Skip to main content Accessibility help

Untangling the Racialization of Disabilities: An Intersectionality Critique Across Disability Models1

  • Alfredo J. Artiles (a1)

This article advances an intersectional perspective in the analysis of racial inequities in special education so that theoretical refinement of this problem will strengthen educational equity research and theory. Racial disproportionality in some disability categories continues to affect a sizable number of students in the United States, with dire long-term consequences for the educational trajectories of these learners. After more than four decades, the problem continues to be debated in research, practice, and policy circles. There is consensus among researchers that the racialization of disability embodies complexities that defy linear explanations. But this debate has overlooked the potential of intersectionality to document complexity and to transcend the individual-structure binary that tends to permeate previous scholarship. Indeed, intersectionality's explicit attention to how the complexity of people's everyday experiences is connected to larger historical processes could offer key insights. I analyze how disproportionality research has addressed the intersections of race and disability (along with other markers of oppression) through a contrapuntal reading of works framed with medical, social, and cultural disability models. I conclude with reflections for future research on racial disparities in special education that is mindful of intersectional complexity.

Corresponding author
Professor Alfredo J. Artiles, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University, Interdisciplinary B, Room B353, 1120 S. Cady Mall, Tempe, AZ 85287-1811. Email:
Hide All

I acknowledge the support of the Equity Alliance and I am grateful to the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University for the residential fellowship that allowed me to research and articulate the theoretical foundations of this analysis. Endorsement by these organizations of the ideas expressed in this manuscript should not be inferred. Earlier versions of this article were presented as keynote lectures/plenary talks at the Emerging Scholars Conference, Chapman University (September 2011), the 2011 annual meeting of the National Association of Multicultural Education, and the Race and Disability Lecture Series at the University of Illinois-Chicago (February 2013). I am grateful to Phil Ferguson, Kris Gutierrez, Elizabeth Kozleski, Tom Skrtic, Stan Trent, and the Sociocultural Research Group for their encouragement and substantive feedback and suggestions. I also acknowledge the feedback of three anonymous reviewers; their critiques and suggestions improved the quality of this article. I remain responsible, however, for the shortcomings of this work.

