Special Education was mandated for students with disabilities more
than 30 years ago with the passage of P.L. 94-142 in 1975. This
monumental legislation specified categories of disabilities based on
physical challenges (e.g., deaf, blindness, etc.) as well as
psychological and emotional disorders (e.g., learning disabilities and
serious emotional disturbance). The premise was that categorical
identification would allow for the development of individualized
education programs to address students' disabilities; hence,
students were labeled accordingly. Categorization in special education
became, for all practical purposes, a labeling process.
Over the years, the benefits of categorically identifying and
labeling students with disabilities have been debated on many grounds,
particularly when it comes to labeling African-American children who
many argue are over-labeled or disproportionately represented in
selected categories such as learning disabilities (Artiles & Trent,
1994). In this article, we address the following question: Is labeling
African-American students for special education purposes in the best
interest of these students? We argue that labeling African-American
students in special education is not advantageous and can even be
We contend that whatever good intentions, once students are
labeled, especially African-American students, the extra
"baggage" that comes with that label may be a burden too heavy
to carry. The very term "disability" suggests a deficit mode
of thinking about the labeled students. Since the prefix "dis"
is derived from Latin meaning "not" or "without,"
the term disability can be literally defined as "not having
ability." To illustrate the sociolinguistic implications of this
term, when combined with the word "learning" (i.e., learning
disability), the term suggests not having the ability to learn. An
educational system that operates on the premise that some students do
not have the ability to perform at a prescribed level can promote not
only deficit thinking but also discrimination--a treatment endured too
frequently by African Americans.
For this group of Americans--sometimes referred to as Blacks, once
upon a time as Negroes, alternatively Coloreds, and often by the
disparaging "N" word with connotations of "lazy,"
"shiftless," and "inferior"--labeling has been
historically a very serious matter, often bringing with it a plethora of
differential and detrimental treatment. Given this history, we assert
that adding another negative label--one that linguistically and socially
suggests a deficit--to these students does more harm than good. To
support this stance, we examine (a) the concept of labeling, (b) the
process of categorically labeling students for special education
services, and (c) what happens once these students are labeled.
In short, this article focuses on the negative impact of labeling
for African-American students in special education. Although there are
13 specific categories of disability defined by law, this article
focuses on the controversial categories of Learning Disabilities,
Serious Emotional Disturbance (includes emotional and behavioral
disorders), Intellectual Disabilities (formerly Mental Retardation), and
the associated subcategories.
The Concept of Labeling
Labeling is the assignment of a descriptor to an individual based
on selected behavioral and/or physical characteristics. In society, an
assigned label essentially places the individual into a specified group
possessing similar characteristics. By design, a label can serve the
discriminatory purpose of distinguishing the individual (and others
similarly labeled) from the rest of society and provide information
about the individual regardless of its accuracy.
Howard Becker's (1963) classic labeling theory asserts that
labels influence the perceptions of both the individual and other
members of society. Once the majority members of a society (e.g.,
European Americans/Whites in the United States) have decided that
certain behaviors are outside of the societal norms or unlawful, any
individuals exhibiting such behaviors are considered deviants (or
criminals). Becker maintains there is power in words, arguing that the
mere labeling of someone as a "deviant" ultimately reinforces
that behavior in the person labeled. As society responds to the
individual as a deviant, the individual's self-image begins to
reflect the imposed label. According to Becker's theory, therefore,
labeling creates a self-fulfilling prophecy; that is, the individual
labeled a criminal becomes a criminal.
Becker's (1963) theory suggests the complex dynamics of
labeling individuals in society. The process of labeling affects both
the persons doing the labeling (the labeler) and the persons labeled
(the labeled). The labelers, members of the majority (e.g., European
Americans), are subject to biases (preferences), prejudices
(prejudgments; decisions based on limited or inaccurate information),
and stereotypes (over-generalizations). In determining what constitutes
deviance, the labelers' biases may emerge. First, the norm will
likely be defined by the labelers' preferences, such that anything
that contradicts those preferences will be considered deviant. Second,
the assignment of deviant labels may be governed by the labelers'
prejudices and stereotypes, such that individuals labeled deviants will
be different from the labelers in selected characteristics. Third,
biases, prejudices, and stereotypes may affect how the labeler responds
to the person labeled.
