Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

African American Students with Disabilities: Beneficiaries of the Legacy?

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

African American Students with Disabilities: Beneficiaries of the Legacy?

Article excerpt

Impressive advancements have been made in educational opportunities for students with disabilities, whose historic relationship with American public schools has been marked by educational disenfranchisement or mis-education. Critical judicial impetus for these educational opportunities was provided by landmark court cases in which African American and other students of color played vital roles. This litigation culminated in the principles of access, non discrimination, and due process codified in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. However, although African American students and other students of color have substantially impacted the education of students with disabilities, they have not benefited proportionately to their contributions nor commensurate with their majority peers.


In this first decade of the 21st century, The Journal of Negro Education celebrates its 75th year of publishing significant research on the status of Black education. The decade is further distinguished by the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and the 30th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1974), often referred to as the "Bill of Rights" for students with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education, through IDEA and its regulations, defines 14 specific disability categories that can be used to qualify infants, preschoolers, and students who are eligible to receive special education services (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). These categories cover intellectual, language, emotional, sensory, and physical conditions (e.g., mental retardation, emotional disturbance, visual impairment). While we celebrate The Journal's 75th year unreservedly, we reflect on the anniversary of IDEA, with some ambivalence about whether celebration or, as Ferri and Connor (2005) suggested, commemoration, is most honest. To celebrate is to "mark an occasion or event, especially a joyous one, with ceremony or festivity"; to commemorate is to "honor the memory of some person or event" (Agnes, 2004, pp. 235, 293). However, decades after their passage, the educational promises of Brown and IDEA for African American students and for students with disabilities, respectively, remain largely unfulfilled, particularly for students who are both African American and have actual or presumed disabilities.

According to 2001-2002 graduation and dropout data provided in the 26th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of IDEA, the graduation rate for Black students with disabilities was substantially lower (36.5%), than for White students with disabilities (56.8%), and for Asian/Pacific Islander students with disabilities (60.6%, Office of Special Education Programs, OSEP, 2004). The dropout rate for Black students with disabilities (44.5%), although lower than that for American Indian/Alaska Native students (52.2%), was higher than the rate for Asian/Pacific Islander (28.0%) and White peers with disabilities (33.9%). It was similar to the rate for Hispanic students with disabilities (43.5%, OSEP, 2004).

The educational status reflected by these data prompts neither a sense of joy nor festivity. However, in this period of educational anniversaries, it has stimulated the desire to acknowledge the legacy and commemorate the contributions of African American students to the attainment of educational rights for students with disabilities. Additionally, we hope the article will evoke serious contemplation about the need to ensure that African American students themselves are reaping the benefits of these hard-earned rights.


Appreciation for the educational progress achieved by students with disabilities is best stimulated by awareness of the history of education for individuals with disabilities in America. The dismal educational past of students with disabilities has been chronicled by numerous researchers (Seligmann, 2001; Smith, Polloway, Patton, & Dowdy, 2008). …

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