Equity Literacy Project


A gloomy black and white photograph of a student sitting alone at a long table in an empty classroom. The student is in full silhouette while back lit by a bright open window far in the distance. The words Ability and Disability are captioned at the bottom in a transparent text.


Contributor Name: Ranjani Murali

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 14 percent of all students between the ages of 3 and 21 in the public education system in the United States were eligible and were supported by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The organization also notes that nearly 33 percent of these students had a “specific learning disability,” which constituted the largest proportion of services elicited. The next few categories include: Speech and Language impairment (19%), Other Health Impairment (15%), Autism (11%) and so on. Around 1% of students overall required services for orthopedic (physical) and hearing impairments, each.

The NCES-ED adds that “[e]ligible students are those identified by a team of professionals as having a disability that adversely affects academic performance and as being in need of special education and related services.”

Both organizations also provide us with data about how disability services for youth are defined, evaluated, and improved. For educators, it is important to remember that equity, which is a key goal of disability services, is also determined by other intersectional factors. For instance, a 2017 review article by Morgan et. al estimates that, “[a]mong children who were otherwise similar in their academic achievement, poverty exposure, gender, and English language learner status, racial or ethnic minority children were consistently less likely than White children to be identified as having disabilities” (1). The authors go on to say that children from underrepresented groups were also “less likely to receive special education services” compared to White children, “since at least 2003.” This is further corroborated by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSEP), which found in their 2018-2019 data that “Hispanic and/or Latino students were more likely to be identified with specific learning disability and less likely to be identified with other health impairment than all students with disabilities.” They also found that “Asian students are more likely to be identified with a speech or language impairment and Autism and less likely to be identified with specific learning disability than all students with disabilities.” However, Asian students with disabilities had an overall higher graduation rate and lower dropout rate compared to other students.

It is also worth noting that  Black/ African American students and American Indian or Alaska Native students were the groups that faced the maximum number of “disciplinary removals” per 100 children.

Morgan et al. are quick to also advise educators that our efforts should be focused on “address[ing] the cultural, language, and societal “barriers to entry” to Child Find and referral procedures that may be making it less likely that children with disabilities who are racial or ethnic minorities, as well as from other traditionally marginalized groups (e.g., females, ELL, from low-income families), are properly identified and provided with services to which they have a civil right.” They advise us not to believe the commonly held myth that “ underidentification is…explained by differences in individual-level academic achievement, family-level economic disadvantage, or differential access to school-level resources.”

At the institutional as well as the classroom level, educators should be aware that even the “eligibility” requirements and the assessment and evaluation techniques used for offering services may contain a great degree of bias. It is imperative to advocate for the hiring, inclusion, and expertise of co-professionals and teachers who are aware of intersectional gaps with respect to disability and are able to evaluate students with specific care and responsiveness as far as these intersectional factors are concerned. Integrative classrooms are more common across a broad swathe of US public schools, and as such, Aron and Loprest, claim, in an evaluative article about IDEA in 2012, that the integrative classroom (or “general education” versus “special education” is) the most effective approach for all children. Given this wisdom, teachers and administrators may find it most helpful to focus on early testing and identification, prompt evaluation and offering of services, and also intersectionality training for educators, so that they are able to critically examine the biases they may have about specific student groups with respect to disabilities.

Student Voices

Contributor: T.P., Harper College, Fall 2019

Problems with Disciplining Students with Learning Disabilities

Imagine struggling to pay attention in class every day. Imagine not being able to sit still and listen like the rest of your classmates. Imagine having to re-read the same passage multiple times because all the words are jumbled together. Imagine constantly being behind the rest of your peers. Imagine constantly feeling stupid or disappointed in yourself. Imagine never getting encouragement from your teachers or peers. Now imagine getting in trouble for something you can’t control. These are examples of having a learning disability. This is an important topic to me because I struggle with a learning disability along with a lot of my friends. My friends went to various high schools (public and private) in Illinois. The schools had different ways of dealing with students who had learning disabilities. One of my friends went to an all-girls school in Chicago; she struggled with reading comprehension. She said her school put her in “slower classes,” but she was doing fine and didn’t have a problem. However, there were multiple other girls in the class struggling to not only keep their grades up but also “stay out of trouble.” The “trouble” they were getting into was constantly getting detentions for not paying attention, not completing a class assignment within the time limit, spacing out, and not understanding the material presented.