This notion of deviance from the norm predisposes teachers and the
public to regard some students as "acceptable" and others
"unacceptable"; for example, languages and dialects differing
from standard American English are viewed as substandard, and
specialized instructional techniques are deemed necessary for students
not performing at a requisite level--students who more often than not
happen to be African Americans and other racial ethnic minorities or
poor (Reid & Knight, 2006).
For African-American students saddled with an additional label, the
dynamics can be detrimental. These individuals may be influenced by the
power of the label and the reaction of the labeler towards them. The
consequence could be the internalization of many of the biases,
stereotypes, and prejudices held against them. Ultimately, these
students may accept the disparaging label(s) as truth. Understanding the
phenomena associated with labeling can help clarify the negative and
potentially harmful influence the labeling process may have on
African-American students classified as "special ed." We will
discuss the influence of labeling on African-American students in
greater detail later in this article.
The Special Education Labeling Process
In the U.S., the federal and state governments have chosen to use a
categorical approach to identifying and placing students in need of
special education services into disability groups (U. S. Department of
Education, 1999). The current educational law that governs this process
and supports the rights of students with identified disabilities is
called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act
(IDEIA) (2004). In using this categorical approach, school systems
assign children a label designating them for a specific disability
Currently, federal and local funding for special education is based
on the identified disability categories, so it behooves school systems
to classify students accordingly. Hallahan and Kauffman (1982) and
Kaufman (1993) present several advantages of special education labeling:
* Labeling students allows for easy communication among
professionals about the general learning characteristics of specified
* Labeling allows for more research targeting the best practices in
working with a specific group of students who exhibit similar learning
* Such research informs special educators in designing
evidence-based interventions for effectively working with children with
* Labeling has led to the development of instructional strategies
specific to certain disabilities that have been effective when working
The claimed advantages to labeling do little to convince many
investigators of the merits of labeling. In fact, many investigators
consistently affirm that special education labeling brings more
negatives than positives for African Americans (Baker, 2002; Blanchett,
2009; Perlin, 2009). For example, Blanchett (2009) summarized major
concerns of labeling as it relates to the disproportionate
representation of African-American students in special education as
* The problem of disproportionate representation of African
Americans continues to plague the field.
* There is a tendency to place African-American students with
disabilities in restrictive settings instead of in the general education
* Both general and special education classrooms fail to employ
culturally responsive instructional strategies that may facilitate the
achievement of African-American students.
For investigators such as Blanchett, the problems with special
education labeling make the process untenable as a viable means of
servicing African-American students. Concerns notwithstanding, special
education is an integral part of the American educational system, and
the procedures for implementation of programs and the requisite labeling
of students are prescribed by law.
Exploring the Process of Labeling
The special education law dictates the necessary steps that must be
followed in order to classify students as special education recipients.
The disability categories of intellectual disabilities (formerly mental
retardation), learning disabilities, and emotional disturbance present
the greatest challenge for classification because of the subjectivity
involved based on the definitions. According to IDEIA, intellectual
disabilities entail below-average intellectual functioning along with
deficiencies in adaptive behavior (i.e., deficient skills in daily
living, communication, and social interaction); learning disabilities
refer to disorders in one or more basic psychological processes
associated with understanding or using written or spoken language, which
may affect the ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or
do mathematics; emotional disturbance include emotional and behavioral
disorders existing over an extended period of time to a marked degree
that significantly affect educational performance. All three categories
involve attempting to assess and evaluate psychological or emotional
factors to ultimately arrive at an accurate label for a student.
