Educate to Liberate

How Black Genius is Misdiagnosed as Disability

Full disclosure: I am an educator who has long fought against the tendency for Black students to be disproportionately diagnosed w/ disabilities, especially considering the huge error of margin in rushing to judgment in an institutionally racist system which regards our children as an “other” and given the common thread of behaviors which intersect an ADHD diagnosis and that of giftedness/exceptionalism. As an avid believer in the oft-neglected, innate genius of Black children (in particular), and one in awe of the indomitable spirit of our people as a collective, I am convinced that Black genius has routinely been misdiagnosed as a disability in K-12 schools in America. I argue that it’s time for the entire pedagogical profession to shift our myopic views of what constitutes a developmental disability and consider how our bias too often informs the disproportionate labeling of Black youth as special needs. If scholarly research determines the validity of an existing pattern of prevalent pedagogical practice, findings would likely augment the veracity of modern testing protocols and inform the measurement of youth of all other ethnicities as well. Academic testing – How Academic Testing is Racist – in any form is racist, as such disproportionate disability diagnoses can scarcely be deemed viable, when rendered in a system which is firmly rooted upon antiquated systems of oppression and when performed at the hands of educators suffering from the scourge of the perpetual mis-education of Black students.

Honestly, has it ever occurred to a large percentage of the reigning resident experts, i.e. “holier-than-thou” educational policy makers that the students most prone to “acting out” during daily instruction and/or those least engaged with the didactic (and predictable asf) teaching style, are merely bored beyond belief and grossly underestimated in terms of their scholarship and ability? Surely, we must shift the blame from Black students’ and other students of color supposed inabilities, given the unrealistic expectation to conform to a flawed, Eurocentric model of education which neither places their experience nor their uniquely cultural (and multiple intelligences inclusive) learning styles at the forefront of the learning experience. For example, if indeed restlessness, inattention, impulsivity, high activity levels, and creativity infused day-dreaming are regarded as evidence of superior intellect in African centered or AP (advanced placement) classroom settings, then such behaviors are also representative of the trademark virtues commonly associated w/ being gifted. Yet, these behavioral indicators are often only afforded a positive connotation in specialized, small, private or otherwise affluent schools, overwhelmingly comprised of White students. Unbeknownst to many non-educators, in the average public/charter schools, the exact 👏🏾same 👏🏾descriptors 👏🏾are used to disenfranchise Black students and to otherwise limit, or completely obliterate a universal belief in the natural genius of our Black youth. This practice typically manifests as a large percentage of Black students in integrated school settings (and especially those in large, urban, underfunded school districts), as belonging to a special needs population, encumbered with academically underperforming tendencies or severely developmentally disabled labels and treatment.

There is widespread knowledge among pedagogical circles that the behavior profiles of gifted students closely mirrors that of troubled and/or non traditional students. Therefore, the only discernible difference in opportunity, resources, service delivery and corresponding student performance data is how a student has been officially labeled while on the K-12 trajectory. In affluent districts, student’s who are not traditionally served by general education classroom settings are almost immediately assumed to be gifted and prescribed to being set apart as bright, talented, creative, or as markedly gifted children who would benefit from advanced academic placement and smaller class sizes (among other interventions). The corresponding academic and social expectations are subsequently raised, the requisite resources and teacher quality soars and students officially begin the lifelong trajectory of designation as “gifted”. On the contrary, in urban schools across the nation, our most gifted population of Black students show traditional signs of non-conformity and are immediately regarded as academically, socially and behaviorally disadvantaged and after enduring the referral process, they languish in poorly staffed, scarcely resourced and sparsely funded Special Education departments. In this model SPED students are otherwise relegated to a bleak future wherein academic, social dysfunction is expected and deemed as the norm. Sure, they are placed in small class environments too – only these spaces are not labeled as advanced placement classes, but resource rooms. The bulk of these students almost exclusively mirror the self-fulfilling prophecies of lowered expectations, poor academic performance, social stigmatization and exclusion from the lifelong learning opportunities afforded to their equally gifted peers (born to a different culture and socioeconomic class). Ultimately, the inherent bias, labeling, and level of services offered by educational institutions is predicated upon the slightest nuance in special needs classifications and despite the apparent and often overwhelming intersections between giftedness and diagnosis as “an other”, there’s a literal world of difference between the two categories. Sigh . . .

Until now, little attention has been devoted to the similarities and differences between the two groups, particularly from the viable perspective of race and class inequalities as manifested in educational settings, thus raising the potential for misidentification in both areas — giftedness and disabled. Overwhelmingly, White students are referred to psychologists or pediatric physicians for their non-conformist, ADHD behaviors while Black students are routinely referred to behavior interventionists, deans and even external law enforcement facilities and detention centers at an equal (or accelerated), rate. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that Black students comprising the disabled ranks in segregated, underfunded inner city schools, possess levels of, as yet undiagnosed genius and have been failed by a system intent on their mis-education. Instead, Black students are increasingly diagnosed with ADHD, ASD and/or as distinguishable only in the form of academically, socially or behaviorally significant statistics.