Another private all-girls school in a Chicago north shore suburb had similar issues however, some were more drastic. This high school was extremely small due to the fact people with learning disabilities were seen as outcasts. Students with learning disabilities would not get to choose what classes they took; they were told by the school which classes they are taking and when. This was due to the fact that the school wanted to put them all in the same classes. Being such a small school, there were only eight girls in the class which made it extremely difficult for my friend to meet other people in high school.

Finally, at a public school in the city of Chicago, my friend who has ADD says his high school did not help at all, and the only reason he passed was because the standard was set so low. Since his school was in the city, there were a lot of drug dealers or gang members in his classes. The school did not have a budget for a program for people with learning disabilities. Instead, they put everyone who had low grades or a low placement exam score in the same classes. Teachers didn’t know who couldn’t pay attention due to a learning disability (such as ADD or ADHD) or there were people who just didn’t care. Everyone in those classes was deemed the bad kid and no one cared if they were passing or failing. Teachers were much stricter and gave out detentions for missing work or not paying attention. My friend had eighteen detentions for not paying attention and three for missing work, just in his senior year.

In high school, my experience was similar. I went to a private high school in the northwest suburbs. I have reading comprehension and spelling issues. My school put all kids with a learning disability in a class together called Learning Strats. We never actually did anything in class. We were told to be quiet and do our homework. This was a mandatory class you had to take every year and you would not receive any credits for it, which meant everyone in the class also had to do summer school just to keep up with other students and graduate on time. More than half of the kids in my school with a learning disability had ADD or ADHD. Teachers would give them a warning or two by telling them to pay attention but, then they would give them detention or kick them out of class completely which made the student become less motivated and the teacher thought they didn’t care. After a student would receive two detentions there were no more warnings. For example, if they were staring out the window, they were just told to leave or just get detention.

My biggest struggle in school was in-class assignments. When we would get a worksheet to do in class, we were often given a time limit of twenty minutes. This would be no problem for most students, but for me it was hard. Unlike most people, I have to read something two to three times to understand it. Short small questions were fine but paragraph-long questions would take me a long time to complete. Often, I wasn’t able to complete the assignment in the given time frame. When this happened, I would talk to the teacher and ask to take it home or bring it to them after school, completed. They would often say no because they thought I was doing something else during class time.

I think teachers need to be better educated on how to instruct students with learning disabilities. I understand they can’t be expected to know every type, but at least if they had knowledge of more common learning disabilities that will improve the students’ experience and help the teachers understand. A lot of teachers act like students with learning disabilities are hopeless or just don’t care, but that’s not true at all. All of my friends with learning disabilities constantly check their grades or try to see how they can improve their grades in some way. Most high schools in Illinois need a better program for learning disabilities and it’s time people start caring about how some students are treated. The reason why I care so much is that I’ve been through struggles, but my friends have had it much worse than me. I know other students may have it even worse than them, too. A lot of people think that just because they don’t have a learning disability that this problem won’t affect them, however, I believe we live in a society that has equal opportunities for everyone. Everyone deserves a fair chance, especially in school.





Discrimination against people with disabilities based on the concept that a person with all physical abilities is superior. [1]


The mental processes involved in distinguishing, acquiring, and processing information vital for everyday living. [2]

Disability (in general)

A physical or mental condition that limits an individual’s capabilities to participate or be active in daily activities.[3]

Invisible Disability

Invisible Disability, or hidden disability, is an umbrella term that captures a whole spectrum of hidden disabilities or challenges that are primarily neurological in nature. [4]

Neurodiversity (Autism, ADHD)

A concept that recognizes the differences in brain function and behavioral traits as part of normal variations in the human population”, now with an expanded spectrum of Autism to individuals that also experience conditions such as dyslexia, and ADHD. [5]

Visible Disability 

A disability that is visually apparent to the observer. [6]