Given the relatively subjective--albeit professional--decisions
made in the process, it is safe to say that special education assessment
is anything but an exact science, prone to misjudgments (Karcher &
Sass, 2010). Interestingly, the three categories mentioned earlier are
the ones in which there are a high proportion of African Americans. The
process of determining a student's eligibility to be placed into
one of these categories may be divided into four major steps: (1)
referral, (2) assessment, (3) eligibility determination, and (4)
placement. These steps are presented to illustrate how biases may
influence the process of labeling.
The first step, referral, requires the teacher or other school
personnel to identify any student with characteristics that suggest a
disability. It should be noted that when a teacher suspects a student
has a disability, remediation should be implemented with the student in
order to determine the student's response to the intervention
(Smith & Tyler, 2010). While guidelines are stipulated for the
identification of relevant characteristics, the teacher has to make a
determination based on his or her observation. It is possible that
biases may affect the teacher's referral. This may be due to a
teacher's unfamiliarity with or disapproval of a cultural behavior
exhibited by a student. As Becker (1963) suggests, the labeler (in this
case the referring teacher) is subject to biases, prejudices and
stereotypes reflective of the majority (i.e., European Americans). In
making a referral, a teacher who is a member of the majority group in
society may be influenced by what is considered "normal" based
on standards set by European Americans. When this occurs, the
African-American student who might learn differently because of his or
her cultural influences is at-risk of misidentification, misassessment,
misclassification, misplacement, and misinstruction (Obiakor, 1998).
The second step, assessment, requires an evaluation of the student
using appropriate instruments and procedures. According to IDEIA, every
effort must be made to select unbiased tests when assessing student
performance. Test bias refers to systematic measurement error or
estimation related to the use of tests (Reynolds, 1995). A biased test
can yield scores that mean one thing to one person and something
different to another. Cultural bias in many of the assessment
instruments used has been reported in many studies (Waitoller, Artiles,
& Cheney, 2008). The most notorious instrument, The Wechsler
Intelligence Scale for Children III, which is widely used to assess
intelligence, has been shown to disproportionately classify more
African-American students than European-American students as
intellectually disabled. Aside from the potential biases in test
instruments, the test administrator may also present a bias in
administration or interpretation of the tests (Karcher & Sass,
The third step, eligibility determination, is the point at which a
determination of a disability and the designation of a label are made
based on the evidence presented and the input from all members of the
assessment team. Whether or not the student has a disability is
dependent on how the assessment team views the evidence. The assessment
team--generally consisting of pertinent teachers, administrators,
specialists (e.g., counselor, school psychologist, occupational
therapist), parents, and where appropriate the student--will bring
multiple perspectives to bear on the decision-making process. The biases
of team members may influence the final label the student receives.
The fourth step, placement, entails placing the student in the
least restrictive environment to best meet his or her needs. The goal of
an assessment team is to include students in the general education
classroom to the extent possible. Like previous stages, placement comes
with its potential for bias. For example, unless the assessment team is
knowledgeable about possible cultural differences of African-American
students that may influence their behavior, the team may place a student
perceived to have a behavioral disorder in a restrictive classroom
environment. This error could result in adversely affecting the learning
outcomes for this student (Herrera, 1998). In the end, the potential for
inaccuracy in labeling exists throughout the process. When cultural
differences such as those prevalent among many African-American children
are evident, the risk of inaccuracy in labeling increases.
Perlin (2009) cautions that it is difficult to discuss disability
labels without including race, gender, and social status because those
factors often interact in the determination of whether to label or not,
and what type of label to give to the child. Race and gender, in
particular, appear to be high determinants of special education
labeling. For example, in 2002-2003, African-American students were
three times more likely to be labeled mentally retarded (intellectually
disabled) and 2.3 times more likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed
than all other racial ethnic groups combined (U.S. Commission on Civil
Rights, 2009). In 2000, statistics indicated that although
African-American males represented only 9% of the total student
enrollment in the United States, they constituted 20% of the students
labeled mentally retarded; similarly, in the category of emotional
disturbance, they accounted for 21% of that group (U.S. Department of
Labeling African-American Children
For African-American children, labeling can begin the day the child
enters the classroom. In addition to possible challenges to their racial
identity, many African-American children are confronted with having to
make the transition from a home culture that is often at odds with the
mainstream school culture (Ladson-Billings, 1994). Familiar home
practices are often absent from the school environment, creating a sense
of disconnectedness for many of these students. Teachers unfamiliar with
cultural differences may sometimes fail to assist in the required
transition from home to school (Gay, 2003). Rather than employing a
culturally responsive pedagogy that would utilize the cultural
competencies the students bring to school (Richards, Brown & Forde,
2007), teachers tend to rely on a traditional mainstream approach to
instruction, and expect African-American students to conform. When these
African-American students do not conform to the norm (Baker, 2002), they
are at risk of becoming what Becker (1963) would refer to in a normative
society as "deviants." To place this in the context of our
educational system, these students are at risk for a disability label.
We restate, labeling is not the answer.
Teachers viewing cultural differences as counterproductive to
school achievement may strive to quickly replace the home-grown
practices with school-appropriate behavior. For example, many
African-American boys come from a very active home environment, where
they are very much involved with older siblings and relatives talking
and playing (Smitherman, 2000). Much of their activity incorporates
cooperative experiences of sharing and helping each other (Shade, 1989).
These boys may not be accustomed to sitting in a seat and not talking to
anyone while the teacher writes on the board. Because they enter school
unprepared for the restrictions of the classroom, their behavior may be
viewed as outside the norm, and often misinterpreted as a behavior
disorder (Porter, 1997). Labeling these students will not eradicate the
cultural influences on their behavior, nor facilitate adaptation to an
unfamiliar school environment.
Much of the classroom disparity between African-American children
and school is reflected in communication. The language of the school
contrasts sharply with the language many African-American children use
at home. A large number of African Americans come to school speaking an
African-American vernacular or what some researchers refer to as Black
English (Dillard, 1972). Beyond communication, the language serves to
solidify the African-American community, even as it celebrates an
important part of the African-American heritage (Smitherman, 2000). For
teachers in the classroom, the cultural importance of the language is
often ignored in their efforts to teach the children to speak the
"right" way. Those African-American students not learning how
to code switch readily to standard English risk being labeled slow
learners or language deficient.
While Black English itself may predispose African-American children
to unfair labels, their style of communication may also send up red
flags to teachers. African Americans come from a long oral tradition,
where telling stories with embellishments is common (Smitherman, 2000).
Children growing up in this environment learn how to reflect on that
rich oral tradition by injecting as many supportive or side stories as
possible in order to present the most entertaining tale. This practice
usually means straying from the main point while additional--outsiders
might say superfluous--information is presented. Researchers (Michaels
& Cazden, 1986) have discovered that the main thread of the story
remains intact, and that careful analysis of the presentation will
reveal a logical flow. Michaels and Cazden have referred to this type of
storytelling as "topic-associative" speech in contrast to
"topic-centered" speech which is the predominant mode of
speech in mainstream classrooms. Because teachers may view topic
associative speech as a deficit rather than a difference in
communication, children using this speaking style run the risk of being
characterized as incoherent or lacking adequate oral skills. A language
learning disability label could erroneously follow.
The type of conversation children engage in at home influences
their language behavior at school. Heath (1983) in her classic study of
three communities in the Carolinas discovered that the Black community,
Trackton, posed particular types of questions to their children. Why-
questions predominated family discussions. When the Trackton children
entered school and teachers asked them What-questions, unaccustomed to
such simple factual queries, the children appeared confused about what
kind of response was really expected. These disconnections between the
linguistic practices at home and school made the children appear
unprepared for school, if not language deficient.
