Racism and “Categorical Manipulation” in Disability Status in Education

A new study by two scholars at the University of Kansas shows that when groups who have enjoyed status and prestige for a long time are forced to accept outsiders into their customary categories, they can move down to what formerly was a less prime slot and use their influence to redefine the terms of categorization.

The authors of the study how one city school district moved upper-class White students from the least stigmatizing and well-resourced disability categories into what, at the time, was the least desirable category when a court order forced desegregation in the 1970s and minority students started joining the top categories.

The authors explain that in the early 1970s, there were three categories of learning disabilities, denoted as LD, in the district: Those served in regular classrooms, those pulled out for services in resource rooms and those placed full-time in segregated learning disability classrooms. LD1 was most desirable, as it received the most support from teaching aides, the most exposure to the regular curriculum and least segregation from general education classrooms. LD1 students were typically White and from middle- and upper-class backgrounds. After court-ordered desegregation, the authors report, “they moved the White LD1 kids into LD3. We showed that not only did they do that, but they moved the kids and moved the money with them.”

“The mere threat that at least some Black kids were now coming into LD1 created significant concern among White parents,” according to the study. “Instead of moving out to all-White neighborhoods, White families refurbished a previously all-Black category and then kept Blacks out of there.”

Thomas Skrtic, the Williamson Family Distinguished Professor of Special Education at the University of Kansas and co-author of the study, stated that “our study documents how categorical manipulation occurs in schools, but it can happen in any bureaucratic context where people are labeled.”

The full study, “Categorization by Organizations: Manipulation of Disability Categories in a Racially Desegregated School District,” was published recently in the American Journal of Sociology. It may be accessed here.

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