As a general rule in academic practice, when White students’ even begin to exhibit behaviors in alignment with boredom, misbehavior or not working up to his/her apparent ability, they reap the corresponding benefits of attending well funded, resourced educational environments in which their parents’ favorable property values, all but guarantee that the best available social workers, psychologists, counselors and highly compensated administrators and staff will service their every need. In such idyllic environments, every educational and familial stakeholder is well versed in engaging an all-encompassing protocol replete with early intervention allowances to ensure the academic and social success of the individual student’s. When afforded a timely opportunity to be assessed on their academic strengths and weaknesses, the student is then, more often than not, determined to be “gifted and talented” in one, or more, distinct academic disciplines or social emotional capacities. As a veteran educator and scholar, I am not the least bit critical of this high expectation infused protocol of educational service delivery. On the contrary, I merely interrogate the absence of the same tried and true procedural precision in widespread application in the urban schools where I have taught/served as an administrator and in environments in which Black student scholars predominate.

Perhaps as evidence of the grave disparity in being diagnosed as gifted, in a recent Twitter thread, one middle-aged woman courageously, unwittingly exposed the frequency of White, affluent students being diagnosed as “twice-exceptional” in adulthood for harboring a virtually undetectable disability as adults, after having already been labeled as exceptional/gifted during their K-12 years. The thread quickly went viral and it rather innocently exposed the wealth of people who admitted to having benefited from being gifted early in life, while exhaustively detailing the corresponding frustration at struggling academically (or socially-emotionally), later in life when their learning disability was finally diagnosed. For many people, the academic and social differences only frustratingly emerged while enrolled in Ivy League Colleges or whilst working in corporate America, so clearly their White privilege anesthetized them from the special needs shame uniquely experienced by Black students. This only increasingly underscores the reality that the traits of giftedness and disability seamlessly intersect w/ race and class being the only discernible distinction in classification. Common admissions on the twice-exceptional thread included statements in line with this one: “Identified as gifted in grade school. I “never paid attention” in class, always turned in homework late, but did great on tests. I was only later diagnosed with ADHD at 19…”.

Educators must consider that if a student doesn’t finish his/her assignments, or hastily answers questions without showing their work; if their handwriting and spelling or organizational skills are poor; or if the student persistently fidgets in class, talks to others, refuses to keep a seat and often disrupts class by interrupting others they might well be aptly deemed as requiring intervention. The pivotal question is whether the student is gifted or developmentally disabled, and furthermore who is in the best possible position to render such a profound diagnosis? When students’ prematurely shout out the answers to teachers’ questions it’s admittedly annoying (despite the fact that they are usually right). Likewise, when a particularly bright light of a student daydreams during whole group instruction or seems far too easily distracted – these tendencies are typical precursors to being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, because of the inescapable reality of institutionalized racism, in similar case studies involving Black students we rarely if ever, pause to consider whether he/she is gifted, developmentally disabled or some semblance of both? More often than not, Black students are overwhelmingly diagnosed as falling within the confines of the latter Special Education population. While this should not constitute a prescription for academic disenfranchisement, it usually manifests as just that. Therein lies the dilemma of mis-education.

Since in current practice, educational professionals reach the consensus of an ADHD diagnosis by initially listening to parent or teacher referrals (detailing the child’s academic/behavioral profile), w/ only the insufficient contribution of a few brief classroom and social observations of the child, we must make allowances for human error and bias. Even in other cases, when brief screening questionnaires or assessments are used, these measures typically supplement the parents’ or teachers’ subjective descriptions of the original behaviors. Admittedly, only students who are fortunate enough to have thorough physical evaluations, which include screening for allergies and other metabolic disorders, and those afforded extensive psychological evaluations – including assessments of intelligence, achievement, and emotional status – have an equal footing at being accurately diagnosed as either gifted or disabled. It is clear that any student, Black or White, affluent or impoverished, may well be gifted and/or have ADHD or ASD. The truth is that without a thorough professional evaluation, exclusive of the assumptions common in a codified system of oppression, it is difficult to tell. Determining whether a child has ADHD can be particularly difficult when that child is also gifted. The use of many instruments, including intelligence tests administered by qualified professionals, achievement and personality tests, as well as parent/teacher rating scales, can substantively contribute to discerning the the subtle differences between ADHD and giftedness. All evaluations must also be followed by appropriate curricular and instructional modifications that account for cultural competencies and nuances, advanced knowledge, diverse learning styles, and various types of intelligence.

In the end, thoughtful consideration and appropriate professional evaluation is warranted before concluding that bright, creative, intensely gifted and talented Black students have developmental disabilities – or not. We must collectively consider all of the characteristics of the gifted/talented child’s culture, class and background (as well as that of the resident experts) before rushing to judgment. Parents: Do not hesitate to raise the possibility of giftedness with any professional who is evaluating your child for ADHD or ASD, as it is your right to interrogate this possibility. It is vitally important for all educators to make the correct diagnosis, and for parents and teachers to be similarly obliged to educate ourselves, since giftedness is often neglected in our collective professional development training. Together, in mindful consideration of the prevalence of mis-education, we can curb the incidence of Black genius being misdiagnosed as a disability. Otherwise we are all guilty of a grave disservice to all of humanity.



4 thoughts on “How Black Genius is Misdiagnosed as Disability”

  1. Wow! Absolutely profound! This should be required reading for all Educators -nd Administrators of Black and Brown students!

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

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