Expanding Education Access for Black Girls With Disabilities
In this article
Black Women and Girls With Disabilities Series
This series examines the impacts of structural racism, sexism, and ableism on the education, health outcomes, and economic security of Black women and girls with disabilities in the United States.
Introduction and summary
Authors’ note: The disability community is rapidly evolving to use identity-first language in place of person-first language. This is because it views disability as being a core component of identity, much like race and gender. Some members of the community, such as people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, prefer person-first language. In this report, the terms are used interchangeably.
Education systems and ableism must be recognized for the role they play in harming Black disabled girls. The education system punishes and disciplines those who differ from white, able-bodied cisgender men. This report first discusses the implications of this reality for Black girls with disabilities. Then, it briefly explores discipline disparities, disparities in special education, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Finally, the report provides recommendations to make schools more equitable; to decrease student interactions and involvement with the criminal justice system; and to make the education system more accessible to Black girls with disabilities.
The Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress hosted a series of three virtual roundtables in June 2021 with Black women and girls with disabilities. This report is based on the second roundtable, which focused on civil rights and asked participants what equality means to them, what barriers they experience or experienced in school, and what an equitable school and criminal justice system looks like to them.
As with other publications in this series, this report draws from interviews and roundtable conversations that the Center for American Progress hosted with Black disabled women and girls to gain their perspective on issues central to their lived experiences, including requesting reasonable accommodations in school and educational attainment. Roundtable participants shared how people with disabilities must constantly and continuously advocate for accommodations. As one woman stated, recalling a conversation with a teacher, “I’m in your classroom to learn, my disability should not get in the way.”1
Overall, participants shared that in their experiences, no one was looking out for them in the school system. They reported having to fight with teachers, professors, and administrators for accommodations and access to the classroom. Even when they were approved for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, those services were often not provided. Participants also noted that the responsibility for keeping the school system accountable fell to them. As one participant said, even before the pandemic, schools were too often “traumatic and violent spaces for people with disabilities.”2 She highlighted the need for more mental health resources and customized care in schools: “We must value the entire student.”
We must value the entire student.- Roundtable participant
Black disabled girls in the education system
Black girls with disabilities experience substantial barriers in the education system ranging from insufficient attention3 and disproportionate discipline to harsh punishment and treatment—including restraint and seclusion. These barriers jeopardize their ability to stay in school and succeed, and they have harmful consequences such as frequent absences, low attainment levels, lack of opportunities to pursue higher education, and unemployment and poverty later in life.
Despite legal protections such as IDEA4 and Section 504,5 people with disabilities still face barriers to equal access to education at all levels, which perpetuate disparities in educational attainment. IDEA is supposed to provide rights and protections to students with disabilities. Under IDEA, school districts must provide a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), and students with disabilities must be placed in the least restrictive environment by providing aids and services before pulling them out of general education. School systems are required to find and evaluate students at no cost to families, and if qualified, schools must offer special education and other related services to meet the student’s unique needs through an individualized education program. Furthermore, Section 504 provides rights and protections for all individuals with disabilities, including those who may not qualify for services under IDEA. Section 504 also requires schools to provide FAPE to qualified students who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.
Unfortunately, IDEA and Section 504 are not working as well as they should for African American girls in special education services. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, only 13 percent of students with disabilities of any race are served under IDEA, and only 3 percent under Section 504.6 People of color with disabilities can often face compounding forms of discrimination in accessing educational services. One recent study examining the disparities of education services that students with disabilities receive found that due to the lack of enforcement of Section 504, students from low-income families and students who are Black, Indigenous, or other people of color are not being identified as eligible for receiving Section 504 services at rates similar to their white and more affluent peers.7
Not only are Black girls lacking adequate special education services, they also have the fastest-growing suspension rate of all students.8 According to the Office for Civil Rights, Black girls were seven times more likely to be suspended from school, four times more likely to be arrested at school; more than three times more likely to receive corporal punishment; three times more likely to be referred to law enforcement; and twice as likely to be physically restrained compared with white girls in the 2015-16 school year.9 Similarly, in the 2013-14 school year, 18.6 percent of Black girls with disabilities received one or more out-of-school suspensions, compared with 5.2 percent of white girls with disabilities and 2.8 percent of girls without disabilities.10
Girls are also the fastest-growing population in the juvenile justice system, with girls of color, LGBTQI+ and gender-nonconforming youth, and girls with disabilities being overrepresented relative to school enrollment and share of the overall population. For instance, Black girls make up 15 percent of girls enrolled in public schools but 30.8 percent of girls in juvenile justice center schools.11 Moreover, incarcerated Black girls are twice as likely to receive services under IDEA as incarcerated white girls, and they make up almost half of all incarcerated girls receiving services under IDEA.12 These numbers suggest that Black girls with disabilities are incarcerated at rates much higher than white girls with disabilities and girls with disabilities overall.