Combating the linguistic biases of school presents a challenge for
African-American children, especially since so much of the evaluation in
the primary grades revolves around language. Once teachers perceive an
early deficiency, as well intentioned as their judgment might be, the
potential detriment of a label exists. If the child is labeled, in
addition to the associated stigma, the child may be subjected to
unnecessary language remediation based on a deficit model of
intervention (i.e., the child is lacking language competency). If
anything, the child may simply need to be taught how to code switch from
his or her home language to the language of the standard American
English classroom. A label is not necessary to accomplish this.
Therefore, labeling is not the answer.
Cultural Differences and Assessment
As noted earlier in this article, cultural differences play a
significant role in students' adjustment to and achievement in the
classroom, particularly in the interaction of student and teacher.
Cultural differences may also impact the classification of
African-American students for special services, particularly affecting
the labels of Emotional Disturbance, Intellectual Disability, and
Classification for services is determined by assessing students in
one or more of four general areas: (1) Cognitive Ability, (2)
Achievement, (3) Communication, and (4) Behavior (IDEIA, 2004). The
assessment of Cognitive Ability is an attempt to measure a
student's intellectual functioning. The area of Achievement is
assessed by examining a student's acquired academic skills in
subjects such as mathematics and reading. In assessing Communication,
both verbal and nonverbal language (e.g., gestures) is evaluated. The
assessment of behavior involves investigating a student's actions
and interactions in social and instructional settings.
Attempting to assess or evaluate these areas may be highly
influenced by culture. For African-American children who display many of
the cultural characteristics mentioned earlier (i.e., dialect usage and
topic-associative speech), potential conflicts may arise with the
norm-based, culturally-laden tests used in assessment (Helms, 1997).
Table 1 below illustrates some potential conflicts.
Effects of Labeling
The greatest danger of special education labeling, however, is what
happens as a result of this process. To an African-American child, any
label in the school environment may be one too many labels to carry. Jan
Hunt of the Natural Child Project (2010) suggests that "labeling a
child is disabling" (p. 3) because children believe what adults
tell them. Therefore, if children are told they are disabled (or lack
certain abilities), then they tend to live up to that description.
Learned helplessness (Powell, 1990), the belief that one cannot complete
tasks (e.g., school work) without the assistance of someone else, is a
common phenomenon among students who have been labeled with a
disability. Consistent with Becker's (1963) labeling theory
described earlier in this paper, the student's self image begins to
reflect the imposed label. While this may apply to any child, the
compounding impact on an African-American child could be severe, given
the history of other denigrating labels people of African descent have
had to suffer in the United States. Once labeled with a disability, the
academic outcomes for African-American students are not promising. In
fact, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (2009) reported that the high
school graduation rates for African-American students with disabilities
was 36.2, the lowest for any racial ethnic group.
Labeling may limit the expectations for students classified with a
disability. Henley, Ramsey, and Algozzine (2009) note that teacher
expectation is a major predictor of student success; therefore, when a
teacher receives a student who has a disability label, the awareness of
that label may negatively shape that teacher's interactions with
and expectations of that student. Moreover, disability labels often
frustrate teachers into believing that the labeled student has a problem
they cannot fix. As teachers give up on African-American students with
disability labels, the students give up on themselves and no longer
believe they can be successful, or no longer want to be successful.
African Americans tend to be wary about any personal label, and
that of "disability" is no exception. Unlike many middle-class
European-American parents who might be eager for their children to
receive the services offered by being admitted into a special education
program, many African-American families view this specialized
educational service as an opportunity to be further disenfranchised from
the school community due to the negative stigma a special education
label brings (Patton, 1998). Much like the infamous "A" in
Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1850) the Scarlet Letter, the brand of
"Special Education" can ostracize children in a most
pernicious way, leaving them feeling like outcasts. Reminiscent of
Becker's (1963) theory indicating selected differences between the
labelers and the labeled, too many of these outcast students with
disabilities are African Americans possessing cultural--and to some
extent physical--characteristics that differ from those of the
European-American majority. In view of the racial history in America
(Lin, 2007), some researchers have suggested that special education
labeling, specifically for African-American students, is a new form of
segregation and racism (Losen & Orfeld, 2002); therefore, labeling
is not the answer.
