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For Black and Brown students with disabilities, online instruction has often been a failure. It is also suboptimal for students with disabilities across racial groups, especially as teachers without training have had to shift instruction.

Many Black and Brown families include essential workers or individuals who are more vulnerable to Covid-19.  Fewer Black and Brown communities are able to access services for students with disabilities and high-quality instruction for their children in public schools. 

Monica Gonzalez, a special education teacher at Bret Harte Middle School in Hayward, California, said the online platform Google Classroom tends to exacerbate some of the issues faced in classroom instruction.

“I still have to figure out how to effectively provide small-group instruction using virtual breakout rooms, yet coordinate and balance whole-group virtual content instruction for my students,” Gonzalez said in a recent interview.

Black and Brown students with disabilities are among the most marginalized groups in schools. Recent data show that the risk of being labeled with a disability is about 40 percent higher for  Black children. Special education was created to help students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education, but data show a different side for Black and Brown children. In addition to being more likely to be labeled, Black and Brown children are more likely to receive a watered-down, irrelevant curriculum.

They are more likely to be placed in segregated special education classrooms (despite growing trends toward including more students with disabilities in general education classrooms with appropriate supports). They also are targeted for harsher discipline policies such as suspension or expulsion for minor behavioral challenges. The impacts of racism and bias against disability are like hurricanes for Black and Brown students: devastating and destructive.

While there are systemic reasons for these inequitable outcomes, teachers play a critical role in how students are identified for special education and taught in the classroom. Yet there remains a huge shortage of special education public school teachers across most U.S. school districts. Teacher preparation programs and districts, therefore, tend not to be selective about who are placed in these positions.

The impacts of racism and bias against disability are like hurricanes for Black and Brown students: devastating and destructive.

To ameliorate shortages, districts and programs may depend on teachers who have been certified in alternative ways, via fast-tracked models, or rely on part-timers. This means that teachers step into the classroom with less preparation. Yet they could learn from the critical work of disability justice community activists and scholars, many of whom identify as disabled and are already doing this work online. They could use the Access Is Love Readings and Resource List,  coordinated by Alice Wong, Sandy Ho and Mia Mingus, to provide concrete examples of how to meaningfully deliver accessible online instruction.

Related: Special education’s hidden racial gap

Existing inequities for Black and Brown students with disabilities remain in traditional public schools, but perhaps we can use the pandemic to reimagine ways teachers, leaders and other educational professionals can help center the lives of Black and Brown students with disabilities.  For example, we could draw upon the lived experiences of disabled communities, disability justice activists and scholars. We could deeply prepare and engage students in a better understanding of the inequities in schools for Black and Brown children with disabilities.  We need to encourage more Black and Brown teachers and teachers with disabilities into the field who are representative of our changing school demographics, and who are committed to the work of racial and disability justice.

Community scholar and activist Leroy F. Moore Jr., in his book “Black Disabled Ancestors,” writes: “Black disabled people have ancestors who left knowledge, art, music, culture, politics and a lot of pain for us to pick up, build on, and to tell the harsh truth.”

Now, more than ever before, we have opportunities as teachers, school leaders and teacher preparation program educators to work toward addressing inequities for Black and Brown students with disabilities in ways we may not have seen as possible or imaginable.

Saili S. Kulkarni is an assistant professor at San José State University with a research focus on disability, race and special education teacher preparation. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.

This story about students with disabilities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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