Disparities in school discipline start as early as preschool. In 2014, Black girls made up 20 percent of the nation’s female preschool population but represented 54 percent of female preschoolers who received more than one out-of-school suspension.13 Black students are 10 times more likely to face discipline and retention for typical child behavior such as disruptive behaviors and tantrums.14 Moreover, the punishments for disruptive behaviors are also harsher for Black students. African American students are more likely to be disciplined through removal measures, including suspension or expulsion.15 For Black students, punishments start early, are harsher, and carry over. Typically, African American girls throughout K-12 school are suspended more often for minor offenses such as dress code violations or subjective offenses such as defiance or disobedience.16
There have also been growing conversations around how students with disabilities are being supported during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has been hard on many students with disabilities.17 For example, some students have not received the personal hands-on learning or additional services such as speech and occupational therapy they require, and others have struggled because new online technologies are not always accessible.18 However, online school has eliminated physical barriers to education for students with disabilities, such as the need to negotiate steep ramps and heavy metal doors.19 Clearly, a greater discussion beyond the scope of this report is needed. However, it is important to note that the aspiration of schools and districts after the pandemic should not be to go back to normal. Normal was not serving all students effectively well before the onset of the pandemic, and as schools resume in-person learning, there needs to be a concerted effort to imagine and implement a more equitable system.20
The adultification of Black girls and the strong Black woman trope
Adultification is a form of dehumanization that robs Black children of their childhood and can lead to bias against and harsher punishments inflicted upon Black disabled girls.21 It contributes to stereotypes that Black youth are intentional and malicious with their behavior, and it leads to Black children not being afforded the right to make mistakes. According to data from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, “[A]dults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5–14.”22 The data also show that adults think Black girls need less nurturing, less protection, less support, less comfort, know more about adult topics, and know more about sex than white girls.23
The strong Black woman stereotype celebrates traits such as selflessness, resilience, independence, and endurance of difficulties. Specifically, the trope glorifies Black women’s ability to survive in a society that is racist and sexist.24 The presence of a disability conflicts with the strong Black woman trope.
Researchers suggest these perceptions and stereotypes may contribute to harsher punishments, fewer opportunities in school, greater use of force, and harsher penalties for Black disabled girls.25 A recently published study by Illinois State University that reviewed out-of-school suspension data from the Office for Civil Rights showed that Black girls in the 15-largest Ohio school districts were significantly more likely to be suspended than girls from other races.26 Out of all out-of-school suspensions for girls, Black girls made up 66.7 percent of suspensions, while white girls made up 20.39 percent. Another study by Dorothy Hines, Robb King Jr, and Donna Ford found that Black disabled girls had the highest overrepresentation of in-school and out-of-school suspensions.27
The school-to-prison pipeline
The school-to-prison pipeline refers to unfair policies and practices that push children out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system. The pipeline demonstrates how systems prioritize incarceration more than education, but often missing from the discussion are the ways Black girls are disproportionately and unfairly disciplined by the U.S. education system. Data have shown that schools are expelling and suspending Black girls at alarming rates,28 which can lead to a harmful cycle of criminalization.29 Suspensions of Black girls are often driven by teacher bias.30 Studies have also shown differences in diagnoses: “Black students are twice as likely to be identified as having emotional disturbance and intellectual disability as their peers.”31 There are countless examples of Black girls being unfairly suspended for the style of their hair32 or their normal adolescent behavior, such as refusing to turn over a cell phone.33
Percentage of children in juvenile detention facilities who were eligible for special education services
Percentage of children in juvenile detention facilities who received special education services
Not only are students introduced to the criminal justice system through school discipline measures, but when the schools fail to address the academic and behavioral needs of students, it often leads to interactions with the criminal justice system. A study focused on juvenile detention facilities found that only 37 percent of children in juvenile detention facilities received special education services in school, even though up to 85 percent of those children have disabilities and were eligible for special education.34 These realities are often contradictory. Many disabled students of color have unaddressed needs, and at the same time they are overrepresented in special education. But too many of these programs are offered in segregated settings and all too often provide inferior services.35 These statistics show that many disabled youth are deprived of an appropriate education. Further action is required to address these disparities.
