“In some cases and for some children, having this information can be a lifesaver,” he says Lauren Riveraprofessor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School.
But according to new research by Rivera and András Tilcsik of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, discrimination prevents families from gaining such critical knowledge. Their study found that public school principals are less responsive to parents of children with disabilities when it comes to providing information about schools. This is especially true when the parent of a child with special needs is perceived to be black.
“While we find that there is differential response based on disability status, as much of the disability literature in education shows, this effect is very racialized,” says Rivera, creating an interconnected set of barriers for black children with disabilities.
The reality of discrimination against people with disabilities is not new, of course. Previous research has found that people with disabilities face significant barriers in the labor market—they they earn less than their non-disabled counterparts and it is underemployed based on their credentials. Rivera and Tilcsik’s new study shows that these challenges begin long before people enter the workforce.
“It’s not just that disability discrimination hurts people in the labor market,” says Rivera. “Disability discrimination starts much earlier and actually affects the educational opportunities and choices available to students, especially in a school choice context.”
Underfunded special education mandate
In the United States, the rights of children with special needs are protected not only by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but also by the Law on the Education of Persons with Disabilities (IDEA). IDEA states that school districts must provide a “free and appropriate public education” to students with disabilities, with the special supports needed for each child described in a legally binding document called an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
When Congress reauthorized IDEA in 1990, it set a goal of covering 40 percent of the law’s costs, but it never reached that limit. As a result, states and school districts bear most of the cost of special education, with each state distributing funding in slightly different ways. Because of limited federal aid, funding for children with disabilities is often scarce and seems to compete with funding for everything else schools need.
While school districts are responsible for creating IEPs, school principals are responsible for putting IEPs into practice, which is why Rivera and Tilcsik decided to focus their research on them. They are also responsible for making difficult choices about how to distribute valuable resources in their school.
“Principals control many resources that directly affect the fate of students with and without disabilities,” says Rivera. “They’re the gatekeepers: they control who gets what classroom space on which floor of the building, the staff, and whether to spend money to cover a child’s IEP versus investing it in programs that serve a larger percentage of the student.”
Disability discrimination at the school gate
Rivera and Tilcsik designed an experiment to test how disability status affects the school search process. Because racial discrimination and disability discrimination have historically been intertwined in the United States, they also decided to study race in this context.
They sent emails from virtual prospective parents requesting school tours to more than 20,000 principals at public schools in four states. There were multiple versions of the email, varying the fictitious child’s gender, disability status (as indicated by whether or not the parent reported an IEP), and the perceived race of the parent writing the emails. Half were signed by Tyra Williams (a name widely assumed to be black, according to experimental biases) and half by Amy Williams (a name widely assumed to be white). Both names were considered similar in social class.
Rivera and Tilcsik chose to focus on field trips, which are “one of the most common ways, across classes and races, that parents research schools to see if they’re a good fit for their child.” says Rivera.
The tours are especially important to parents of children with disabilities because schools typically have very little publicly available information about the specific special education services they offer. Seeing the schools in person and speaking one-on-one with staff on a tour is one of the best ways for parents to find out if their children will have the right support.
In the study, an email response offering a tour or other meeting was considered a positive response, while non-responses or responses that declined to meet were considered negative responses.
The results of the email audit showed a clear pattern: principals were less responsive to parents of children with disabilities. They responded to 53.5% of emails that did not mention IEPs, but only 41.8% of emails that mentioned IEPs. Among emails mentioning an IEP, 44.1 percent of “Amy’s” emails received a positive response, compared to 39.5 percent of “Tyra’s.”
Understanding managers’ responses
While the email study showed that principals respond differently to parents of children with disabilities, and especially to black parents, “we can’t really get a handle on why,” Rivera explains. So they conducted a second study with a new group of 578 managers designed to understand what drove the outcome.
This time, the managers were given a survey ostensibly to get their views on a variety of topics for a research project. In fact, the researchers had placed within the survey a series of questions about disabled children and their parents being the real focus.
As part of this section of the study, the principals viewed one of the same eight e-mails used in the previous study, mentioning either a son or daughter with or without a disability and signed by either Amy or Tyra Williams. The survey then asked if and how the principal would have responded to this email if they had received it, as well as several questions about the principal’s perceptions of both the parent and the child from the email.
The survey results replicated findings from the email audit, with principals responding significantly less to emails mentioning an IEP, an effect that was stronger when the parent was perceived as black.
The research also shed light on why managers reacted the way they did. Overall, “the discrimination we see based on disability status stems from perceptions of children as more difficult and burdensome to educate,” Rivera explains. While of course unfair and unwarranted, he says these feelings likely stem from the fact that “schools are responsible for paying students, both in terms of money and staff time.”
While disability discrimination was driven by children’s perceptions, Rivera and Tilcsik were surprised to find that the racial discrimination component was driven by parents’ perceptions. Black parents of children with disabilities were viewed as less valuable members of the school community than white parents of students with or without disabilities. “They were considered less likely to volunteer in the classroom, less likely to participate in fundraising, and there was some evidence that they were considered more difficult to work with,” says Rivera.
In other words, discrimination arose from multiple interacting biases. “It’s not just that multi-marginalized groups experience more discrimination,” says Rivera. “It’s that discrimination can also come from many places.” That is, the discrimination faced by Black parents of children with disabilities results from a combination of negative stereotypes about disability and negative stereotypes about race.
Creating and financing a fairer system
Although Rivera finds the study’s results extremely disheartening, “schools should never have been put in this position in the first place,” she says: forced to deal with complex needs with insufficient resources.
Alleviating disability discrimination in schools will require bigger changes, such as asking Congress to fund IDEA at the level promised, Rivera believes. With improved school funding, educating disabled children will not be seen as taking anything away from non-disabled students, he argues. What’s needed is more for everyone: “How can we give schools more resources so it’s not seen as a zero-sum game?”