The pandemic has made clear that the nation must transform itself to advance racial justice and make equitable opportunities a reality. Achieving that reality must begin by improving educational outcomes for students of color with disabilities. In public schools across the nation, there are 6.5 million students with disabilities. Out of that number, fully 3.5 million are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) students with disabilities. In addition, 11.4 percent of students with disabilities nationwide (almost 720,000) also identify as English language learners.
For many of the 1,158,862 Black students (K-12) with disabilities in America today, the deck is stacked against them. A key part of that is because, due to structural racism, schools are funded by local property taxes which perpetuates a cycle of poverty. Moreover, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
(IDEA), the most central law which gives students with disabilities rights to special education, was never fully funded. President Biden has pledged to fund fully IDEA and bills to do just that are moving in the U.S. House and Senate. However, without that funding, currently nonvisible disabilities such as ADHD are not diagnosed, and even students who do have a diagnosis and Individual Education Plan (IEP) do not get the supports they need to achieve. Frustrated, they can act out and become suspended. Black students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspension in schools, with more than one in four boys of color with disabilities — and nearly one in five girls of color with disabilities — receiving an out-of-school suspension.
Statistics show that unmet disability needs are a critical factor for many justice-involved youths. Researchers have found that one-third of incarcerated youth need special education services and that in some cases, up to 70 percent of justice-involved youth disclosed a learning disability. As documented by the National Council on Disability, fully "85 percent of youth in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37 percent receive these services while in school." Youth of color, including English Language Learners (ELLs), are disproportionality trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Overall, only 67 percent of students with disabilities graduate high school compared to 85 percent of students without disabilities. However, Black students with disabilities face significantly greater challenges receiving a good education from the American educational system.
Idea #7 – Prioritize Mental Health Supports and Normalize Talking about Mental Health to help Youth with and without Disabilities: As policymaker grapple with the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical to recognize the ways in which the events of the past year have grown the disability community. The disability community was already the nation's largest minority community and the only such community that anyone, at anytime could join due to accident, illness, or aging. The long term health impacts of those infected with the coronavirus are only now being better understood and many so-called "COVID long haulers" are turning to the disability benefits to support themselves ( https://www.usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2021-04-15/covid-long-haulers-could-change-the-disability-system ).
At the same time, teens specifically have been feeling the brunt of mental health impacts from a year of a pandemic and lockdowns. As documented by a national poll conducted by C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, " Forty-six percent of parents say their teen has shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the start of the pandemic in March 2020" (https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/childrens-health/national-poll-pandemic-negatively-impacted-teens-mental-health. As the poll also noted "One in three teen girls and one in five teen boys have experienced new or worsening anxiety."
This is on top of an existing gap in adequate and appropriate mental health support for children with and without disabilities. As documented back in 2019 by the JAMA Pediatrics, 16.5 percent of children reported at least one mental health condition. That same study also found that 49.4 percent of children with mental health disorders did not receive treatment or counseling from a professional. ( https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2724377?guestAccessKey=f689aa19-31f1-481d-878a-6bf83844536a )
What does this mean for policymakers and efforts to create systemic strategies for teen workers with and without disabilities? First, it means that workforce providers who are working directly with youth or teens need to think about integrating resources on mental health into their existing skill-based curriculum. Youth.gov and CDC.gov both have robust mental health resources online and such materials can easily be added to the materials given to a program participant. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/stress-coping/young-adults.html / https://youth.gov/youth-topics/youth-mental-health.
Second, we have elsewhere mentioned the importance of role models to fight stigmas and combat low expectations. Role models, celebrities, and narrative change each have a place to play in changing the conversation as an example, RespectAbility is proud to be a founding partner in the first-ever Mental Health Action Day on Thursday, May 20, spearheaded by MTV Entertainment Group alongside nearly 200 additional brands, nonprofits, and cultural leaders. Though more people than ever are comfortable discussing mental health, suicide rates over the last two decades have still risen, particularly among young adults, and finding effective resources and knowing how to get help remains a challenge. Join us as we discuss the importance of portraying mental health accurately and authentically in TV, film, and other forms of media, especially to create awareness and serve as a first step to systemic change. Panelists include Nikki Bailey (comedian, actress, author, and producer), Ali MacLean (playwright and TV writer), and Amanda Burdine (screenwriter) with more to be added soon. ASL interpreters and live captioning will be provided.
We are planning many more important events in the months ahead to bring a focus to mental health issues and normalizing conversations to end the stigma around it.