Racial Disparities Persist in Special Education

May 18, 2017

Earlier this year, WUWM highlighted racial disparities in our Project Milwaukee series: Segregation Matters. The series looked at the history of segregation in the city and how it impacts things like housing, health care, and education.

Those last two issues are at the heart of Elizabeth Drame’s work. Drame is the chair of the Exceptional Education Department at UWM. She prepares special education teachers for the work, coordinates the Autism Spectrum Disorders certificate program at the school of education, and plans the annual Urban Autism Summit.

She says black families face unique challenges in accessing and navigating the special education system. "Black communities in the United States are really faced by systemic disparities that I think are grounded in institutional racism.  And so those disparities I think compound to the point where we have a disparity in the diagnosis and the over-representation of black people in special education," says Drame. 

"Those disparities I think compound to the point where we have a disparity in the diagnosis and the over-representation of black people in special education."

Systemic disparities in health care, school conditions, and housing conditions all contribute to the accessibility of basic resources for children with special needs. Drame says these issues can also lead to over-diagnosis for children who may not be dealing with a disability, but are instead coping with difficult circumstances at home. A false diagnosis can lead to children being put into separate classes, away from their peers.

"They end up getting over-identified when they really don't necessarily have a disability. And again, that system of separation and segregation happens through the special education process, often times," she explains.

Drame's work has brought her to Senegal, Ghana, and Kenya - where she helped schools develop inclusive education models for special needs students. Like the United States, schools in some of these countries will separate special needs students from the general population, often educating them in a separate facility. 

"If you don't really understand the nature of the disability... it's very easy to take some of the behaviors personally and take it as defiance and opposition."

While the setting was different, Drame says the thrust of her work remained the same: encouraging more empathy and understanding for students with special needs. "Those kinds of things, I think every family struggles with no matter what culture or context you're in," she says.

"If you don't really understand the nature of the disability and you don't have the strategies as a family and you're not equipped - or even as a teacher, and you're not equipped - it's very easy to take some of the behaviors personally and take it as defiance and opposition, and really not be able to work with or work through some of the behaviors," says Drame.