For Students with Disabilities, Discrimination Starts Before They Even Enter School
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Organizations Mar 3, 2023

For Students with Disabilities, Discrimination Starts Before They Even Enter School

Public-school principals are less welcoming to prospective families with disabled children—particularly when they’re Black.

child in wheelchair facing padlocked school doors

Jesús Escudero

Based on the research of

Lauren Rivera

András Tilcsik

For parents of children with disabilities, the stakes of finding a good school could scarcely be higher. Parents’ concerns range from whether a school will have the right services and supports to help their child advance academically, to whether the school can keep their child physically safe.

“In some cases and for some kids, having that information can be life-saving,” says Lauren Rivera, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School.

But according to new research from Rivera and András Tilcsik of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, discrimination prevents families from gaining such crucial knowledge. Their study found that public school principals are less responsive to parents of disabled children when it comes to providing information about schools. This is especially true when the parent of a disabled child is perceived to be Black.

“While we find there is differential responsiveness on the basis of disability status, as much of the literature on disability in education shows, this effect is highly racialized,” Rivera says, creating an interlocking set of barriers for Black disabled children.

The reality of discrimination against those with disabilities is not new, of course. Previous research has found that people with disabilities face significant obstacles in the labor market—they earn less than their nondisabled counterparts and are under-employed based on their credentials. Rivera and Tilcsik’s new study shows these challenges begin long before people enter the workforce.

“It’s not just that disability discrimination hurts people in the labor market,” Rivera says. “Disability discrimination begins much earlier, and it actually affects the educational opportunities and options available to students, especially in a context of school choice.”

An underfunded special education mandate

In the United States, the rights of disabled children are protected not only under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but also under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA states that school districts must provide a “free and appropriate public education” to students with disabilities, with the specific supports needed for each child outlined in a legally binding document called an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

When Congress reauthorized IDEA in 1990, it set a goal of covering 40 percent of the law’s costs, but it has never reached that threshold. As a result, states and school districts carry most of the costs of special education, with each state allocating funding in slightly different ways. Due to the limited federal assistance, funding for disabled children is often scarce and seen to be in competition with funding for everything else schools need.

“[Principals] are the gatekeepers: they control . . . whether to spend money meeting one child’s IEP versus investing it in programs that serve a larger percentage of the student body.”

Lauren Rivera

While school districts are responsible for creating IEPs, school principals are responsible for implementing IEPs in practice, which is why Rivera and Tilcsik decided to focus their research on them. They are also responsible for making tough choices about how to distribute valuable resources within their school.

“Principals control a lot of resources that directly affect the fate of students with and without disabilities,” Rivera says. “They are the gatekeepers: they control who gets what classroom space on what floor of the building, staffing, and whether to spend money meeting one child’s IEP versus investing it in programs that serve a larger percentage of the student body.”

Disability discrimination at the schoolhouse gate

Rivera and Tilcsik designed an experiment to test how disability status influences the school-search process. Because race discrimination and disability discrimination have historically been intertwined in the United States, they also decided to study race in this context.

They sent emails from fictitious prospective parents asking for school tours to more than 20,000 principals at public schools in four states. There were multiple versions of the email, varying the fictitious child’s gender, disability status (as indicated by whether or not the parent mentioned an IEP), and the perceived race of the parent writing the emails. Half were signed by Tyra Williams (a name widely perceived to be Black, according to experimental pretests) and half by Amy Williams (a name widely perceived to be white); both names were perceived as being similar in social class.

Rivera and Tilcsik chose to focus on school tours, which are “one of the most common ways that, across class and across race, parents research schools to see if they’re a good fit for their child,” Rivera says.

Tours are especially important for parents of children with disabilities, because schools typically have very little publicly available information about what specific special-education services they offer. Seeing schools in person and talking one-on-one to staff at a tour is one of the best ways for parents to understand whether the right supports will be available to their children.

In the study, an email reply that offered a tour or other meeting was considered a positive reply, while nonresponses or replies declining to meet were treated as negative replies.

The results of the email audit showed a clear pattern: principals were less responsive to parents of children with disabilities. They responded to 53.5 percent of the emails that did not mention an IEP, but to only 41.8 percent of the emails that did mention an IEP. Among the emails mentioning an IEP, 44.1 of “Amy’s” emails received a positive reply, as compared with 39.5 percent of “Tyra’s.”

Understanding principals’ responses

While the email study showed that principals respond differently to parents of children with disabilities, and especially to Black parents, “we can’t actually gain traction on why,” Rivera explains. So they ran a second study with a new group of 578 principals designed to understand what was driving the effect.

This time, principals were given a survey ostensibly aimed at getting their views on a variety of issues for a research project. In actuality, the researchers had nested within the survey a series of questions about disabled children and their parents that was the true focus.

As part of this section of the survey, principals saw one of the same eight emails used in the previous study, mentioning either a disabled or nondisabled son or daughter and signed by either Amy or Tyra Williams. Then the survey asked whether and how the principal would have replied to that email if they had actually received it, as well as several questions about the principal’s perceptions of both parent and child from the email.

The results of the survey replicated the findings from the email audit, with principals significantly less likely to respond to emails mentioning an IEP, an effect that was stronger when the parent was perceived to be Black.

The survey also shed light on why principals reacted the way they did. Overall, “the discrimination that we observe on the basis of disability status stems from perceptions of the children as more difficult and burdensome to educate,” Rivera explains. Though of course unfair and inexcusable, she says these feelings likely stem from the fact that “schools are responsible for paying for students, both monetarily and in terms of staff time.”

While the disability discrimination was driven by perceptions of children, Rivera and Tilcsik were surprised to discover the racial discrimination component was driven by perceptions of parents. Black parents of children with disabilities were perceived as being less valuable school community members than white parents of students with or without a disability. “They were seen as less likely to volunteer in the classroom, less likely to participate in fundraising, and there was some evidence that they were perceived as more difficult to work with,” Rivera says.

In other words, the discrimination stemmed from multiple interacting biases. “It’s not only that multiply-marginalized groups experience more discrimination,” Rivera says. “It’s that the discrimination might also come from multiple places.” That is, the discrimination faced by Black parents of disabled children emerges from a combination of negative stereotypes about disability and negative stereotypes about race.

Building and funding a more just system

Though Rivera finds the results of the study hugely disheartening, “schools should never have been put in this position to begin with,” she says: forced to address complex needs with inadequate resources.

Alleviating disability discrimination in schools will require bigger-picture changes, such as getting Congress to finance the IDEA at the level it promised, Rivera believes. With improved school funding, educating disabled children wouldn’t be viewed as taking something away from nondisabled students, she argues. What’s needed is more for everyone: “How can we provide schools with more resources, so that it’s not seen as a zero-sum game?”

Featured Faculty

Professor of Management & Organizations; Professor of Sociology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences (Courtesy)

About the Writer

Susie Allen is a freelance writer in Chicago.

About the Research

Rivera, Lauren, and Andras Tilcsik. 2023 “Not in My Schoolyard: Disability Discrimination in Educational Access.” American Sociological Review.

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