By Adar Abdi

This article is part of the Road Map Youth Storytellers Project. Learn more here.

Coming to terms with a child’s diagnosis as a parent is extremely difficult, especially if you do not have any idea how to help them. Now, let’s take a diagnosis out of the situation. Imagine as a parent, you see your child is different, but you do not know what to do. You go from physician to physician but you’re treated without respect and your concerns are invalidated. As your child grows up and attends school, you cannot properly support them because of your doctor’s “failure to diagnose.” Now I want you to think about if your child finally does get a diagnosis. How do you get the support you need from schools? As a parent who is an immigrant and/or low-income, you have no idea what an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) or 504 plan is because no one has ever told you about those resources. So many families are in this exact situation: struggling to understand how they can support their child, while also not knowing what supports are out there.

Inequities in Identification and Resources

Recent studies have shown that students of color— in schools that are majority students of color— are under-identified for learning disabilities compared to their white counterparts, even when these students display the same clinical characteristics. Although some studies have suggested that students of color are actually over-identified, pointing to a certain type of discrimination, the difference is that students are getting “over-identified” are in schools made up of majority white students. On the flip side, in schools where the population is majority low-income/students of color, their disabilities and their needs are overlooked. More than 40 percent of Black and Brown students attend racially isolated schools. These schools’ population, like many Road Map Project schools, is majority students of color. Schools that are majority students of color tend to also be low-income. Special education resources are expensive, so schools that are low-income do not have the resources for these students.

When seeing the direct correlation money has to resources, we need to look at how our schools are funded. One of the main ways Washington state public schools are funded is through property taxes. This causes a huge disparity for students residing in low-income areas. Many non-basic and basic educational expenses are expected to be supported through these funds. These expenses can include extra support for students with disabilities while also supporting the basic necessities. This means many schools will not identify those with disabilities because they will not have enough revenue from property taxes to support them. Schools in low-income neighborhoods, where property values are low, struggle to get the funding they need, while schools in more affluent areas thrive.

Communication Barriers

As we continue to discover why students of color/low-income students are struggling, we must also look at where these families are coming from. Many immigrant families, as well as low-income families, are the most at risk for their child to fall through the cracks. Immigrant families are less likely to know English, therefore, creating a huge barrier. When thinking about how immigrant families’ backgrounds potentially impact their children’s experiences with disabilities and accommodations, we need to look at different elements affecting the under-identification of these students. Many schools do not take into consideration the cultural stance of these families. Families might not report they have a concern because of the stigma attached to disabilities in their community. When families feel like they can not speak up and schools are not looking into these students, the one person who is in need the most gets punished: the child. There needs to be a better way for families to communicate with schools and vice versa. Immigrant families need support from schools so their children can succeed.

One Mother’s Experience

When creating this project, I knew I had to talk to many families and students who have disabilities. These disabilities ranged from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to autism. Many wanted to stay anonymous due to the stigma attached to their children’s disabilities. I did get permission to share one mother’s experience in particular.

NOTE: This is paraphrased and interpreted by me. I am a Somali American and the language interpreted was Somali. I was also allowed to use the interviewee’s pronouns (she/her) as well as other identifiers.
When I spoke with this amazing mother, I remember her saying she did not feel ashamed of her child or their disability, but she did not want to get backlash from a community she was so heavily connected to. This is her point-of-view:

I knew, when my son was growing up, he was different. He would rarely speak. He would also get super attached to one thing. It was like he was obsessive. When I would speak to his teachers, they assured me he was okay. As he grew up, he continued with these traits but more intensely. I remember right around the middle, I asked his teachers if they could do some sort of test. I didn’t really know what kind of test because no one told me what was out there to support him. At this time, he started to become angrier and frustrated many teachers who chalked that up to him becoming a teen. I felt like my concerns were not being heard. There were so many excuses being said to invalidate my child. I finally demanded an evaluation from the school. This test showed that my son had autism. This would explain most of his actions. From that point, I wanted to get him an IEP or 504 plan1. This was extremely difficult because even with a formal diagnosis, I didn’t know the steps to get him those supports. At last, a teacher was kind enough to lend me assistance. That is when I finally got him an IEP. Even from that point, anytime we needed updates on his IEP, it felt so hard to get it.

I asked her, “From your experience, what do you believe schools need to be doing?” This was her response:

I feel schools need to be informative when talking to families. Families like ours where English is not our first language, it is extremely hard to get access to resources we have a right to receive. Schools also need to not invalidate families’ feelings and concerns. When concerns are brought up, many families are dismissed and are looked at as less intelligent because they cannot properly verbalize what they need. Lastly, schools need to not punish families for being in need. Families shouldn’t be looked at as a burden. “Waxaan u baahday taageero cidna iima caawin.” I needed support and no one helped!

Starting with Race

When looking at these studies and hearing the stories, I noticed race and ethnicity play a huge role. As stated above, students who were under-identified are mainly Black and Brown. Many schools fail to look at other factors when screening for disabilities. Factors such as cultural differences and not accommodating families with languages other than English. So many of these students are not being identified. Many are labeled the “trouble child” when in fact, these students are suffering from undiagnosed disabilities. We can see that the students that are rowdy in class and are constantly restless often have undiagnosed ADD or ADHD. Children displaying characteristics of emotional/behavioral disabilities are often punished rather than being seen as someone who might be struggling with an undiagnosed disability. When looking at students with disabilities, noticing the racial disparity is crucial. Students of color with disabilities should not be looked at as a burden but rather a young person in need.

This is Just the Beginning

“Waxaad abuureysaa isbeddelka loo baahan yahay in la sameeyo.” You create the change that needs to be made.

Throughout this whole project, that is the mantra I said to myself. I was very scared to take on this project for two reasons. 1. I would not do it justice and 2. It would not be taken seriously because I was a young person. Doing the huge amounts of research and talking to so many people, I started to realize just how messed up our educational system is. I remember even before starting the project, I was under the impression that schools were using disabilities as a means to discriminate against them. Schools were just overly labeling these students. I was completely shocked when I figured out the opposite was happening. I created this project because there are many like me that are listening to false information. I also created this project because so many families did not know they were not alone. Lastly, I did this project because my family, like others, was also heavily affected by our horrible educational system. I wanted to be able to bring awareness to a system that needed changing. I know this project just scratches the surface of what is happening to students but remember: “Tani waa uun bilowgii.” This is just the beginning.

Adar is a junior at Evergreen High School (Highline Public Schools). She really likes to read fantasy books! She is super into political dramas like Scandal. She stands for liberation of all marginalized communities and hopes to bring empathy and compassion to the Youth Storytellers Project. She has a passion for bringing diversity and hopes to continue to work with organizations that value youth of color.

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