Prejudice, discrimination, and race
When parents who are inexperienced in the realities of prejudice, discrimination, or racism attempt to advocate for the classroom inclusion of their white or mixed-race child with a disability, the learning curve can be as steep as the initial months of a son or daughter's diagnosis.
Obviously, parents who are well aware of these issues from having grown up with an ethnicity, culture or skin color that identified them as 'other than mainstream' even in school communities like ours that happen to be 'over fifty percent minority' are at no advantage in protecting their children from the challenges or the pain of individual or institutional prejudice.
Eventually, anglo parents of children with disabilities may become sensitive to the micro-aggressions, the effects of negative stereotypes, and frequency of bullying that their children encounter without intervention from responsible adults, too often from adults in charge.
Just as behavior or other symptoms of an illness or dual disability may be attributed to a student's first diagnosis, children of color are too often unsupported when changes in their behavior or other symptoms of a disability or developmental delay are attributed to traits that are assigned by uninformed, prejudiced and racist opinions that previously infected our society.
It's absolutely chilling to remember how pervasive it was for students in my children's schools in kindergarten and 1st grade - and the sudden, complete denial/evasion/backlash at the slightest mention of an issue.
First thing in the morning, so comfortable at home, we travel to school and then Boom! There it is, cold and sharp, the minute they get on a bus, or enter the school grounds. There is no way to bundle up or protect any child from the chill. I could barely protect kids standing or waiting at school bus stops from bullying. Throughout the day, oddly incongruent microaggressions would spill from the most unexpected places.
Sometimes in the hallways I'd wonder how adults could be unaware they were holding their lips that way, squinting with suspicion, or something worse, as students of color walked by. And then those ugly smiles with comments made under their breath, but loud enough so at least some of the kids could hear. Pure hatefulness. And with too mild a supportive comment, the certainty in the voices saying "You don't know *that* child!" - with an instant list of misdemeanors that were so innocent to my ears. Why not theirs?
I wished I could bring so many children home with me when I had to take my son out of school, so he could escape the negative atmosphere, and felt like I abandoned them. My son had loved school, but when I explained he would not be going back, he said, "Thank you, Mom." Children with disabilities are often bullied at school by other students who learned from adults in charge how to use words as effectively as fists. Children of color often learn about these painful realities well before kindergarten, without the added vulnerability of learning delays or developmental disabilities.
Weeks after I took my son out of school, I was told I had not 'passed' the police background check for volunteers half an hour before a field trip with his sister. This was challenged by her teacher and immediately admitted as a mistake, when the teacher took up for me and chastised the staff member who had insisted it was true.
I would love to think we've come a long way since, but I had thought before those years that we had come far enough. My children attended an elementary school with amazing teachers, staff and administrators; with wonderful classmates and involved parents. But for targeted students, it must have been a miserable experience day to day - meaning it was a bad atmosphere for every one of their classmates, too. No child can feel secure when so many are that vulnerable to racism and discrimination. To ignore civil rights and human rights matters after a baby is born undercuts any concern shown for those identified with a disability via prenatal testing.
With disturbing frequency with which our children are restrained, hurt or killed by law enforcement officers who are poorly trained, or untrained in defusing tense situations. Some of these individuals escalate aggressiveness, rather than calming young people who are acting out, displaying age-appropriate misbehavior, or displaying symptoms of a disability over which they have no control.
In schools across the USA, advocates are turning their attention to the 'school to prison' pipeline that affects so many children of color, and children with disabilities, who are poorly supported, discriminated against, and then labeled as troublemakers and failures.
Negative experiences with uniformed individuals create a closed loop of mistrust and suspicion that put all our children at risk.
Young people who attempt to explain who they are and deny any wrong-doing may sound belligerent to officers who stop them, whether due to racial profiling, plain harassment; misinterpreting unusual behavior, or the individual's perceived lack of compliance due to a hearing loss or developmental disability.
All parents hope that the local police are going to 'protect and serve' their sons and daughters, despite personal prejudices, racism, or emotional involvement that cause them to be overly aggressive in both crisis situations and everyday life. In some areas, the culture of suspicion and mistrust may create a fearful or hateful atmosphere that affects the majority of the otherwise practical and compassionate individuals on the force.
Especially with the militarization of training and equipment of local police organizations, it is difficult to respond to individuals in the wrong place at the wrong time, who are unable to get out of harm's way. Many of our sons and daughters in the anglo community look to police as heroes who will rescue them, and we teach them about 911 so they will be protected if we are not available. In recent years, training has had to consider lessons learned in communities of color; that police are trained not to trust the public, and have expectations that any non-compliance can be justifiably met with force.
The sad case of Ethan Saylor has taught us that advocates must do more and expect less even when alternate caregivers are available to advise officers interacting with teens and adults with developmental disabilities.
Few municipalities train their police to recognize and respond appropriately to those with executive functioning or cognitive processing delays; and like so many of the general public, may share strong opinions about giving some individuals 'special treatment' when they are able to recognize impairment. When skewed perceptions about people of color affect policing, it is even less likely that disability will be recognized.
Families are in a bind. Even when an individual with a disability practices how to respond in non-threatening ways, all may be forgotten if they perceive a threat, or they simply do not want to comply. This is true for their mainstream peers. Children of color make as many mistakes and poor decisions as anglo kids, and even when they are not making mistakes, the risk is greater that they will be hurt or killed because of it. It is not much to expect accountability when children of color are criminalized, hurt or killed for behaviors that are at least as common among anglo peers.
We must have higher expectations of law enforcement to modify their reactions and de-escalate even though much of their training prepares them for the opposite. Many families who defend police use of deadly force without accountability in communities of color seem to have no compassion for those who are grieving, or for children growing up in the same neighborhoods. Supporting local police does not mean ignoring or accepting the criminal or bullying behavior of a few.
Personal opinions that create a climate of intolerance for any group of children poisons the whole community. As advocates for students with disabilities, we are all in the best positions to build inclusive schools for every student. It is unlikely that we will move farther along until those of us who did not grow up with subtle adverse personal experiences do recognize and address the issues of prejudice, discrimination, and racism in our schools, community organizations, and law enforcement. Otherwise, we and our children will be left behind and unprotected through our own ignorance.
Browse at your public library, local bookstore, or online retailer for books like No Pity : People with Disabilities Forging a New Civil Rights Movement or Disability Hate Crimes.
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