The Unteachables

Disability Rights and the Invention of Black Special Education

2022
Author:

Keith A. Mayes

How special education used disability labels to marginalize Black students in public schools

The Unteachables examines the overrepresentation of Black students in special education over the course of the twentieth century. Excavating the deep-seated racism embedded in both the public school system and public policy, it explores the discriminatory labeling of Black students, and how it indelibly contributed to special education disproportionality, to student discipline and push-out practices, and to the school-to-prison pipeline effect.

The Unteachables offers a bold, highly insightful, and meticulously documented analysis of the racist underpinnings of special education. Keith Mayes shows how special education grew from white attempts to ‘protect’ white children from a racially integrated education. Drawing on his extensive background in African American history, Mayes brilliantly peels back the layers of an education system that purports to advance rights, even while it thwarts those of Black and Latinx students. The Unteachables should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand how special education came to be structured as it is.

Christine Sleeter, coauthor of Transformative Ethnic Studies in Schools: Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Research

The Unteachables examines the overrepresentation of Black students in special education over the course of the twentieth century. As African American children integrated predominantly white schools, many were disproportionately labeled educable mentally retarded (EMR), learning disabled (LD), and emotional behavior disordered (EBD). Keith A. Mayes charts the evolution of disability categories and how these labels kept Black learners segregated in American classrooms.

The civil rights and the educational disability rights movements, Mayes shows, have both collaborated and worked at cross-purposes since the beginning of school desegregation. Disability rights advocates built on the opportunity provided by the civil rights movement to make claims about student invisibility at the level of intellectual and cognitive disabilities. Although special education ostensibly included children from all racial groups, educational disability rights advocates focused on the needs of white disabled students, while school systems used disability discourses to malign and marginalize Black students.

From the 1940s to the present, social science researchers, policymakers, school administrators, and teachers have each contributed to the overrepresentation of Black students in special education. Excavating the deep-seated racism embedded in both the public school system and public policy, The Unteachables explores the discriminatory labeling of Black students, and how it indelibly contributed to special education disproportionality, to student discipline and push-out practices, and to the school-to-prison pipeline effect.

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Cover alt text: Color photo from behind black students in a classroom looking toward a chalk board. One has hand raised.

Keith A. Mayes is associate professor of African American & African Studies and faculty affiliate in sociocultural studies in education at the University of Minnesota. He is author of Kwanzaa: Black Power and the Making of the African American Holiday Tradition.

The Unteachables offers a bold, highly insightful, and meticulously documented analysis of the racist underpinnings of special education. Keith Mayes shows how special education grew from white attempts to ‘protect’ white children from a racially integrated education. Drawing on his extensive background in African American history, Mayes brilliantly peels back the layers of an education system that purports to advance rights, even while it thwarts those of Black and Latinx students. The Unteachables should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand how special education came to be structured as it is.

Christine Sleeter, coauthor of Transformative Ethnic Studies in Schools: Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Research