is definitely a problem that when brown kids are seen as "low -functioning" they have a tendency to be cast to the side, abused and stereotyped.  And you're right, there is a definite shaming by society.  Either myself or another contributor will definitely be addressing this topic in the near future.  Thanks so much for stopping by and adding your thoughts to the conversation.

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