Disabled students—particularly Black girls with disabilities—experience other forms of discrimination, such as restraint and seclusion.36 According to the 2017-18 Civil Rights Data Collection, 101,990 students were restrained or secluded during the year, and 78 percent of those students were covered by IDEA.37 According to 2013-14 data, girls with disabilities receiving IDEA services made up 8 percent of the total population of girls in public schools.38 However, they comprised up to 70 percent of girls who were physically restrained, 48 percent of girls who were secluded, and 25.6 percent of girls who were mechanically restrained. Girls of color were three times more likely to be secluded.39 These numbers are most likely understated due to underreporting.
The good news is that many schools are replacing restraint and seclusion with positive behavioral support, and many disability organizations are pushing for Congress to eliminate or reduce seclusion and restraint through legislation. For example, the Ending Punitive, Unfair, School-based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma (Ending PUSHOUT) Act would continue reducing the use of exclusionary and harmful school discipline policies and practices and reduce the trauma caused in the education system. The bill would help strengthen the Civil Rights Office and establish a task force to examine and end disproportionate negative effects on girls of color.40 In addition, it would provide grants to states to commit to changing discriminatory policies and practices and require more robust data collection on school trends.
Decades, if not centuries, of U.S. policymaking created these systems and institutions, and as such, policymakers have the power to change them. Simply put, the inequities and inequality Black girls with disabilities face do not have to persist in education. Policymakers must eliminate barriers and disparities for all, but especially for the most marginalized. The following recommendations could address structural racism, sexism, and ableism in the U.S. education system.
Improve and increase data collection and transparency
The reports in this series highlight the limitations of truly understanding the scope of disparities in economic security and education because there is limited intersectional data. Data collection is pivotal to understanding the scope of a problem and creating effective solutions. Specifically in this space, data collection should include disaggregated school discipline data that can be analyzed by race, sex, disability, type of offense, and length of sanction.
Strengthen civil rights enforcement
Roundtable participants asked why the onus is on people with disabilities to watch, call out, and demand action to end discrimination and ableism. Other participants echoed that sentiment and encouraged lawmakers to strengthen enforcement of already existing laws, hold schools and other institutions accountable, and even go a step further and create more, severe penalties for violations. Congress can also pass legislation such as the Ending PUSHOUT Act, whose drafting CAP supported and subsequently endorsed.41
Increase funding for schools
In 2016, the Department of Education42 released an analysis that showed that state and local spending on prisons and jails over the course of three decades increased at three times the rate of funding for pre-K-12 public education over the same period of time.43 Inadequate and inequitable school funding is one of the most fundamental challenges in K-12 education, and this challenge has only been exacerbated by COVID-19. CAP recently proposed the creation of a Public Education Opportunity Grants44 program and called on Congress to prioritize school spending and direct investment in mental health supports.45 CAP celebrates the additional funding for IDEA in the American Rescue Plan46 but encourages increased funding for greater enforcement for Section 504 and IDEA. CAP also encourages additional IDEA funding as it is the most critical source of funding for students with disabilities.
Institute educational reforms for justice-affected communities
The school-to-prison pipeline can push Black disabled girls out of school and into the legal and criminal justice system. While efforts should be made to address the pipeline, other efforts can be made to increase education opportunities for those already in the criminal justice system. States should expand educational opportunities for people while they are incarcerated.47 Educational challenges persist outside of prison for justice-affected people. For more equitable access to postsecondary education, the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid should remove the drug conviction question and issue guidance on discrimination in campus housing.48
Policymakers must break the link between school punishment, education attainment, and disability and create systems that ensure equitable treatment of people with disabilities throughout the education system. As several CAP roundtable participants argued, equity and inclusion are needed across the board. Another roundtable participant said that equity means students not having the extra concerns and efforts to assimilate. People with disabilities have the challenge of facing extra steps, additional costs, and fights that are a part of moving through these systems. True equity would eliminate those extra barriers.
Robust and effective policy solutions must prioritize and value Black disabled women and girls rather than making them an afterthought. As called for in other reports in this series, equitable efforts must start with comprehensive and intersectional data collection and transparency. Furthermore, policymakers must strengthen civil rights enforcement, increase accessibility in the education system, and increase accountability.
This report is not meant to be an exhaustive look or list of policy recommendations; instead, it is a vital step to achieving a more equitable education system for Black disabled women and girls.
