Intersectionality and Disproportionality in Black & African-American Communities

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Intersectionality and Disproportionality in Black & African-American Communities

In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the experience of living with multiple identities (gender, race, culture, disability, sexual orientation, immigration status, etc.). Historically, disability services were designed to accommodate a singular identity: a person with a disability; all other aspects of an individual’s experience were considered secondary. But structuring services that ignore the lived experience of racism has created and exacerbated inequities within disability services. 

While intersectionality refers to the experience of living with multiple identities, disproportionality refers to the unequal representation of a group in a particular category that differs from the representation of others in that category. For example, a person of color with a developmental disability (i.e., intersectionality) may be treated differently from their peers with developmental disabilities based on their skin color (i.e., disproportionality). Furthermore, special education disproportionality has been referred to as the extent to which membership in a given group affects the probability of being placed in a specific disability category. Disciplinary disproportionality encompasses the disproportionately high rates at which students from certain racial/ethnic groups are subjected to office discipline referrals, suspensions, school arrests, and expulsion.

Statistics on Intersectionality and Disproportionality

African American students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspension in schools. Schools suspend African American children with disabilities at a disproportionally higher rate than other students, with 1-in-4 African American boys and 1-in-5 African American girls receiving suspensions. “Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us,” Walton said, therefore provoking changes with the individual in mind. In her book, Shattered Dreams, Broken Pieces.

For many of the 1,199,743 black students (K-12) with disabilities in America today, the deck is stacked against them. Frequently “invisible disabilities” such as ADHD are not diagnosed, and students do not get the supports they need to achieve. Frustrated, they can act out and become suspended–typically, black children’s diagnoses are delayed by three years compared to white children!

Studies show that when students miss too many days, either for being truant or just being absent, they get so far behind in class that it can lead to them dropping out of school. As documented in Disability & Criminal Justice Reform: Keys to Success, this can lead to the school-to-prison pipeline.

African-American and Black role models

On the other hand, there are notable members of the African-American and Black communities who serve as role models, helping to set high expectations for youth with disabilities. Harriet Tubman had epilepsy, and Tom Wiggins was a blind and autistic piano player. Halle Berry has diabetes; Daymond JohnMuhammad Ali, and Whoopi Goldberg have dyslexia. Haben Girma is Deafblind and Stevie Wonder is blind. Clarence PageSimone Biles, and Solange Knowles have ADHD. While Stephen WiltshireBreanna Clark, and Armani Williams are on the autism spectrum.

According to the CDC, approximately one in four adults living in the community have a disability. Additionally, disability impacts every demographic group, and it is crucial to address how people with multi-minority status can face double discrimination. Creating a more inclusive environment requires the efforts of not only people with disabilities but also people without disabilities – to show up unapologetically, whether that be in the Latinx community, in the Black community, in the LGBTQA+ community or in the myriad of spaces in which we intersect.




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