Federal Mandates and Protections

(Eligibility for) Accommodations

A reasonable accommodation is any change to the application or hiring process, to the job, to the way the job is done, or to the work environment that allows a person with a disability who is qualified for the job to perform the essential functions of that job and enjoy equal employment opportunities. Accommodations are considered “reasonable” if they do not create an undue hardship or a direct threat. [7]

ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)

The ADA is one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life — to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin – and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — the ADA is an “equal opportunity” law for people with disabilities. [8]

Assessment Equity 

Also called “equity audits” or “climate assessments,” involve collecting and analyzing information, usually through multiple data-gathering processes, in order to determine the extent to which a school, college, program, or other entity is equitable to each member of the community. [9]

Civil Rights Act Title IV

Prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives Federal funds or other Federal financial assistance. [10]

Civil Rights Act – Title VI

No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. [11]

IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a law that makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.

The IDEA governs how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services to more than 7.5 million (as of the school year 2018-19) eligible infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities. [12]

IEP (Individualized Education Program)

A specific plan/program which includes specialized instruction and services designed for any student with an identified disability attending an elementary or secondary school. [13]

504 Plan 

A plan developed to ensure that a child who has a disability identified under the law and is attending an elementary or secondary educational institution receives accommodations that will ensure their academic success and access to the learning environment. [14]

Invisible Disabilities


One’s lack of seeing due to an injury or congenital condition.

Chronic Illness 

A health condition that can last up to more than three months or for an extended period of time and cannot be cured or does not disappear. [15]

Chronic Pain

Ongoing or recurring pain due to a health condition that can last weeks to years.

Physical Disability

Long-term impairment of one’s body function which can limit their everyday activities.

Speech Disorders 

Conditions that affect one’s ability to communicate by producing sounds through words.

Vision Impairment

A decrease in the ability to see to a certain degree that causes problems not fixable by usual means, such as glasses.[16]

Visible Disabilities


Generally, anxiety refers to experiences of heightened stress. When those experiences are acute and chronic, that may indicate the presence of an anxiety disorder. Many experiences fall under this umbrella. Generalized anxiety disorder refers to chronic, excessive worrying. Panic disorder involves panic attacks, acute sensations of worry and fear. Phobias and social anxiety disorder describe the range of feelings of nervousness and fear in response to particular triggers, such as crowds, heights, and certain animals. [17]


Depression is a broad term describing many connected mood disorders. Forms of depression are characterized not only by sadness, but also listlessness, loss of interest in things, decreased energy, and major changes in sleeping and eating patterns. Sometimes confused with sadness, which is a normal and healthy emotion, depression instead represents the ongoing emergence of the aforementioned symptoms. [18]

Learning Disability (Dyslexia)

Learning disorder that involves struggles with reading.

Mental Illness

The term mental illness is typically used in a medical context to refer to a wide range of conditions related to emotional and mental health. [19]


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) refers to a range of sensations following a challenging, violent, and/or sad event. It is often associated with military veterans’ time in combat but can follow any experience of trauma, including but not limited to the death of a loved one, sexual assault, and accidents. PTSD can manifest in many ways including re-experiencing trauma from moments that recall the traumatizing event (sometimes called triggers), and changes in behavior and cognition.[20]



Bevan, Tim, et al. The Theory of Everything. Focus Features, 2014.

Isaacson, Rupert. The Horse Boy. Zeitgeist Films, 2009.

Nelson, Jessie, director. I Am Sam. Warner Bros., 2001.

Serkis, Andy, director. Breathe. BBC Films, 2017.



Fine, Sean and Andrea Nix, directors. Life According to Sam. HBO Documentary Films, 2013.

Lebrecht, Jim and Nicole Newnham, directors. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. Netflix, 2020.

Davis, Ron, director. Miss You Can Do It. Docutainment Films, 2013.

DeSilva, Jason, director. When I Walk . AXS Labs, 2013.

Karsh, Jonathan, director. My Flesh and Blood. Chaiken Films, 2003.


TV shows

The A Word . Created by Peter Bowker, Fifty Fathoms Productions, 2016.

