Racial Identity and African Americans with Disabilities: Theoretical and Practical Considerations

By Alston, Reginald J.; Bell, Tyronn J. et al. | The Journal of Rehabilitation, April-June 1996 | Go to article overview

Racial Identity and African Americans with Disabilities: Theoretical and Practical Considerations


Alston, Reginald J., Bell, Tyronn J., Feist-Price, Sonja, The Journal of Rehabilitation


Racial identity development is the focus of increasing attention in counseling and psychological services (Cross, Parham & Helms, 1991; Helms, 1990; Parham, 1989; Phinney, 1990). Smith (1989) contended that racial identity is a key component of psychosocial adjustment and necessary for the psychological health of all individuals. Racial identity development may be defined as the process through which an individual examines the "psychological" (sense of belongingness and commitment), "cultural" (awareness, knowledge, and acceptance of cultural and social traditions), "physical" (acceptance of physical features of racial group), and "sociopolitical" (attitudes toward social and economic issues of racial group) aspects of being a member of one's racial group along with the value and emotional significance associated with that membership (Sanders-Thompson, 1992; Tajfel, 1981).

According to Tajfel (1981), the construct of racial identity development may be a more salient issue for ethnic minorities because the physical manifestations (e.g., skin color) of race can be assigned negative social values in American society. For example, African Americans are constantly forced to examine their racial status in several aspects of life (e.g., work, school) (Johnson, 1990). Helms (1990) suggested that African Americans' feelings of self-worth may be associated with their assessment of racial status as a minority group member. Thus, racial identity development can be a crucial aspect of personality development for African Americans. As noted by Helms (1990), intrinsic to racial identity is the belief that individuals need an appreciation of group identification in order to maintain a healthy sense of personal identity.

While a large portion of the racial identity development research has focused on nondisabled African Americans, little, if any, attention has been devoted to African Americans with disabilities. The omission of persons with disabilities in the racial identity literature is surprising given the large percentage of African Americans with disabilities. For example, the incidence of disability among African Americans is nearly double (14.8%) the incidence in the White community (8.4%) (Bowe, 1992); however, African Americans comprise only 12% of the American population. Furthermore, the lack of attention in the literature devoted to the racial identity development of African Americans with disabilities seems to imply that racial identity development is the same for both disabled and nondisabled African Americans. The notion that racial identity development is the same for all African Americans, regardless of disability, is difficult to endorse due to the large psychosocial impact that a disability can have on an individual's life (Wright, 1983).

According to Wright (1983), the stigma attached to disability status in American society can be so intense and pervasive that it can overshadow other personal characteristics (e.g., ethnic/cultural attributes) that comprise the individual's self-concept. Walker (1988) noted that although some societies looked upon individuals with disabilities with "awe and reverence," in most societies disability has traditionally been associated with tremendous negativism. In the most recent past, as indicated by Walker, persons with disabilities have been "tolerated but not allowed to participate fully in society" and have been "consistently relegated...to economic deprivation and dependency" (p. 184). Thus, the powerful effects that disability status can have on an individual's sense of self, of which racial identity development can be an integral part, seems evident (Alston & McCowan, 1994; Alston & Mngadi, 1992).

The purpose of this article is to explore the racial identity development of African Americans with disabilities. Cross' (1971, 1978) model of racial identity development for African Americans, along with Parham's (1989) revisions of the model, will serve as the foundation for the discussion. …

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