The author would like to thank Taryn Williams, managing director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress; Kyle Ross, research assistant for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at CAP, for fact-checking assistance; the Racial Equity and Justice, Criminal Justice, Poverty, Education, and Women’s teams for their review; and CAP’s Production team for its guidance.
- Participant in the Center for American Progress’ Black Women’s Roundtable on Disability and Education, discussion via video conference, June 9, 2021, on file with author.
- Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Dr. Subini Ancy Annamaa, and Vilissa Thompson, “Black Girls With Disabilities Are Disproportionately Criminalized,” Teen Vogue, September 17, 2020, available at https://www.teenvogue.com/story/black-girls-disabilities-criminalized.
- U.S. Department of Education, “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” available at https://sites.ed.gov/idea/ (last accessed July 2021).
- U.S. Department of Education, “Protecting Students With Disabilities,” https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html (last accessed July 2021).
- Office of Civil Rights, “2017-18 Civil Rights Data Collection” (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2020), available at https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/restraint-and-seclusion.pdf.
- Sam Kmack, “‘504 plan’ disability protection favors students at Arizona’s wealthier, whiter schools,” Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, July 3, 2021, available at https://tucson.com/news/state-and-regional/504-plan-disability-protection-favors-students-at-arizona-s-wealthier-whiter-schools/article_d262b722-d86c-11eb-9b72-377cd57636e8.html.
- Erica Young, “#BlackGirlMagic: Due Process and the Disappearance of Black Girls in Public Education,” Social Justice and Equity Journal 3 (2) (2020): 208–232, available at https://willamette.edu/law/resources/journals/sjelj/publications/pdf/7.-young-.pdf.
- National Black Women’s Justice Institute, “End School Pushout for Black Girls and Other Girls of Color” (Washington: 2019), available at https://static.wixstatic.com/ugd/0c71ee_7d6b6469aa144b0397a4d7cd5d0f8051.pdf; Misha N. Innis-Thompson, “Summary of Discipline Data for Girls in U.S. Public Schools: An Analysis from the 2015-2016 U.S. Civil Rights Data Collection” (Berkeley, CA: National Black Women’s Justice Institute, 2018), available at https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/0c71ee_9506b355e3734ba791248c0f681f6d03.pdf.
- Karen Schulman, Kayla Patrick, and Neena Chaudhry “Let Her Learn: Stopping School Pushout for Girls with Disabilities” (Washington: National Women’s Law Center, 2017), available at https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Final_nwlc_Gates_GirlsWithDisabilities.pdf.
- Kayla Patrick and Neena Chaudhry, “Let Her Learn: Stopping School Pushout for Girls Involved in the Juvenile Justice System” (Washington: National Women Law Center, 2017), available at https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/final_nwlc_Gates_JuvenileJustice.pdf.
- Mackenzie Chakara, “From Preschool to Prison: The Criminalization of Black Girls,” Center for American Progress, December 8, 2017, available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2017/12/08/443972/preschool-prison-criminalization-black-girls/.
- National Women’s Law Center, “School Reform and Dropout Prevention: Addressing Disparities in Discipline for African American Girls” (Washington: National Women’s Law Center), available at https://nwlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/aagirls_school_reform_and_dropout_prevention.pdf.
- Faith Hill, “The Pandemic Is a Crisis for Students With Special Needs,” The Atlantic, April 18, 2020, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2020/04/special-education-goes-remote-covid-19-pandemic/610231/.
- Anja K. Herrman, “High school is hard enough for disabled students. Don’t take away our Zoom classes,” Input Magazine, June 7, 2021, available at https://www.inputmag.com/features/disabled-high-school-student-ending-zoom-classes-personal-essay.
- Khalilah M. Harris, “In the Wake of the Coronavirus, We Must Design and Build the Schools We Need—Not Simply Reopen Schools As They Were,” Center for American Progress, May 26, 2020, available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/news/2020/05/26/485446/wake-coronavirus-must-design-build-schools-need-not-simply-reopen-schools/.
- Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Black, and Thalia González, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood” (Washington: Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2017), available at https://www.law.georgetown.edu/poverty-inequality-center/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2017/08/girlhood-interrupted.pdf.
- Angel Love Miles, “‘Strong Black Women’: African American Women with Disabilities Intersecting Identities, and Inequality,” Gender and Society 33 (1) (2019): 41–63, available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0891243218814820.
- Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez, “Girlhood Interrupted.”