Atypical. Created by Robia Rashid, Exhibit A, 2017.

Bryant, Elaine Frontain, and Shelly Tatro. Born This Way , Bunim-Murray Productions (BMP) , 2015.

The Healing Power of Dude. Created by Sam Littenberg-Weisberg, and Erica Spates, Blue Ant Digital Studios, 2020.



Lezotte, Ann Clare. Show me a Sign. Scholastic, 2020.

Bell, Cece. El Deafo. New York, NY: Amulet Books, 2014.

Draper, Sharon M. Out of My Mind. Thorndike Press, 2019.


Autobiography/ Memoir/ Theory

Herrera, Pascula. It’s Not Always a Valley of Tears.

Wong, Alice. Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century. Vintage, 2020.

Silberman, Steve. Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. Avery, 2016.



Black, Sheila and Jennifer Bartlett. Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Cinco Puntos Press, 2011.

A collection of poetry and essays about disability


  1. “Ableism 101 - What Is Ableism? What Does It Look Like?” Access Living, 8 Jan. 2021, www.accessliving.org/newsroom/blog/ableism-101/
  2. “Cognition.” Cognition - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/cognition
  3. “Physical Activity for People with Disability.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Sept. 2020, www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/features/physical-activity-for-all.html
  4. Saal, K., Martinez, L., & Smith, N. (2014). Visible Disabilities: Acknowledging the Utility of Acknowledgment. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 7(2), 242-248. doi:10.1111/iops.12140
  5. Stanford Neurodiversity Project. “About the Stanford Neurodiversity Project.” Stanford Neurodiversity Project, med.stanford.edu/neurodiversity.html
  6. Saal, K., Martinez, L., & Smith, N. (2014). Visible Disabilities: Acknowledging the Utility of Acknowledgment. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 7(2), 242-248. doi:10.1111/iops.12140
  7. “Reasonable Accommodations in the Workplace.” ADA National Network, 1 Sept. 2021, adata.org/factsheet/reasonable-accommodations-workplace
  8. “Ada.gov.” Introduction to the ADA, www.ada.gov/ada_intro.htm
  9. “Home: Equity Literacy Institute.” Equity, www.equityliteracy.org/
  10. Secretary, HHS Office of the, and Office for Civil Rights (OCR). “Civil Rights Requirements Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.” HHS.gov, US Department of Health and Human Services, 26 July 2013, www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-individuals/special-topics/needy-families/civil-rights-requirements/index.html
  11. 42 USC 2000d: Prohibition against Exclusion from Participation in, Denial of Benefits of, and Discrimination under Federally Assisted Programs on Ground of Race, Color, or National Origin, uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?req=%28title%3A42+section%3A2000d+edition%3Aprelim%29+OR+%28granuleid%3AUSC-prelim-title42-section2000d%29&f=treesort&num=0&edition=prelim
  12. “About Idea.” Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 24 Nov. 2020, sites.ed.gov/idea/about-idea/
  13. “What Is the Difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan?” What Is the Difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan? | AccessComputing, www.washington.edu/accesscomputing/what-difference-between-iep-and-504-plan#:~:text=The%20Individualized%20Educational%20Plan%20(IEP,specialized%20instruction%20and%20related%20services
  14. “What Is the Difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan?” What Is the Difference between an IEP and a 504 Plan? | AccessComputing, www.washington.edu/accesscomputing/what-difference-between-iep-and-504-plan#:~:text=The%20Individualized%20Educational%20Plan%20(IEP,specialized%20instruction%20and%20related%20services
  15. “Health and Medical Information Produced by Doctors.” MedicineNet, MedicineNet, www.medicinenet.com/script/main/hp.asp
  16. “Industries for the Blind and Visually Impaired.” IBVI, 28 June 2021, ibvi.org/
  17. “NIMH» Anxiety Disorders.” Nih.gov, 2 Dec. 2019, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders
  18. https://psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression
  19. Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace and the ADA | ADA National Network. (2019). Adata.org. https://adata.org/factsheet/health
  20. “NIMH " Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd


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