Unpacking Systematic Barriers for Black Boys with a Learning Disability in Special Education

Special Education classrooms are a melting pot of students who are creative, innovative, and waiting for an opportunity to shine. These are the generalized qualities the students come with as their hard-wired gifts. Students all still need to learn how to read through direct, explicit and systematic instruction, and that will only happen through effective literacy instruction that is culturally responsive and teacher training. Literacy should be the great equalizer for students to become academically independent. Not every student will get exposed to quality literacy instruction which pushes them to reach their full potential or positions them to achieve their freedom. However, it should be at the top of the list for educators, policymakers and administrators to train teachers to excel in literacy instruction. Although the demographics of classrooms are changing to reflect increasingly diverse students, what remains unknown in Special Education is why there is a persistent underrepresentation of Black boys as having a learning disability (i.e. dyslexia), which leaves these students not being screened, identified, or tested? If they are not identified, they may never receive the needed and appropriate academic support services throughout their early schooling (i.e., Pre-kindergarten - middle school). 
Within this context, national reports continue to highlight Black boys in fourth grade being behind in reading and functioning only at the basic level. Literacy instruction that is based on the Science of Reading is extremely critical as it provides the necessary skills instrumental for students to learn to read properly, allowing them to become contributors in their communities and throughout life. Unfortunately, many students who are “warehoused” in Special Education, particularly Black boys, may never “escape” or receive access to high-quality literacy instruction during their academic journey, which places them in dead-end situations or on the pipeline to prison track. Black boys are over-identified at a higher rate than their White peers with emotional behavioral disabilities in their Individualized Education Programs (IEP), which groups them as being “defiant” or “angry” in a system which discounts their cultural capital. It is my hypothesis that this misidentification leads to inadequate identification of reading challenges and, therefore, prevents these students from receiving the necessary quality of reading instruction. 
What is needed in our discussion of Black boys within the dyslexia community is research examining if the IEPs of fourth grade Black and White boys in Special Education differ, especially when it comes to their (a) primary identification label, (b) reading goals and the instructional procedures designated to meet these goals, as well as (c) the implementation of the designated instruction to meet the reading goals. 
We need to examine whether the written IEPs are specific, measurable, attainable, result-bound, time-bound, and, most importantly, whether race plays a systematic role in students’ identification and instructional programming. In addition, Black boys with dyslexia are seldom given attention in research. Until we address the real systemic issues and raise awareness of such an understudied, and frankly neglected, topic and population, the lives of Black boys in Special Education will continue to be misidentified, undiagnosed, and underserved. Time for change is now! 

Shawn Anthony Robinson, PhD


  1. Dr. Robinson, thank you for this tight blog on dyslexia issues relating to Black children and youth. I really appreciate the multi-layered considerations of assessment, primary identification, IEP, and implied experimental designs for resolving impediments to goal attainment.

  2. Thank you Shawn. Too often, no, that’s incorrect, every single black boy I’ve assessed fit this situation you’ve explained. Throwing a book across the room should be understood as, “l can’t read the words!” not, call the police and slap an EBD label on. Thank you for your work.

    1. You are exactly right! I just forwarded your comment to another school psychologist.

  3. Thank you for your commitment to this work. You are such a fierce advocate for students with disabilities, particularly Black boys and girls.

  4. “Special Education classrooms are a melting pot of students who are creative, innovative, and waiting for an opportunity to shine.”

    Dr. Robinson, your story perhaps depicts the opportunity to shine better anyone I know.

  5. Challenge the IEP's, question your concerns as a parent especially if you do not understand it. Ask for evidence that supports the IEP results, and ask, "is this evidenced based"? "or your personal opinion"? Could faculty be confused between cultural norms vs personal biases vs identifying between behavioral vs a true learning disability that portrays itself as the "Actor" to suffocate the true disability? These students may act it out to detour faculty in thinking they are "Behavioral in nature" vs true learning? Are teachers unprepared for identifying these hidden scripts that many students present to avoid being labeled as "stupid"? Time to Change... Michelle.. Mom to Dr. Shawn Robinson..


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