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How Do We Support African American Students with Disabilities?

New York City Hosts First Annual Disability Pride Parade
People participate in the first annual Disability Pride Parade on July 12, 2015 in New York City. The parade calls attention to the rights of people with disabilities and coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

To ensure that all students are supported in learning and developing the skills needed to be successful in school and in life, the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans hosted a first of its kind convening to highlight unique opportunities to support post-secondary success for African American students with disabilities.

The summit was held at the US Department of Education on Tuesday in honor of the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and was live streamed here.

A child’s first and most important educator is their parent, someone to provide the solid foundation upon which all future learning and development can take place. And one of the things that families and communities supporting African American youth and young adults can do is to ensure that all children are screened for disabilities and developmental delays to ensure that their students can thrive.

Visit a pediatrician or community health center to ensure that your child is screened and connected to existing support services as appropriate. If your child is enrolled in school request an evaluation.


If your child is identified as having a disability or developmental delay, take these three important steps:

1. Learn More

To best advocate for your child, it is important to learn more about the types of the disability, options for treatment, and assistive technologies or aids that can assist your child. Online resources for parents are available at the Center for Parent Information and Resources.

Parent Training and Information Centers are also located in every state to provide you with more information about your child’s disability, about early intervention, school services and local resources and policies for families. Each center offers free training and workshops for parents and professionals. To find your parent center, visit the Center for Parent Information and Resources.

2. Know what rights and resources your child is entitled to

States are responsible for ensuring that appropriate early intervention services, such as therapists, nurses, nutritionists, and other specialists who work with babies and toddlers, are made available to all eligible birth-through-2-year-olds with disabilities and their families. Referrals for services can be made by your child’s pediatrician and a staff member will call to complete an evaluation and coordinate individualized services to meet the needs of you and your child.

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Starting at age three, schools must provide free and appropriate public services to all preschool-age children with disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) work together to support families. Under IDEA, your child must have an individualized education program (IEP) and be provided the support services needed to ensure your child succeeds in school and has the skills and tools necessary to enter the workforce or pursue higher education.

Some examples of services include providing extra time to complete assignments or tests, changing the reading level, or providing your child with a one-on-one aid or tutor. ADA ensures that all children have equal access and equal opportunity to participate in public school services, programs and activities by requiring school programs and activities to provide accommodations, such as interpreters, captioning, elevators or ramps.

3. Support and Grow Your Village

It is important to talk with your child about their disability so you can advocate with and not just for your child. When a child’s disability is not talked about, it can lead to the misunderstanding that something is wrong with them or that the disability should not be talked about.

Talking to your child about their disability as well as their rights and accommodations normalizes disability and has a positive impact on their physical health and well-being. It supports positive self-image and a stronger understanding and sense of connectedness.

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Meeting and engaging with peers and adults with the same disability also supports children’s identity development. Children can see and hear from people with the same diagnosis and share stories as well as learn about additional ways tools and resources that support their learning and development.

It is also important for YOU to recharge and have spaces where you can talk with others about your experiences as a parent with a child who has a disability. It is important that you take care of yourself by asking for help when needed, taking advantage of local resources and supports for families, joining a support group and talking with a therapist, and finding time to participate in activities you enjoy!

Our hope is these three steps are helpful in supporting caring and concerned adults in ensuring that all students, including students with disabilities, are supported cognitively, socially and emotionally.

David J. Johns is the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

Rebecca Cokley is the executive director of the National Council on Disability.

Tykiah Wright is the CEO of Wright-Choice Incorporate and is a member of the President’s Advisory Counsel to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

For additional resources please visit the website of the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services. To learn more about the work of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans visit www.ed.gov/AfAmEducation.

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