Integration and Inclusion-A Troubling Nexus: Race, Disability, and Special Education

By Connor, David J.; Ferri, Beth A. | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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Integration and Inclusion-A Troubling Nexus: Race, Disability, and Special Education


Connor, David J., Ferri, Beth A., The Journal of African American History


    There are perhaps five million children in the United States who are
    colored. There are close to five million other children who will be
    directly affected by this decision. I am not speaking of the
    majority of white children, many of whom have been undoubtedly
    injured spiritually by the philosophy and practice of segregation. I
    am speaking of disabled children, who are "different," not because
    of color but because of blindness, deafness; because they are
    crippled, have cerebral palsy, or speech defects, or epilepsy; or
    are what we call "retarded." These children we have also
    segregated.... All of these children, some with real disabilities,
    others with the artificial disability of color, are affected by this
    great decision.
    --Lillian Smith, Letter to the Editor, New York Times, 1954 (1)

Responses of the southern white establishment to the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision were quick, generating powerful repercussions. Historian Waldo E. Martin, Jr., pointed out that the "Southern Manifesto," drafted by Senators Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Harry Byrd of Virginia, provoked such resistance that "southern school desegregation was effectively delayed until the courts intervened in the late 1960s." (2) Other extreme responses ranged from closing state-funded schools in Virginia, (in some instances causing African American children to lose four years of formal education), to deploying the National Guard at Little Rock, Arkansas, to ensure integration. (3) In addition, "pupil placement" laws were approved from the mid-1950s allowing local districts to assign students according to academic and psychological criteria including preparation and aptitude, as well as "morals, conduct, health, and personal standards of the pupil." (4) However, despite these external measures, we argue that it was the internal re-structuring of schools that effectively maintained segregation after Brown. Perhaps above all, an increase in the use of testing to determine the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of students served to justify the academic tracking of students according to "abilities." (5) In addition to tracking, a response to the integration of students of color was the increase in special classes, located in different parts of the school building, and even in separate schools. In one example, perhaps to curb the flight of white students from the district, school officials in Washington, DC, placed over 24 percent of their newly admitted African American students in separate special education classrooms. In comparison, the number of white students in special education between 1955 and 1956 was only 3 percent. In fact, within Washington, DC, between 1955 and 1956, special education classes in schools doubled in enrollment; over 77 percent of students in these classes were African American. (6) The response of school officials to integration in the late 1950s and stretching throughout the 1960s was to develop structures and procedures that continued to maintain racial segregation (or at least minimize the possibilities for integration). In response to such widespread institutionalized practices, several important lawsuits successfully challenged the status quo.

Diana v. State Board of Education (1970) and Larry P. v. Riles (1971-79) were landmark legal cases that confronted important biases inherent in standardized public school assessment procedures. (7) The first case, Diana, featured a class action suit filed on behalf of nine Latino children who had been forced to take an individually administered IQ test in English, and as a result were classified as Educable Mentally Retarded (EMR). However, when retested by a Hispanic examiner, eight children were found not to be EMR. In the second case, Larry P., plaintiffs claimed the overrepresentation of minority children in EMR classes in the San Francisco public schools was due to educational practices, including teacher bias.

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