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In Dec. 2016, the United States Department of Education (USDOE) finalized guidance and regulations to address racial and ethnic disparities in special education eligibility, placement, and school discipline and the commonly accepted fact that “…children of color with disabilities are overrepresented within the special education population” (King, 2016).

LDA advocates for policies and practices that will ensure each child is considered an individual with a unique set of circumstances and believes that racial, ethnic, language and economic factors should not create barriers to receiving the services and supports provided by the IDEA.

An LDA work group is in the final stages of publishing a new core principle document related to the disproportionate identification of students of color as having learning and other disabilities. As part of our continued conversation related to making equity accessible, this issue of LDA Today includes highlights from this work and related research.  

Disproportionate Identification of Students of Color in Special Education

Debate over disproportionality has long focused on the over-representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education. The LDA work group shares that “disproportionate identification is complex, context dependent and the result of a number of factors”.

For example, studies often present data at the district level rather than the student level and may vary in how they adjust, or do not adjust, for family income or other student characteristics. The Brookings Report, “Race, poverty, and interpreting overrepresentation in special education” (Gordon, 2017), highlights that while district level data can help us understand how student experience is different by race, it does not really help us understand whether or not Black students have access to special education in a comparable fashion to white students.

This is starting to change. Research studies which control for student-level characteristics such as achievement, socioeconomic status and disability category are now being reviewed and published. “The conventional wisdom that blacks are over identified for special education may finally be losing ground among academics, but continues to influence public opinion and be reflected in federal law and policy” (Gordon, 2017). LDA is one group working to help our federal and state laws and policies change so special education can better serve all students. 

In many situations, students of color are less likely than their white peers to be identified and to receive special education services, despite demonstrating similar levels of academic performance and behavior, even when attending the same schools.


Disproportionality is the term often used to describe situations when a group’s representation in a particular disability category exceeds expectations. LDA’s work group explains that LDA’s position is that disproportionality in identification involves both under and over-identification of students of color. A number of researchers (Figlio, et. al., 2019; Fish, 2019; Shifrer, 2018; Shifrer, et. al., 2011) find that in many situations, students of color are less likely than their white peers to be appropriately identified and to receive high quality special education services, despite demonstrating similar levels of academic performance and behavior, even when attending the same schools. Black students may be placed in special education at a higher rate than their peers but there is evidence that they are more likely to be identified as intellectually disabled or behaviorally disordered rather than having a learning disability such as dyslexia or other conditions such as speech or language impairment or ADHD. 

One story: One grandmother’s story of her grandchildren’s identification journey


“The disproportionality literature consistently notes that children’s outcomes are causally affected by out-of-school factors such as poor nutrition, stress, and exposure to environmental toxins, and that exposure to these influences unduly affects poor children and children of color” (Gordon, 2017).  Prenatal and childhood healthcare, good nutrition, high-quality preschool education, and early intervention help improve outcomes for children (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, 2016). Unfortunately, as the LDA work group points out, access to the very things that have been proven to contribute to healthy brain development continues to be inequitable. As noted in the report from The Brookings Institution

  • Black children were three times as likely to live in poor families as white children in 2015. 12 percent of white and Asian children lived in poor families, compared with 36 percent of black children, 30 percent of Hispanic children, 33 percent of American Indian children, and 19 percent of others.
  • Food insecurity affects 23 percent of black-headed households and 19 percent of Hispanic-headed households, compared with 9 percent of households headed by whites.
  • Black children are over twice as likely to have elevated blood lead levels as whites, and low-income children over three times as likely as others.
  • The poor are more likely to live near hazardous waste sites.

Related: “America’s Toxic Schools”, an interview with University of Utah professor Sara Grineski

LDA’s Healthy Children Project is one way LDA works to address these inequities in our communities and schools. We believe that the number of individuals affected by learning disabilities can be reduced with effective, comprehensive prevention plans and we work to advocate for equitable access to high-quality healthcare, nutrition, and education for all children. 


Cooc (2017) found that, when teachers compared white students and students of color with similar academic and behavioral profiles, teachers were less likely to consider the difficulties experienced by students of color as potentially the result of a disability. Teachers are often the referral source when children are evaluated for eligibility for special education services. The LDA work group emphasizes the importance of a diverse and well trained teaching staff in order to best serve the needs of all learners.  Unfortunately, as Kristina Scott, Ed. D. will explore further in the Education segment of this issue of LDA Today, our nation’s teaching workforce does not match the changing demographics in the United States. 

Students of color (defined as students who are not Caucasian) make up over 52% of the public-school aged population, while only 20% of our current teaching workforce identify as teachers of color (McFarland et al. 2008). Research has shown that this is a concern and can play out in fairness in disciplinary actions, expectations of students, academic achievement levels, and drop out rates. 

Dr. Scott’s article, “The Importance of Teacher Diversity”, will appear in the next segment of this issue of LDA Today. 

What questions do you have about making equity accessible for individuals with learning disabilities? Do you have a resource to share related to research, education, advocacy or public policy related to equity and accessibility for individuals with learning disabilities? We’d love to hear from you:

This issue of LDA Today continued our conversations around building connections. The next segment of this issue will focus on making equity accessible and social justice in education. 

We hope you are able to REAPP many benefits from this information and please know that we are glad you are here. Thank you for building connections with us!

Amy Barto, M.Ed., LDA Today Editor