- Terry Husband and Shamaine Bertrand, “The inequitable consequences of school disciplinary policies on Black girls in Ohio,” Journal of Global Education and Research 5 (2) (2021): 175–184, available at https://digitalcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1075&context=jger.
- Dorothy E. Hines, Robb King Jr., and Donna Ford, “Black Students in Handcuffs: Addressing Racial Disproportionality in School Discipline for Students with Dis/abilities,” Teachers College Record 120 (13) (2018), available at http://rjpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/Black-Students-in-Handcuffs.pdf.
- Marcia Chatelain, “How black girls suffer when booted from school to juvenile detention centers,” The Washington Post, May 2, 2016, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-black-girls-suffer-when-booted-from-school-to-juvenile-detention-centers/2016/05/05/74cb67ba-fb79-11e5-80e4-c381214de1a3_story.html?utm_term=.f58c42f53fbb.
- Chakara, “From Preschool to Prison.”
- Jason A. Okonofua and Jennifer Eberhardt, “Two strikes: race and the disciplining of young students,” Psychological Science 26 (5) (2015): 617–624, available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25854276.
- Kristen Harper, “5 things to know about racial and ethnic disparities in special education,” Child Trends, January 12, 2017, available at https://www.childtrends.org/publications/5-things-to-know-about-racial-and-ethnic-disparities-in-special-education/.
- Kay Lazar, “Black Malden charter students punished for braided har extensions,” The Boston Globe, May 11, 2017, available at https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/05/11/black-students-malden-school-who-wear-braids-face-punishment-parents-say/stWDlBSCJhw1zocUWR1QMP/story.html.
- The Associated Press, “Deputy Who Tossed a S.C. High School Student Won’t Be Charged,” The New York Times, September 2, 2016, available at ttps://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/03/afternoonupdate/deputy-who-tossed-a-sc-high-school-student-wont-be-charged.html?_r=1.
- Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” available at https://dredf.org/legal-advocacy/school-to-prison-pipeline/ (last accessed July 2021).
- U.S. Department of Education, “School Climate and Safety,” available at https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/school-climate-and-safety.pdf (last accessed July 2021).
- Office of Civil Rights, “2017-18 Civil Rights Data Collection.”
- Schulman, Patrick, and Chaudhry, “Let Her Learn.”
- Rep. Pressley, “Reps. Pressley, Watson Coleman, Omar Re-Introduce Bold Legislation to End School Pushout of Girls of Color,” Press release, March 26, 2021, available at https://pressley.house.gov/media/press-releases/reps-pressley-watson-coleman-omar-re-introduce-bold-legislation-end-school.
- U.S. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, “Reps. Pressley, Watson Coleman, Omar Re-Introduce Bold Legislation to End School Pushout of Girls of Color,” Press release, March 26, 2021, available at https://pressley.house.gov/media/press-releases/reps-pressley-watson-coleman-omar-re-introduce-bold-legislation-end-school.
- Policy and Program Studies Service, “State and Local Expenditures on Corrections and Education” (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2016), available at https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/other/expenditures-corrections-education/brief.pdf.
- Kathleen Bender, “Education Opportunities in Prison Are Key to Reducing Crime,” Center for American Progress, March 2, 2018, available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/news/2018/03/02/447321/education-opportunities-prison-key-reducing-crime/?_ga=2.73694226.183401693.1624824015-902543274.1620789808.
- Jessica Yin, Lisette Partelow, and Khalilah M. Harris,
“Ending K-12 Education Funding Inequality: Public Education Opportunities Grants” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2021), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/news/2021/03/04/496693/ending-k-12-education-funding-inequity-public-education-opportunity-grants/.
- Abby Quirk, “Mental Health Support for Students of Color During and After the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Center for American Progress, July 28, 2020, available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/news/2020/07/28/488044/mental-health-support-students-color-coronavirus-pandemic/.
- U.S. Department of Education, “IDEA American Rescue Plan Funds,” available at https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/leg/arp/index.html (last accessed February 2022).
- Bender, “Education Opportunities in Prison Are Key to Reducing Crime.”
- Bradley Custer, “3 Ways the Biden Administration Can Give Second Changes to Justice-Impacted College Students,” Center for American Progress, April 19, 2021, available at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-postsecondary/news/2021/04/19/497880/3-ways-biden-administration-can-give-second-chances-justice-impacted-college-students/.
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Senior Policy Analyst
Director, Disability Justice Initiative