To Label or Not to Label: The Special Education Question for African Americans

Article excerpt

Special Education was mandated for students with disabilities more than 30 years ago with the passage of P.L. 94-142 in 1975. This monumental legislation specified categories of disabilities based on physical challenges (e.g., deaf, blindness, etc.) as well as psychological and emotional disorders (e.g., learning disabilities and serious emotional disturbance). The premise was that categorical identification would allow for the development of individualized education programs to address students' disabilities; hence, students were labeled accordingly. Categorization in special education became, for all practical purposes, a labeling process.

Over the years, the benefits of categorically identifying and labeling students with disabilities have been debated on many grounds, particularly when it comes to labeling African-American children who many argue are over-labeled or disproportionately represented in selected categories such as learning disabilities (Artiles & Trent, 1994). In this article, we address the following question: Is labeling African-American students for special education purposes in the best interest of these students? We argue that labeling African-American students in special education is not advantageous and can even be counter-productive.

We contend that whatever good intentions, once students are labeled, especially African-American students, the extra "baggage" that comes with that label may be a burden too heavy to carry. The very term "disability" suggests a deficit mode of thinking about the labeled students. Since the prefix "dis" is derived from Latin meaning "not" or "without," the term disability can be literally defined as "not having ability." To illustrate the sociolinguistic implications of this term, when combined with the word "learning" (i.e., learning disability), the term suggests not having the ability to learn. An educational system that operates on the premise that some students do not have the ability to perform at a prescribed level can promote not only deficit thinking but also discrimination--a treatment endured too frequently by African Americans.

For this group of Americans--sometimes referred to as Blacks, once upon a time as Negroes, alternatively Coloreds, and often by the disparaging "N" word with connotations of "lazy," "shiftless," and "inferior"--labeling has been historically a very serious matter, often bringing with it a plethora of differential and detrimental treatment. Given this history, we assert that adding another negative label--one that linguistically and socially suggests a deficit--to these students does more harm than good. To support this stance, we examine (a) the concept of labeling, (b) the process of categorically labeling students for special education services, and (c) what happens once these students are labeled.

In short, this article focuses on the negative impact of labeling for African-American students in special education. Although there are 13 specific categories of disability defined by law, this article focuses on the controversial categories of Learning Disabilities, Serious Emotional Disturbance (includes emotional and behavioral disorders), Intellectual Disabilities (formerly Mental Retardation), and the associated subcategories.

The Concept of Labeling

Labeling is the assignment of a descriptor to an individual based on selected behavioral and/or physical characteristics. In society, an assigned label essentially places the individual into a specified group possessing similar characteristics. By design, a label can serve the discriminatory purpose of distinguishing the individual (and others similarly labeled) from the rest of society and provide information about the individual regardless of its accuracy.

Howard Becker's (1963) classic labeling theory asserts that labels influence the perceptions of both the individual and other members of society. Once the majority members of a society (e. …