Two young adults sitting on a bench, one with a laptop and one with a folder, working together. Image by Zen Chung is licensed under Pexels license.

Although many adults look back upon their time in primary and secondary school fondly, access to education in America is discriminatory. Disabled people, in particular, face widespread discrimination in their early education. Although disabled people represent about a quarter of the US population, on average, they 1) receive fewer years of education, 2) are less likely to receive diplomas or degrees, and 3) earn substantially less when employed. Lauren Rivera and András Tilcsik’s new research uncovers how disability and racial discrimination interact to limit entrance to American public schools.

Rivera and Tilcsik first collected data through an experimental audit study, sending emails to over 20,000 primary and secondary school principals in several states, describing an imaginary student who was interested in attending their school. Researchers varied whether the fake student had an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), which indicates the student had an educational disability that schools must legally accommodate, and other student identities – leading principals to assume student characteristics.

They found clear evidence of admission discrimination against disabled students when compared to non-disabled students. Principals were generally less likely to respond to emails that described a student with a disability, regardless of the assumed gender or race of the student. This suggests that students with disabilities are at an increased risk for discrimination when seeking out educational opportunities.

For assumed Black and disabled students, they were 9.5% less likely to receive a response about a prospective tour than assumed White and disabled students and 5% less likely to receive any sort of positive response. This indicates that disabled Black students may experience a “double disadvantage” based both on their race and disability, creating a more challenging educational experience than White students with disabilities.

In the second part of their research, 578 principals, not involved in the audit study, participated in a separate survey. The researchers found that principals viewed both Black and White disabled students as more challenging because of the compulsory educational accommodations. Lastly, they found that surveyed principals understood Black families as a burden upon the school system as a whole. These families, not just the students, were perceived as “less valuable future members of the school community.”

Based on these findings, Rivera and Tilcsik suggest that all disabled students, regardless of race or gender, face more discrimination when seeking educational access. This contributes to the inequities disabled people experience throughout their lives in accessing education and then rippling into their jobs and personal lives. However, Black disabled students and families experience racial and disability discrimination.