Racism found in labeling of mentally disabled

Jason Cantone
The Daily Illini

Across the nation, African-American students are almost three times more likely than white students to be labeled mentally retarded, according to a new study from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

The study claims that special education classrooms have been used to segregate minority children from their peers by classifying them as mentally retarded. Teachers who experience difficulty working with minority children sometimes misuse special education programs as a tool to remove students from the classroom, according to the study.

"This is not new information," said Janet Gaffney, associate professor of special education at the University. "African-American students have been disproportionately included in special education for 30 years. Everyone should be alarmed."

The study also highlighted four states where African-American children were four times as likely to be labeled mentally retarded, in comparison to white children.

Nathaniel Banks, director of the University's African American Cultural Program, believes the problem can be traced throughout history.

"Schools are here to reinforce societal norms," Banks said. "The society has long since determined black people inferior and, therefore, the schools and educators... reinforce those racial assumptions."

Banks believes that there are a variety of effects that racism has on students, depending on their age. For pre-school and early elementary age children, it can destroy a child's natural desire to learn. For middle school and high school students, a prejudiced teacher will be looked upon with hatred and disgust, Banks said.

However, James Anderson, head of the department of educational policy studies, believes effects can be even more devastating.

"This is a large problem," Anderson said. "While some students may withdraw, others will respond to the situation with rage."

Organizations like The Arc are hard at work to fix this situation. The Arc represents more than seven million children and adults with mental retardation and their families, with 1,000 chapters worldwide. To place greater emphasis on the prejudice toward the mentally disabled, March has been designated as Mental Retardation Awareness Month.

With no national standard to determine whether a child belongs in special education, The Arc adopted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which aims to prevent racial stereotyping in schools and unnecessary placement of students in special education classrooms.

Students who are mentally retarded and their parents must be part of any decision made regarding educational placement and programming for the student, according to The Arc's position statement on education. The Arc also insists that schools should value all students and their families and include them in all aspects of school life.

An individual is considered mentally retarded if the intellectual functioning level (IQ) is below 70 to 75, significant limitations exist in two or more adaptive skill areas and the condition is present from childhood, according to the American Association of the Mentally Retarded.

Mental retardation is 10 times more common than cerebral palsy and 25 times more common than blindness, according to Mark Batshaw in his book Children With Disabilities. One out of 10 Americans will be directly affected by mental retardation.

"If we make the choice to turn a diverse environment into a positive learning environment, the situation will positively increase," Anderson said. "Things only get better when you make them better."