In this society, the negative stigma associated with a disability
label, particularly for African Americans, is a fateful step that can
follow them for a lifetime. From their school-age years into adulthood
and independent living, African-American students may be impacted by the
lasting effects of the special education label. Specifically,
employability may be affected as indicated by Blanchett (2006) who noted
that African Americans leaving special education have a more difficult
time finding jobs and getting into college than their European-American
Differential Effects for European-American Students
Although there are problems in special education labeling for both
African-American children and European-American children, many parents
of European-American children accept the labels their children are
assigned more readily than African-American parents. This may be because
the labels generally assigned to European-American children tend to be
more "benign" (or carry fewer socially restrictive stigmas)
than those given to African-American children (Reid & Knight, 2006).
Often children who have demonstrated skill-specific struggles with
academic work are labeled as having a learning disability (includes the
designation of dyslexia), and children who might exhibit more social or
behavioral concerns are often designated as emotionally disturbed.
European Americans are more likely to be designated learning
disabled--particularly dyslexic--and African Americans, emotionally
Blanchett (2006) argues that special education for White children
constitutes a subsystem in American education (along with other
subsystems). Despite their varying abilities, these children are more
likely to be included in general education classes, and to receive all
the recommended supports in these classes, than are their
African-American counterparts. A significant number of these
European-American students receive regular high school diplomas and
continue onto college. Their success in college is facilitated by the
required supportive services, including accommodations such as extra
time on tests that are the "benefits" of their disabilities.
In contrast, African-American students have not been as fortunate
as European-American students in reaping the benefits of labeling. When
African Americans are labeled, Harry and Anderson (1994) reported that
these students tend to be placed in more segregated settings and receive
less instructional time than their European-American counterparts. These
students also suffer a higher school dropout rate than any other racial
ethnic group (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2009). Hence, there is no
question about it--for African-American students, labeling is not the
Why is labeling not advantageous for African-American students in
special education? Baker (2002) revealed that special education labeling
sets up a paradigm of what is normal and what is not. The "eugenics
of normalcy" (Baker, 2002, p. 692) dictates that those students
labeled need to be normalized or perfected. The assumption is that these
children possess an inherent deficiency. The educational system
prescribes special education labeling to correct the presumed deficiency
and make these students "normal." Again, our position, most
emphatically, is that labeling is not the answer. For centuries, people
of African descent have been labeled, mislabeled, and re-labeled, often
by others and sometimes by themselves. In addition to the identity
turmoil that the changing labels have produced, such labels have brought
with them nefarious discrimination with charges of inferiority. Adding
another label to an African-American student, such as
"intellectually disabled," "learning disabled," or
"emotionally disturbed"--albeit for purportedly instructional
purposes--opens the door to a host of additional challenges.
Unlike African Americans, European Americans do not bear this
historical burden of labeling. Therefore, labeling European-American
children with special education descriptors, while not always the most
beneficial, does not necessarily re-enforce annals of bigotry.
African-American children, on the other hand, do not need another label
that carries the risk of further stigmatization for inadequate ability.
Fairness and equality demand that the educational system provide
African-American students, along with every other student, all the
academic support they need, but labeling is not the answer.
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Moniqueka E. Gold is a professor and chair of the Department of
Educational Specialties in the College of Education at Austin Peay State
University, Clarksville, Tennessee. Heraldo Richards is associate dean
of the College of Education at Tennessee State University, Nashville,
Potential Assessment Conflicts for African American Students
Area of Assessment Potential Conflict Potential
for African American Classification
Students (AAS) Labels
Cognitive Ability AAS may not ID, LD
ability because of
cultural biases in
(e.g., WISC III)
Achievement AAS may not ID, ED, LD
Communication AAS may not ID, LD
(Verbal and demonstrate true
be biased against
or responses to
Behavior AAS may not ED, ID, LD
because of cultural
differences in social
Note: ID = Intellectual Disability, ED = Emotional Disturbance,
L = Learning Disability