cover of book

The Unteachables: Disability Rights and the Invention of Black Special Education
by Keith A. Mayes
University of Minnesota Press, 2023
eISBN: 978-1-4529-6474-4 | Cloth: 978-1-5179-1026-6 | Paper: 978-1-5179-1027-3
Library of Congress Classification LC2787
Dewey Decimal Classification 371.9


How special education used disability labels to marginalize Black students in public schools

The Unteachables examines the overrepresentation of Black students in special education over the course of the twentieth century. As African American children integrated predominantly white schools, many were disproportionately labeled educable mentally retarded (EMR), learning disabled (LD), and emotionally behavioral disordered (EBD). Keith A. Mayes charts the evolution of disability categories and how these labels kept Black learners segregated in American classrooms.

The civil rights and the educational disability rights movements, Mayes shows, have both collaborated and worked at cross-purposes since the beginning of school desegregation. Disability rights advocates built upon the opportunity provided by the civil rights movement to make claims about student invisibility at the level of intellectual and cognitive disabilities. Although special education ostensibly included children from all racial groups, educational disability rights advocates focused on the needs of white disabled students, while school systems used disability discourses to malign and marginalize Black students.

From the 1940s to the present, social science researchers, policymakers, school administrators, and teachers have each contributed to the overrepresentation of Black students in special education. Excavating the deep-seated racism embedded in both the public school system and public policy, The Unteachables explores the discriminatory labeling of Black students, and how it indelibly contributed to special education disproportionality, to student discipline and push-out practices, and to the school-to-prison pipeline effect.

Nearby on shelf for Special aspects of education / Education of special classes of persons / Blacks. African Americans: