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date: 20 January 2022

Special Education and Gender in the United Statesfree

Special Education and Gender in the United Statesfree

  • Nickie CoomerNickie CoomerIndependent Scholar
  •  and Chelsea StinsonChelsea StinsonSyracuse University


Historically, Western hegemonic order has been established through cultivating and legitimating social categories of difference. Schools, among other institutions, reinforce difference through marking ability, race, and gender to signify which bodies are productive, deficient, or dangerous and therefore in need of control. This process of differentiation and control is evident in the social, political, and education contexts of disabled youth whose race, gender, and sexuality are read, controlled, and resisted through policy and pedagogy. Through the processes of hypervisiblity, pathologization, and underserving of Black girls in schools, and especially within special education, this animates the nexus of gender, race, and disability.

Parallels are drawn to paradigms of the female body and femininity, where difference is constructed as inferior to the normative male body. Similarly, special education policy, practice, and literature conceptualize disability as subtractive difference, wherein what is considered a “deficit” relies on a subtractive interpretation of a normative body or a normative way of being. In this regard, disability, gender—and, crucially, race—are often thought of as a negative departure from a normalized embodiment. In special education, such normalized, essentialist approaches to gender, race, and disability contribute to the disproportionate overidentification of some social identities and the underidentification of others, most often along raced and gendered lines. Importantly, disabling processes are institutionalized in education through the mechanism of special education, which not only serves as an instructional and academic response to a student’s disability but also acts as an institutional process that determines a student as disabled. The determination of a student having a disability is mediated through law, policy, and interpersonal interaction between school professionals and parents and caregivers. Disproportionate identification has been the focus of research, and studies show that overidentification occurs most often in disability categories that are considered “subjective”: for instance, specific learning disabilities and emotional disturbances. Such identification has an impact on students’ learning; opportunities to interact with their peers in general education settings; access to high quality, challenging curriculum; and opportunities to engage critical thinking in educational activities that go beyond direct instruction. Disabling processes in schools related to the intersection of disability, gender, and race, in particular, are mediated by the local, cultural interactions of school personnel and are evident in the ways in which Black girls, in particular, are disabled in school.


  • Education, Cultures, and Ethnicities
  • Education, Gender, and Sexualities


Throughout Western history, hegemonic norms of ability, race, and gender have circulated interdependently to coconstruct social categories of difference, signifying which bodies are productive, deficient, or dangerous, and therefore in need of control (Boster, 2013; Dolmage, 2018). This interdependence among categories is evident in the social, political, and educational contexts of disabled youth whose race, gender, and sexuality are read, controlled, and resisted in schools (Erevelles, 2000). Institutionalized disabling processes are functions of broader, systemic oppressions. Much of the literature on disproportionality in special education is focused on race and/or gender broadly (e.g., Donovan & Cross, 2002). However, a narrowed analytical scope focusing on Black girls who are either labeled as having a disability in school or otherwise “othered” along lines of race, gender, and disability can help illuminate how racialized and gendered special education discourses and structures work to essentialize students’ experiences so that they are either “experiencing failure or being perceived as failing” (Annamma et al., 2013, p. 6). Importantly, exploring the ways in which Black girls are disabled or othered in school demonstrates the process of hypervisibilizing of Black girls through criminalization and pathologization in the school–prison nexus (Annamma, 2018).1

Abnormal Bodyminds: Considering Gender and Disability

The concept of “bodyminds” refers to the relationship between physical embodiment and neurological experience (Carter, 2015; Price, 2014: Schalk, 2013). This concept, which underscores the relationship between the physical and neurological, provides a way to explore how identities are constructed, marked, managed, and lived. In order to better understand the relationship between ability, in particular, and social injustice, it is essential to establish a paradigmatic and epistemological approach that understands ability as it exists across and through other markers of social identity and its political implications: for the purpose of this article, it refers to the request for, provision of, and administering of special education services.

Disability as Subtractive Difference

Leading paradigms of disability theory focus on physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral deficits as they are isolated to an individual (Clare, 2001). What is considered a “deficit” relies on a subtractive interpretation of a normative body or a normative way of being. In this regard, disability is often thought of as a negative departure from a normalized embodied experience (Barnes, 2016). Embodiment, gender, and political and social power reflexively interact in a social matrix that is historically rooted in the “exploitation of Black bodies” (Warren, 2020, p. 369). This historical exploitation has produced persistent cultural norms and expectations of masculinity, and Black masculinity as it is positioned against, and a threat to, white masculinity (e.g., Ferber, 2007). As a result, norms for masculinity position Black boys as vulnerable to school professionals and school processes that are apt to mark them as objects of discipline, exclusion, pathologization, and criminalization (Gilliam, 2016; Wesley & Ellis, 2017). Consequently, Black boys in particular are subject to disabling processes that are rooted in cisheteropatriarchal sexism and not only pathologize Blackness in boyhood but also position Black boys as objects of the “crisis” of their future of growing into Black men (Dumas & Nelson, 2016).

The female body and femininity are also considered deficit, aberrant, and negative (Garland-Thomson, 1996). Garland-Thomson (1996) considered the way in which the female body became a “liability” in postindustrial consumerism, necessitating the intervention of products and processes. This interaction produced “an ideology of womanhood that required the white, middle-class female body to be idle, frail, and beautiful” (Garland-Thomson, 1996, p. 92). In this way, femininity itself depends on the products and processes of a patriarchal culture (Garland-Thomson, 1996, p. 27). The liability of the feminine, then, evokes the frailty of the condition of being, specifically, a white, middle-class woman and her occupation of the “degrading position of needing to be taken care of because she is outside meaningful production” (Garland-Thomson, 1996, p. 94). In their introduction to a special volume of the journal Girlhood Studies, Erevelles and Nguyen (2016) referred to the ways in which the intersection of girlhood and disability have been “constituted historically as vulnerable populations” (p. 4).

Black women have historically provided a foil against which white femininity is defined (Fordham, 1993). White femininity is not only positioned in contrast to white masculinity; it is also positioned against “Black male violence, hypermasculinity, and gang culture, on the one hand, and unregulated Black sexuality targeted at Black women on the other” (Ferri & Connor, 2010, p. 105). Black femininity, specifically, is positioned as a “subordinated gender identity” (Morris, 2016, p. 8) as it is constructed in relation to “White women . . . all men, sexual outlaws (prostitutes and lesbians), unmarried women, and girls” (Morris, 2016, p. 8). Sojourner Truth observed the disjuncture between racialized norms for women, poignantly asking, “Ain’t I a woman?” The complicated relationship of Black to white femininity—to prop it up—and to disability—as overly capable and also incapable (“good girls or ghetto girls”; Morris, 2016, p. 10) subjects Black women to compounding marginalizations.

Schalk (2013) further complicated these processes of marginalization, describing her relationship to disability as a “fat, Black, queer woman” and an identification “with, not as, crip” as a space of tension within the whiteness of disability studies. Schalk (2013) further noted the exclusion of disability in “intersectional analyses in race and ethnic studies, queer and sexuality studies, and women’s and gender studies” (n.p.). Schalk’s theorizing around crip identity is important to thinking about gender, race, and disability, and gender and special education more specifically, because it draws the ways in which multiple identities contribute to a nonnormative bodymind. Further, Schalk (2013) asserted that the ways in which this is read in and through different spaces and communities contributes to the pathologization processes across race and gender. Similarly, Pickens (2019) discussed the ways in which Blackness and Madness are constructed across cultural contexts, and how accounting for Madness in Black cultural contexts raises the visibility of mental disability within Black culture, and against white cisheteropatriarchy that overvalues an expression of mental soundness and rationality that relies on white civility (e.g., Voronka, 2016).

White femininity, though “liability” and “disability” (Garland-Thomson, 1996, p. 92), is afforded leverage against further marginalized bodies (e.g., Ferri & Connor, 2010). Nancy Ehrenreich (2002) described this is as “hybrid intersectionality” in her theory of subordination and symbiosis to delineate the ways in which oppressed groups maintain their privileges by oppressing others. Fordham (1993) conceptualized subordination to sexist norms rooted in masculinity as “gender-passing,” or the ways in which both white and Black women are compelled to impersonate maleness in order to be taken seriously. Conceptualizing the intersections of oppression in this way is significant to acknowledging the ways in which processes of disablement take form, particularly as it pertains to schooling. In consideration of schooling practices, the othering of students’ ways of being in the world is codified through special education, including eligibility determination (the point at which an educational disability is determined for a student), the development of an Individualized Education Plan, and the provision of that plan: including the determination of the Least Restrictive Environment or whether a student will be educated with their same-age peers or segregated from them (Blanchett & Shealey, 2005). Thus, Black girls in special education are excluded along three axes that depend on discursive productions and interpretations of their gender, race, and disability identification: the axis of race and femininity, the axis of race and disability, and the axis of femininity and disability.

Coconstructing Race, Gender, and Disability: The Paradox of Special Education

As Annamma et al. (2013) affirmed, the processes by which educators conceptualize student identities comprise “mutually constitutive processes [which] are enacted through normalizing practices” (p. 11). Historically, the construction of Black and brown bodies as abnormal from white (normalized) bodies functioned to justify segregation, slavery, and other forms of dehumanization through normalized systems and structures. Annamma et al. (2013) emphasized how this line of thinking has become normalized and reflected in education policy, practice, and discourse. Students of color and other nonnormative identities are frequently labeled “at-risk,” suggesting that educators consider them inherently deficient in body and mind because of their social identities (Annamma et al., 2013). Further, formal disability identification processes also reproduce this process, as Black students are more likely to be assigned disability labels related to intellectual and emotional disabilities compared to white peers (Bal et al., 2017; Parrish, 2002).

In a similar vein, educational structures contribute to raced and gendered expectations for disability identification and behavior. The autism narrative and scholarly canons since the 1940s, for instance, have maintained gender bias in the identification and cultural conceptualization of autistic identity as a white, male condition. Baron-Cohen (2002, 2005), for instance, posited that empathizing, the drive to read and adapt in social situations, and systematizing, the drive to read and adapt to systems, were respectively linked to the fundamental characteristics of the female and male brain. He argued that “people with autism simply match an extreme of the male profile, with a particularly intense drive to systematize and an unusually low drive to empathize” (2005). In other words, the systematizing tendencies of autistic brains demonstrate extreme nonautistic male characteristics, whereas the empathizing tendencies of nonautistic brains demonstrate normalized nonautistic female characteristics. Baron-Cohen grounded his argument in the work of Asperger, who suggested, “the autistic personality is an extreme variant of male intelligence. Even within the normal variation, we find typical sex differences in intelligence. . . . In the autistic individual, the male pattern is exaggerated to the extreme” (Asperger & Frith, 1991, pp. 84–85). However, as Krahn and Fenton (2012) pointed out, Baron-Cohen’s argument relies on “selective gendering” of brain characteristics, which reinforces “gender essentialism” while ignoring sociocultural factors that contribute to brain and social identity development (p. 97).

The prevailing construction of autism as a white, male condition circulates in diagnostic processes and service provision for autistic individuals who do not fit into the normalized white, male brain profile. Krahn and Fenton (2012) emphasized how viewing autism as a white, male diagnosis is detrimental to the diagnostic and service provision process for people who are not white men. They point to the underidentification of autism in nonmale children despite the relative high rate of diagnosis for male children (e.g., Beggiato et al., 2017). Further, the male-focused lens through which autism is primarily viewed obscures the ways autism is presented and experienced differently across genders, thereby erasing the diversity of autistic realities that exist outside of this perspective.

Disproportionality and the Subjectivity of Identification

Disproportionality is simply defined as the portion of students identified with a disability within a social category (e.g., race, gender) compared to the proportion of that social category in the total student population.2 Although education researchers and policymakers have increasingly paid attention to disproportionality in special education since the 1980s, the underlying causes and assumptions associated with disproportionality remain (e.g., Sullivan & Artiles, 2011). Donovan and Cross (2002) explained the paradox of disproportionality in special education, saying, “special education placement brings additional resources and individual attention to a student’s needs that are potentially beneficial, at the same time that it potentially brings stigma, separation from peers, and other adverse effects” (pp. 20–21). Their point highlights how discourses of students’ educational rights related to specialized supports and services are in tension with the consequences of disability identification based in deficit-based thinking and pathologization (Erevelles, 2000).

Special education scholars have paid considerable attention to the disproportionate representation of racially minoritized students in special education (e.g., Artiles & Ortiz, 2002; Parrish, 2002). Studies show that some racialized groups are disproportionately enrolled in special education programs and are more likely to receive disability-related services and placements outside general education settings than their white peers (e.g., Cosier et al., 2018). In contrast, other groups, such as Asian American students (Park, 2019) and girls (Manwaring, 2008), are underrepresented in disability categories and special education placements (Donovan & Cross, 2002). Similarly, essentialist approaches to gender and racial identity contribute to underidentification of some genders (i.e., assigned female at birth) and races (i.e., Black, Latinx, and Native American) in some disability categories, such as autism (e.g., Beggiato et al., 2017; Sullivan & Bal, 2013).

Despite the wealth of research regarding gender and racial inequality in education (e.g., Morgan et al., 2015; Waitoller et al., 2010), the field’s “understanding of the complexity of disproportionality remains incomplete and imprecise” (Sullivan & Artiles, 2011, p. 1527). As an example, Sullivan and Artiles (2011) pointed to the fact that roughly 40% of disproportionality studies focused solely on Black students in special education, while others focused solely on the learning disability category or on specific regions of the United States. They suggest that there are more “fine-grained” patterns of identification and classification, which might be ignored by existing research, and, further, that theoretical approaches to the issue of disproportionality must be strengthened (p. 1258). Using structural inequity theory, Sullivan and Artiles allowed for the consideration of institutional racism, which results in “disproportionate consequences” and collective reinforcement of (dis)advantage.

Beyond theoretical and methodological considerations, the subjective quality of identification further creates challenges for researchers. For example, the relative overrepresentation of male students in special education is well-established in education literature (e.g., Coutinho & Oswald, 2005), especially in disabilities related to behavior as well as in school discipline data (Neal et al., 2003). However, as Krahn and Fenton (2012) demonstrated, patterns of overrepresentation can inform prevailing gendered narratives of certain disability categories like autism, resulting in underidentification of other social groups and, therefore, delayed access to necessary supports and services. Likewise, in her work with disabled girls of color who have been incarcerated, Annamma (2018) highlighted how studies linking special education and incarceration focus mostly on boys of color. Girls of color with and without disability labels are largely ignored by this research despite their disproportionate rates of incarceration.3 Annamma (2018) used the term “pedagogy of pathologization,” a multidirectional experiential construct wherein girls of color are hypersurveilled, hyperlabeled as disabled or otherwise deficient, and hyperpunished in schools (p. 13).

Invisibility of Black Girls in Special Education Research

Assimilation—through sweat, blood and tears I have come to this place, this place where you have the audacity to erase me still, and society dictates that I thank you for my own erasure. (Ellis, 2017, p. 29)

The ways in which mechanisms of special education law are leveraged for the benefit or the detriment of students hinges on their and their family’s social capital (Cannon, 2019; Durhamn et al., 2015; McDermott et al., 2006; Sleeter, 1986; Waitoller & King Thorius, 2016). Social capital impacts how students of color are either denied access to special education or are overly pathologized and segregated through special education (Blanchett, 2006; Blanchett & Shealey, 2005; Harry & Klingner, 2014; Klingner et al., 2005). An intersectional analysis (Crenshaw, 1991) offers a lens through which to examine the ways in which girls and young women across racial identities may be denied the services of special education through a broadly accepted disablement of the feminine bodymind, especially with regard to the “triple combination of race, gender, and disability” (Erevelles, 2011, p. 4). Such intersectional complexities lead to a process of disablement compelling a “submissive visibility” (Erevelles, 2011, p. 65) and simultaneous erasure (Cannon, 2019; Erevelles, 2011; Hernández-Saca et al., 2018; Ferri & Connor, 2010).

Petersen (2006, 2009, 2020), Sosulski et al. (2010), and Cannon (2019) offered qualitative studies that focus on how Black women with disabilities narrate their own experiences with school and disability. Common themes across these studies are feelings of isolation and anxiety, as well as anger and resistance. Cannon (2019) suggested that Black women with disabilities engage “subverted truths,” explained as “(re)defined identities and radical love, (re)placed competence and knowledge, and (re)valued sisterhood and community” (p. 209). She contended that these subverted truths provide the pathway to individual and collective healing for the injuries they have experienced as a result of their position within oppressive, interlocking systems, including special education.

Pathologization and Criminalization of Black Girls in School

Institutionally, and in schools specifically, Black girls are subject to surveillance (Wun, 2016), discipline for “failing to meet cis-gendered expectations of femininity” (Wun, 2014, p. 242), and criminalization (Chesney-Lind & Jones, 2010; Morris, 2016; Wun, 2018). The intersection of disability, “incorrigibility” (Chesney-Lind & Jones, 2010), and criminality for Black girls does not result in the support offered by special education (Blanchett, 2006), and instead results in exclusion, discipline, and punishment (Chesney-Lind & Jones, 2010; Wun, 2014, 2016, 2018). In other words, how Black girls are perceived subjects them to disabling processes.

The disabling impacts of racism, sexism, and ableism in determining special education eligibility has exceptionally dangerous implications for students of color, especially as it impedes educational equity and pushes them toward the criminal justice system (Annamma, 2018; Annamma et al., 2014; Ferri & Connor, 2005, 2010). Where white children with disabilities are afforded the benefits of special education, and more often educated in less restrictive environments (Blanchett, 2006; Fierros & Conroy, 2002), girls and boys of color are subjected to exclusionary disciplinary policies for insubordination, disrespect, being uncooperative, and being uncontrollable (Morris, 2016). The discursive categorization of these named behaviors and descriptions link them most closely with the disability category of “emotional disability.” Considered to be a “subjective disability,” there are overrepresentations of females of color within this category (Oswald et al., 2003), and students with this disability “comprise almost 50% of incarcerated students with disabilities” (Annamma, 2014, p. 313; Osher et al., 2000). Students of color with disabilities are more likely to be subject to schooling practices focused on control, compliance, and constraint (Annamma, 2014; Blanchett, 2006; Blanchett & Shealey, 2005).

Further Reading

  • Dávila, B. (2015). Critical race theory, disability microaggressions and Latina/o student experiences in special education. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 18(4), 443–468.
  • Ferri, B., & Connor, D. J. (2005). Tools of exclusion: Race, disability, and (re)segregated education. Teachers College Record, 107(3), 453–474.
  • Gabel, S. (2009). Disability studies in education: Readings in theory and method. Peter Lang.
  • Gallagher, S. (2005). How the body shapes the mind. Oxford University Press.
  • Garland-Thomson, R. (2016, August 19). Opinion: Becoming disabled. New York Times.
  • Hall, K. Q. (2015). Keywords for disability studies. New York University Press.
  • Kafer, A. (2013). Feminist, queer, crip. Indiana University Press.
  • Kauffman, J. M., & Badar, J. (2013). How we might make special education for students with emotional or behavioral disorders less stigmatizing. Behavioral Disorders, 39, 16–27.
  • McRuer, R. (2004). Composing bodies; or, de-composition: Queer theory, disability studies, and alternative corporealities. JAC, 24, 47–79.
  • McRuer, R. (2006). Crip theory: Cultural signs of queerness and disability. New York University Press.
  • Patsavas, A. (2014). Recovering a cripistemology of pain: Leaky bodies, connective tissue, and feeling discourse. Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, 8(2), 203–218.
  • Prahlad, A. (2017). The secret life of a Black Aspie. University of Alaska Press.
  • Samuels, E. J. (2014). Fantasies of identification: Disability, gender, race. New York University Press.
  • Schalk, S. (2018). Bodyminds reimagined: (Dis)ability, race, and gender in Black women’s speculative fiction. Duke University Press.



  • 1. Whereas “school-to-prison pipeline” illustrates how students are steered toward incarceration from their schooling experiences, the concept of school-prison nexus addresses the varied, nuanced, and interdependent practices and mechanisms mutually constructed, shared, and/or upheld by schools and prisons (Annamma, 2018).

  • 2. The term disproportionality accounts for both the over- and underrepresentation of students in special education. Like overrepresentation, underrepresentation results from a school-based professionals’ assumptions or biases related to the social and political identities of students subjected to special education evaluation (Park, 2019). Disproportionate representation of any kind can have harmful and/or unintended consequences.

  • 3. According to The Sentencing Project (2020), Black girls are incarcerated at more than three times the rate of White girls, and Native American girls are incarcerated at more than four times the rate of White girls.