BY YVONNE COWSER YANCY
Seventy million Americans—that’s one in five people—have a learning or thinking difference, like ADHD or dyslexia. Despite how common these differences are, many neurodivergent individuals are misunderstood, undiagnosed, or dismissed, with their differences viewed as a weakness.
But for Black adults and children with learning disabilities, the stigmas are often twofold where they not only face harmful biases around our race and ethnicity, but also in how we think and learn. These misconceptions can often impact the type of care, quality of care, and support we get to thrive at school, work, and in life—and in some cases—even prevent that care and support altogether.
The challenges that Black neurodivergent individuals face are deep-rooted, nuanced, and unjust. But until we start talking about them, our most vulnerable will not get the support they need to reach their potential and thrive.
WHERE BIAS BEGINS
America was founded on a bedrock of inequality, which means many of our public institutions including public schools and healthcare facilities were designed this way too.
Despite the well-researched and known benefits of students with disabilities spending most of their days in the general education classroom, only a third of Black students with disabilities spend 80% or more of their school day in the general education classroom, compared to 55% of white students with disabilities.
There are also inequities in how Black students are disciplined at school. According to the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, Black students with disabilities are more likely to be identified with an intellectual disability or emotional disturbance and more likely to receive a disciplinary removal than all students with disabilities.
There are also disparities in the actual diagnoses of learning and thinking differences for Black children. White children are twice as likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis as Black children, who are instead often cast off as defiant, lazy, or having behavioral or attitude problems. This lack of diagnosis or misdiagnosis so early on in life can lead to Black children growing into their adult years without a solution for a disability they didn’t know they had, all the while impacting their academic, emotional, and social development.
From the lack of proper diagnosis to problematic disparities in discipline, Black youth with disabilities are at a disadvantage throughout their childhoods in our education system. And because of this, many Black adults enter the workforce without a proper diagnosis or a misdiagnosis and don’t understand how to navigate their challenges, or worse, they never make it into the workforce at all due to the barriers put before them in the classroom.
HOW THIS TRANSLATES TO WORK
When individuals are having difficulty meeting deadlines or completing tasks at work, I often think, “Could ADHD be a reason for why this is happening?” But not all managers, leaders, or fellow colleagues are taught to consider learning and thinking differences at work. And if a Black employee has grown up facing challenges with these tasks but was never provided with a diagnosis or misdiagnosed, they may not know how to advocate for themselves and the supports they need to do their best work.
Neurodivergent individuals may experience challenges related to organization, time management, or reading, writing, or math skills, but if they don’t have a diagnosis and they’re also already facing conscious or unconscious biases because of their race, their managers will likely correlate their challenges to performance issues. This can negatively impact their professional growth opportunities, as well as their self-confidence.
It makes you think: Had that person received an accurate diagnosis as a child in school, perhaps they would have received the proper support like accommodations, strategies, or different treatments to navigate obstacles at various points in their life.
WHAT WE CAN DO
So, how do we improve the experiences of individuals within our community with learning and thinking differences?
For parents of children with learning disabilities, know yours and your child’s rights. Understand how you can be involved in your child’s evaluation process, participate in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, give, or deny consent for education services. All of these are critical discussions and decisions to get the appropriate tools and support for your child. Teaching self-advocacy at a young age will benefit your child far beyond school.
For managers looking for help on where to start with difficult conversations:
- find training on DEI, including on disability inclusion
- talk with colleagues on advocating together for more inclusion
- join or start an employee resource group (ERG) at your company
- meet with HR and DEI leaders in the company to discuss strategies for a more equitable culture
Managers should also set goals for themselves and their teams that focus on a more inclusive and flexible culture to ensure all employees understand how to request support when needed. It’s important to reassure employees that they are not alone or that the work for more equity falls solely on them.
Leaders: If we can’t discuss these issues, we cannot build cultures that support them. Particularly for employees of color, who may be reluctant to self-identify due to a fear of being othered in a new way, it’s critical we discuss learning and thinking differences in the same way we discuss race, gender, and other diversity topics. To foster a growth mindset and curate a culture of belonging, managers should be open to asking for feedback from employees on how to improve equity and inclusion.
Workers: As an employee, bringing these topics to light can seem daunting and uncomfortable, but discussing with a manager is a good first step. Tap into resources like ERGs or suggest the organization start one, ask for strategic planning time around DEI, and implement feedback loops.
Communities: As a community, talk about learning and thinking differences and don’t stop talking. Stigmas around these differences are pervasive across races, ethnicities, and cultures, but the less we discuss and accept these differences, the more these misconceptions encourage unnecessary barriers for our children, friends, and colleagues to achieve everything they’re capable of doing.
I have hope for a future where people can discover and unlock their potential, and truly feel understood. But where we start is a two-way street. We need more Black leaders in education, healthcare, and companies/organizations to influence those around them to listen, learn, and mitigate biases to rebuild trust. But we also need each of us advocating and inspiring that change in our own schools, doctors’ offices, and workplaces to make sure Black individuals with learning and thinking differences can thrive at all points of their life.