Hide All
Albrecht, Susan F., Skiba, Russell J., Losen, Daniel J., Chung, Choong-Geun, and Middelberg, Laura (2012). Federal Policy on Disproportionality in Special Education: Is it Moving us Forward? Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 23(1): 1425.
Anyon, J. (2005). Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement. New York: Routledge.
Artiles, Alfredo J. (1998). The Dilemma of Difference: Enriching the Disproportionality Discourse with Theory and Context. Journal of Special Education, 32: 3236.
Artiles, Alfredo J. (2003). Special Education's Changing Identity: Paradoxes and Dilemmas in Views of Culture and Space. Harvard Educational Review, 73: 164202.
Artiles, Alfredo J. (2011). Toward an Interdisciplinary Understanding of Educational Equity and Difference: The Case of the Racialization of Ability. Educational Researcher, 40: 431445.
Artiles, Alfredo J., Kozleski, Elizabeth, Trent, Stanley, Osher, David, and Ortiz, Alba (2010). Justifying and Explaining Disproportionality, 1968–2008: A Critique of Underlying Views of Culture. Exceptional Children, 76: 279299.
Artiles, Alfredo J., Rueda, Robert, Salazar, Jesus, and Higareda, Ignacio (2005). Within-group Diversity in Minority Disproportionate Representation: English Language Learners in Urban School Districts. Exceptional Children, 71: 283300.
Artiles, Alfredo J., Trent, Stanley C., and Kuan, Li-Ann (1997). Learning Disabilities Research on Ethnic Minority Students: An Analysis of 22 Years of Studies Published in Selected Refereed Journals. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 12: 8291.
Artiles, Alfredo J., Waitoller, F., and Neal, R. (2011). Grappling with the Intersection of Language and Ability Differences: Equity Issues for Chicano/Latino Students in Special Education. In Valencia, Richard (Ed.), Chicano School Failure and Success: Past, Present, and Future (3rd ed.), pp. 213234. London: Routledge/Falmer.
Baker, Bernadette (2002). The Hunt for Disability: The New Eugenics and the Normalization of School Children. Teachers College Record, 104: 663703.
Baynton, Douglas C. (2001). Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History. In Longmore, Paul K. and Umansky, Lauri (Eds.), The New Disability History: American Perspectives, pp. 3357. New York: New York University Press.
Bell, Chris (Ed.) (2011). Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
Blanchett, Wanda (2006). Disproportionate Representation of African American Students in Special Education: Acknowledging the Role of White Privilege and Racism. Educational Researcher, 35(6): 2428.
Bolaki, Stella (2011). Challenging Invisibility, Making Connections: Illness, Survival, and Black Struggles in Audre Lorde's Work. In Bell, Chris (Ed.), Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions, pp. 4774. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
Cohen, Cathy (1999). The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Collins, Patricia H. (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
Collins, Patricia H. (2003). Some Group Matters: Intersectionality, Situated Standpoints, and Black Feminist Thought. In Lott, T. L. and Pittman, J. P. (Eds.), A Companion to African-American Philosophy, pp. 205229. Oxford, England: Blackwell.
Connor, David and Ferri, Beth (2005). Integration and Inclusion—A Troubling Nexus: Race, Disability, and Special Education. The Journal of African American History, 90(1-2): 107127.
Crenshaw, Kimberle (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 140: 139167.
Crenshaw, Kimberle (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, & Violence Against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6): 12411299.
Crossley, Mary (1999). The Disability Kaleidoscope. Notre Dame Law Review, 74(3): 621716.
Danforth, Scott, Taff, Steve, and Ferguson, Phil (2006). Place, Profession, and Program. In Brantlinger, Ellen (Ed.), Who Benefits from Special Education? Remediating (Fixing) Other People's Children, pp. 126. Mahweh, NJ: Erlbaum.
Davis, Lennard (2011). Foreword. In Bell, Chris (Ed.), Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions, pp. viii–xi. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
Dolmage, Jay (2011). Disabled Upon Arrival: The Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island. Cultural Critique, 77: 2469.
Engel, David M. and Munger, Frank W. (2003). Rights of Inclusion: Law and Identity in the Life Stories of Americans with Disabilities. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Erevelles, Nirmala and Minear, Andrea (2010). Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and Disability in Discourses of Intersectionality. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 4: 127146.
Garland-Thomson, Rosemary (1997). Feminist Theory, the Body, and the Disabled Figure. In Davis, Lennard (Ed.), The Disability Studies Reader, pp. 279292. New York: Routledge.
Goodwin, Charles. (1994). Professional Vision. American Anthropologist, 96(3): 606633.
Hammonds, Evelynn (1994). Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality. Differences, 6(2-3): 126145.
Hancock, Ange-Marie (2007). When Multiplication Doesn't Equal Quick Addition: Examining Intersectionality as a Research Paradigm. Perspectives on Politics, 5: 6379.
Harris, Cheryl (2001). Equal Treatment and the Reproduction of Inequality. Fordham Law Review, 69: 17531783.
Harry, Beth and Klingner, Jeanette (2006). Why Are So Many Minority Students in Special Education? Understanding Race and Disability in Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hibel, Jacob, Farkas, George, and Morgan, Paul (2010). Who Is Placed into Special Education? Sociology of Education, 83: 312332.
Hosp, John L. and Reschly, Daniel J. (2003). Referral Rates for Intervention or Assessment: A Meta-Analysis of Racial Differences. Journal of Special Education, 37: 6780.
Linton, Simi (1998). Claiming Disability. New York: New York University Press.
Losen, Daniel J. and Orfield, Gary (2002). Racial Inequities in Special Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
MacMillan, Donald and Reschly, Daniel J. (1998). Overrepresentation of Minority Students: The Case for Greater Specificity or Reconsideration of the Variables Examined. Journal of Special Education, 32: 1524.
McCall, Leslie (2005). The Complexity of Intersectionality. Signs, 30(3): 17711800.
McCall, Zach and Skrtic, Thomas M. (2010). Intersectional Needs Politics: A Policy Frame for the Wicked Problem of Disproportionality. Multiple Voices, 11(2): 323.
Mitchell, Ned (2011). Sexual, Ethnic, Disabled, and National Identities in the “Borderlands” of Lation/a America and African America. In Bell, Chris (Ed.), Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions, pp. 113126. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
Oliver, Michael (1996). Understanding Disability: From Theory to Practice. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Oswald, Donald P., Coutinho, Martha J., Best, A. M., and Singh, N. N. (1999). Ethnic Representation in Special Education: The Influence of School-Related Economic and Demographic Variables. Journal of Special Education, 32: 194206.
Patton, James M. (1998). The Disproportionate Representation of African Americans in Special Education: Looking Behind the Curtain for Understanding and Solutions. Journal of Special Education, 32(1): 2531.
Prewitt, Kenneth (2012). When You Have a Hammer … : The Misuse of Statistical Races. Du Bois Review, 9: 281301.
Ribet, Beth (2010). Surfacing Disability through a Critical Race Theoretical Paradigm. Georgetown Law, 2(2): 209252.
Rogoff, Barbara (2003). The Cultural Nature of Human Development. New York: Oxford University Press.
Said, Edward (1993). Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books.
Schillmeier, Michael (2010). Rethinking Disability: Bodies, Senses, and Things. New York: Routledge.
Scott, Daryl M. (2007). Contempt & Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1889–1996. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Shakespeare, Tom (2006). Disability Rights and Wrongs. New York: Routledge.
Siebers, Tobin (2008). Disability Theory. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
Skiba, Russell J., Poloni-Staudinger, L., Simmons, A. B., Feggins, L. R., and Chung, C. G. (2005). Unproven Links: Can Poverty Explain Ethnic Disproportionality in Special Education? Journal of Special Education, 39: 130144.
Skiba, Russell J., Simmons, A. B., Ritter, S., Gibb, A. C., Rausch, M. K., and Cuadrado, J. (2008). Achieving Equity in Special Education: History, Status, and Current Challenges. Exceptional Children, 74: 264288.
U.S. Department of Education (2006). 26th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2004. Washington, DC: Westat.
U.S. Department of Education (2009). Children with Disabilities Receiving Special Education under Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Office of Special Education Programs, Data Analysis Systems, OMB No. 1820–0043). Washington, DC: Author.
Valencia, Richard (2010). Dismantling Contemporary Deficit Thinking: Educational Thought and Practice. New York: Routledge.
Waitoller, Federico, Artiles, Alfredo J., and Cheney, Douglas (2010). The Miner's Canary: A Review of Overrepresentation Research and Explanations. Journal of Special Education, 44: 2949.
Watermeyer, Brian (2013). Towards a Contextual Psychology of Disablism. New York: Routledge.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race
  • ISSN: 1742-058X
  • EISSN: 1742-0598
  • URL: /core/journals/du-bois-review-social-science-research-on-race
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed