This Qualitative Research Synthesis (QRS) explored how K-16 students of color make meaning of their disability labels and negotiate the prevailing dominant ideologies surrounding dis/ability labels, race, gender, and other forms of identity. Scholars in Disability Studies in Education (DSE) have explored critical connections between Disability Studies (DS) and Critical Race Theory (CRT) (Annamma, Connor & Ferri, 2013; Erevelles, Kanga & Middleton, 2006). This study identified such critical connections by synthesizing 13 qualitative studies from 2006-2018 and explored the lived experiences of students of color labeled with disabilities. Our goal for this QRS was to advance the theoretical work in DSE through a synthesis of qualitative literature within the field. QRS is a methodologically rigorous approach that "uses qualitative methods to analyze, synthesize, and (re)interpret the results from [existing] qualitative studies" (Major & Savin-Baden, 2010, p. 10). We employed a resistance theory of disability at the intersections (Gabel & Peters, 2004; Giroux, 1983a, 1983b), that foregrounded the psycho-emotional disablism model of disability (Thomas, 1999), to recognize that students' acts of resistance directly relate to systematic oppression within the education system. Findings from our second order thematic analysis suggest that students identified disability labels as an assigned identity, which limited their educational opportunities and left a psychological and emotional impact on their well-being. However, students also used multiple strategies and acts of resistance to negotiate the stereotypical master narratives surrounding their intersectional identities. Through a timely methodological and conceptual counter-narrative of its own within educational equity research, our QRS contributes to theory, research, and praxis, with implications for a more humane and just education system for all students.

Disproportionate representation of students of color in special education has been well documented in the literature (Artiles, 2011, 2013; Brayboy, Castagno & Maughan, 2007; Cavendish, Connor, Gonzalez, Jean-Pierre, & Card, 2018; Cooc & Kiru, 2018; Dunn, 1968; Hosp & Reschly, 2004; O'Connor & Fernandez, 2006; Voulgarides, Fergus & Thorius, 2017). Despite this overrepresentation, little is known about how these students with intersectional identities—students who are multiply situated within different racial and ethnic backgrounds, belong to lower social-economic status and are labeled disabled—make sense of these disability labels within the education system (Annamma, Connor, & Ferri, 2013).

Only recently have Disability Studies in Education (DSE) scholars systematically reviewed the key findings in education literature about students with dis/abilities along with their intersectional identities (Annamma, Ferri & Connor, 2018; Hernández-Saca, Kahn, & Cannon, 2018). Findings from these reviews indicate that disability labels are bound up with students' multiple identities—dis/ability 3, race, gender and other markers of difference—and unjust social processes such as racism and ableism that collectively marginalize these students. However, these are systematic reviews and do not develop new findings from the primary data in existing qualitative literature. We agree with Annamma et al. (2018) that there is a need to understand how these social processes impact the everyday lives of all people and to further research on the traditional notions of activism within Disability Studies. It is critical that educators understand the experiences of multiply marginalized students and how these students construct counter-narratives to disrupt the prevailing stereotypical assumptions surrounding their intersectional identities. We understand counter-narratives as the stories that students share to describe who they are and how their lives and communities stand up to or resist the negative assumptions and misconceptions prevalent in the dominant society (Crane, 2017; Martínez, 2017).

This article presents findings from a Qualitative Research Synthesis (QRS; Major & Savin-Baden, 2010) of studies that explored how students of color experience, negotiate, and sometimes challenge their disability labels. The present study is, to our knowledge, the first attempt to synthesize the findings from qualitative studies that examine how students of color labeled as disabled perceive and construct counter-narratives about their disability labels (Bamberg, 2004; Hammack & Toolis, 2014; Lyotard, 1979; Solórzano, & Yosso, 2002). Findings from this synthesis indicate that students in the sampled studies understood disability as an assigned identity; perceived dis/ability labels to be related to their racial, gender and class identities; and resisted these labels in complex ways. Our findings also suggest the psychological and emotional impact of disability labels and how sometimes resistance is related with the emotions experienced within educational settings.

In what follows, we begin by setting up our conceptual framework within the field of Disability Studies in Education (DSE) through the theoretical lenses of Dis/ability Critical Race Studies (DisCrit), resistance theory of disablism at intersections, and the psycho-emotional model of disability. We then describe the QRS methods employed in this project and present the findings from the synthesis. In the discussion section, we bring the findings from this synthesis project into conversation with theoretical work in the field of DSE and extend the psycho-emotional model of disability (Thomas, 1999, 2007) to its intersectional dimensions, what we term intersectional disablism. Finally, we conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for the field of DSE and directions for future theory, research, and praxis.

Conceptual Framework

We situate our synthesis project within the field of DSE (Artiles, Thorius, Bal, Neal, Waitoller, & Hernández-Saca, 2011) that foregrounds DisCrit (Annamma et al, 2013), resistance theory of disability (Gabel & Peters, 2004; Giroux, 1983a, 1983b; Meekosha & Shuttleworth, 2009), and the psycho-emotional disablism model of disability (Thomas, 1999, 2007). Our goal for this QRS project was threefold: 1) to advance the theoretical frameworks within the field of DSE through synthesizing qualitative literature within the field, 2) to identify how students of color labeled with dis/abilities make meaning of their disability labels, and 3) to understand how students negotiate these labels within the education system. Understanding how these negotiations operate is important because it reveals how students respond to injustice—structural limitations as well as stereotypes associated with the disability labels—and how they employ different strategies to create a space for themselves in the education system (Annamma et al., 2013). This QRS also seeks to understand the diverse forms of resistance that students use against domination such as medicalized views of disability, disability categorizations in schools, and the subordination of those considered disabled (Annamma et al., 2013; Crenshaw, 1991).

Dis/ability Critical Race Studies (DisCrit)

Dis/ability Critical Race Studies (DisCrit) is an interdisciplinary framework with historical underpinnings in Disability Studies in Education (DSE), and in critiques of Disability Studies (DS) and Critical Race Theory (CRT). Annamma et al. (2013) critiqued CRT scholars' failure to focus disability and ableism within their framework and to address race and racism within the fields of DS and DSE. DisCrit scholars acknowledge intersectional identities and propose that both race and dis/ability are socially constructed categories (re)produced by hegemonic power structures (Annamma et al., 2013; Crenshaw, 1991). We interpret hegemonic power structures as dominant ways of being and doing within a society that favors some people by allowing them to exercise domination over those not favored through these social categories (Crenshaw, 1991). We further agree that socially created categories hold significant meaning for students who experience intersecting oppression and that these categories have considerable consequences on their life chances and identity work (Annamma et al., 2013; Crenshaw, 1991). Disability categories, therefore, contribute to the reproduction of social hierarchies in society (Annamma et al., 2013).

Resistance Theory of Disablism at Intersections

Giroux (1983a) defined power as a force to "mediate and legitimate the relations of dominance and subordinance" in economic, social, historical, political, and cultural spheres of life (Giroux, 1983a, p. 262). Resistance theory celebrates the role of human agency—the ability to act in a socio-cultural milieu such as the classroom (Ahearn, 2001)—and recognizes that power is multidimensional (Giroux, 1983a, 1983b). Within the DSE framework, a resistance theory of disability acknowledges the on-going social, economic and political struggles and negotiating acts of people labeled with dis/abilities. It also recognizes the different expressions of individual agency to resist and respond to the dominant narratives, for example the perception that disability resides in the individual mind and body (Gabel & Peters, 2004). Power is multidimensional and, accordingly, the ways in which students labeled with a disability label resist that label is also multidimensional.

Psycho-Emotional Model of Disability

Thomas (2007) defined the psycho-emotional model of disability as "a form of social oppression involving the social imposition of restrictions of activity on people with impairments and the socially engendered undermining of their psycho-emotional well-being" (p.73). Thomas (1999) identified how people often feel "hurt … being made to feel worthless, of lesser value, unattractive, hopeless, stressed or insecure" (p. 47). This could impact the individual psychologically and emotionally and indirectly "restrict activity," such as not applying for an eligible job due to lack of confidence or fear of others' reactions to disability (Thomas, 1999, p. 48). Psycho-emotional disablism does not refer to the clinical conception of disability in its psychological and neurological terms. Instead, the psycho-emotional disablism restricts a person's sense of self by negatively influencing one's psychological and emotional well-being. These restrictions are deeply rooted in social, historical and cultural master narratives, that is, dominant false assumptions about different social identities that allow and constrain individual agency within institutions (Thomas, 1999).

By situating our conceptual framework in DisCrit, resistance theory of disability and psycho-emotional model of disablism, we intend to explore students' counter-narratives to the dominant master narratives surrounding their intersectional identities. We also seek to understand how students who are labeled disabled make sense of these labels, how their intersectional identities inform these labels, and how they negotiate or challenge these disability labels. We asked the following research questions: How do students of color, labeled with dis/abilities, make meaning of disability labels? How do students of color, labeled with dis/abilities, negotiate and potentially challenge these labels within school settings?

Research Synthesis Design

Qualitative Research Synthesis (QRS) is a research methodology that employs rigorous sampling techniques, inclusion and exclusion criteria, evaluative techniques, and "qualitative methods to analyze, synthesize, and interpret the results from qualitative studies" (Major & Savin-Baden, 2010, p. 10). QRS findings emerge from second-order coding of primary data and second-order thematic analyses of findings from sampled studies. The goal of QRS is to produce new knowledge by making connections across individual qualitative studies and to add depth to existing bodies of research literature. QRS can provide scholars with tools to manage the phenomenal growth of qualitative research and fragmentation of knowledge, to identify gaps in research literature, to deepen quantitative and meta-analytic research, to advance theory, to develop comprehensive perspectives on a body of qualitative research, and to inform policy formation and debate (pp. 11-16). QRS does not seek generalizability in the quantitative sense, but it does lend itself to the transferability of methods and findings to other contexts (pp. 20-21). Our goal for this QRS project is to advance theory work within DSE through synthesizing qualitative literature within the field.

Sampling Procedures

The sample for this synthesis project stemmed from a systematic search of qualitative studies published in peer-reviewed journal articles, books, and dissertations between 2006 and 2018, that examined the lived experiences of students of color labeled as disabled 4. The authors conducted a search of specific terms (disability, disabled, disabilities, race, ethnicity, class, gender, special education, negotiate, resist, overcome, adapt to, intersection, adjust, ignore, minority, African-American, Hispanic, qualitative research, phenomenology, narrative research, case study, ethnography, and grounded theory) in the following search engines (ERIC, EBSCO, Google Scholar, Education Full Text, ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I, Open Access thesis & dissertations, WorldCat—Advanced, Advanced Google Books, and Ebook Central). Additional studies were identified through the chain-sampling of citations used in sampled studies as well as in texts that cited sampled studies.

The systematic search yielded 61 studies, including 43 articles, 17 dissertations, and 1 book (Appendix A). The sampled studies were also evaluated for comparability and compatibility according to the relevance of research questions to this synthesis project, the clarity of the research methods employed, the inclusion of rich primary data in the form of rich description, the credibility of findings, and the quality of the publication outlet (Table 1). The sampled studies were then assessed for rigor by evaluating the congruency between research goals, research questions, and methodology and the congruity between research questions, data collection, analysis, and the presentation and interpretation of findings (Table 2). The final sample yielded 13 studies, including 7 research articles, 5 dissertations, and 1 book presenting findings from 8 data sets (Banks, 2017; Connor, 2006, 2008, 2009; Dávila, 2015; Ferri & Connor, 2010; Hernández-Saca, 2016; Peterson, 2006a, 2006b, 2009; Washington, 2011; Whitener, 2014; Wright, 2012), capturing the lived experiences of 56 students (n = 56).

Table 1
Inclusion/Exclusion criteria
CriteriaInclude studiesExclude studies
Research question
Researcher design
Included data
Publication outlet
Source. Adapted from Major & Savin-Baden (2010, p. 51)
Table 2
Appraisal quality of studies
Criteria for appraisalResponse
There is congruity between methodology and research goalsYesNo
There is congruity between research goals and research questionsYesNo
There is congruity between research questions and data collection techniquesYesNo
There is congruity between research questions and data analysisYesNo
There is congruity between research questions and presentation of findingsYesNo
There is congruity between methodology and interpretation of findingsYesNo
Source. Adapted from Major & Savin-Baden (2010, p. 52)

Analysis procedures

We employed two analytic procedures from QRS to synthesize the findings from sampled studies. The first procedure involved the second-order coding of primary data from sampled studies. We began by extracting and recording primary data in a coding frame. The lead researcher then hand-coded extracted primary data using descriptive codes (Saldaña, 2013) and recorded codes in a table. The lead researcher then reviewed the codes generated by descriptive coding to ensure the mutual exclusivity of codes and to identify patterns in the data. The lead researcher then re-coded extracted data using pattern codes (Saldaña, 2013) and recorded the final codes in a table. The second analysis procedure involved a second-order thematic analysis of sampled studies informed by the second-order coding of primary data. Many of the pattern codes later became the sub-themes of our findings. The composite themes developed from this second-order thematic analysis were then used in a review of the findings from the sampled studies as a validation strategy.

We used a collaborative work strategy to ensure the rigor and validity of synthesis findings (Brantlinger, Jimenez, Klinger, Pagach & Richardson, 2005). For this, we met once a week to collaboratively discuss, analyze, and synthesize the data. These meetings created a space to offer critical feedback and to ensure the validity and reliability of composite themes. Analytical memos were also maintained for researcher reflexivity (Saldaña, 2013; Thomas & Magilvy, 2011). Furthermore, we also co-constructed and worked through multiple drafts of the write-up in an iterative process moving between the emerging narrative, data, and theory.

Researcher positionalities

Shehreen Iqtadar—the first author and lead researcher—is a Pakistani female bilingual in Urdu and English who is currently pursuing a doctorate in education within the United States. Her experiences as a woman of color, as an international student, and as a member of a religious minority have informed and shaped her identity in multiple ways. As a female researcher of color, she is interested in issues related to power, equality and intersectional identities. David Hernández-Saca—one of the second co-authors and co-researchers—is a Latino of mixed ethnicity (El Salvadorian and Palestinian), bilingual in Spanish and English, and he is a recent U.S. citizen. He also was labeled with an auditory Learning Disability and was in special education from K-12, due to an early childhood fever and eventual seizures and convulsions. This early experience of disability influenced his research agenda as an assistant professor of Disability Studies in Education. His work problematizes the common-sense assumptions about learning disabilities (LD) and investigates how LD labeling impacts students' conceptions of self at their intersections with other markers of difference. Scott Ellison—the other second co-author and co-researcher—is a white male professor of education with an interest in developing critical analytic tools to understand how power relations are produced, negotiated, and challenged within schools. He inhabits a privileged position and seeks to understand the lived experiences of marginalized groups through critical qualitative research methodologies.


We present our findings as students' counter-narratives to the stereotypical master narratives surrounding their intersectional identities (Bamberg, 2004; Hammack & Toolis, 2014; Lyotard, 1979; Solórzano, & Yosso, 2002). Three themes were developed from our synthesis including (a) disability as an assigned identity, (b) multiple identities informing dis/ability labels, and (c) doing identity work by performance and resistance. Our findings suggest that students perceived disability labels as an identity assigned within the education system that restricted their educational opportunities and stigmatized their multiple and intersectional identities. They questioned the benefits of receiving a disability label and engaged in identity work through exercising agency and negotiating their educational experiences. For this synthesis, we used direct participant quotes and primary researchers' analytic quotes from the sampled studies. To differentiate researcher quotes from participants' quotes, we italicized the researcher analytic quotes in our findings below.

Disability as an Assigned Identity

Participants in the studies sampled for this synthesis project perceived disability as an assigned identity that limited their educational opportunities as well as negatively affected their psychosocial well-being. They understood disability as an identity assigned to them by the educational system (Connor, 2006, 2008; Hernández-Saca, 2016; Petersen 2006b; Wright, 2012) based on the widely accepted perceptions of disability that frames 'difference' as 'deviance' (Annamma, Boelé, Moore & Klingner, 2013; Artiles, 2015; Dudley-Marling, 2010). One participant in Connor's (2008) study noted:

When I'm in a classroom, I guess that's when my LD starts, coz that's when I start to feel like, "Dag, I'm not perfect," "Dag, I'm gonna mess up or get something wrong," or, "They're gonna judge me, coz I'm not catching up as fast as they can." As soon as I step into a classroom, that's when everything starts, "Dag! Oh man, I hope they don't call on me today," or "I hope I can just ride easily throughout the day while getting looks, stares …" (p. 74)

On the one hand, being identified as having a disability was seen as a means to gain access to educational supports (e.g., being given extra time to complete tests and assignments; Connor, 2006, 2009; Hernández-Saca, 2016; Washington, 2011; Wright, 2012). However, on the other hand, they perceived their identification as being disabled as a form of medicalization that carries with it stigmatization (Dávila, 2015; Hernández-Saca, 2016; Petersen, 2006a, 2009). One student observed:

They want you to say you're disabled and then sometimes they don't even give you what you're asking for when you do say it. For me, they just wanted to fix me with a pill. But I didn't want a pill. What I needed were people, especially my professors, to understand (Petersen, 2006a, p. 112)

This student described being identified as disabled as a process of medicalization "they just wanted to fix me with a pill" that did not provide her with the educational support that she required. Another student understood that the disability identification came with a cost—stigmatization—noting, "having an IEP can be great when I get my accommodations but you gotta remember that the teachers will treat you differently because of it." (Wright, 2012, p. 131) Across sampled studies, participants described their identification as being disabled as an assigned identity that medicalizes and stigmatizes them while offering no guarantee that they would receive the educational support they required. Although some participants discussed certain benefits of special education services, such as extra time and support for task completion (Banks, 2017; Whitener, 2014; Wright, 2012), they overwhelmingly described disability labels as derogatory and stigmatizing while offering no guarantee for quality education.

Limits educational opportunity

A more troubling finding from our synthesis was that participants identified disability labels and special education placement as limiting their educational opportunities. They described their educational experiences as "baby-[work]," (Connor, 2008, p. 86, 191, 245, 265, Ferri & Connor, 2010, p. 116; Petersen, 2006a, p. 211; Petersen, 2009, p. 437) "coloring and painting," (Connor, 2008, p. 74) "daycare," (Petersen, 2006a, 117, 154, 167) "dull," (Petersen, 2006b) "inadequate," (Petersen, 2006a; 211; Washington, 2011; p. 156; Whitener, 2014, p. 53) "boring," (Petersen, 2006a, p. 104, 117; Washington, 2011, p. 85, 90; Whitener, 2014, p. 54, 88) "too juvenile," (Whitener, 2014, p. 51) and "just childish" (Whitener, 2014, p. 52). Participants also perceived that their teachers hold lowered expectations towards them (Banks, 2017; Connor, 2008, 2009; Dávila, 2015; Petersen, 2009). For example, Dávila (2015) observed the following exchange in a school learning center for students with dis/abilities:

One day, in the learning center, Armando got up from his desk, walked towards the door and asked if he could leave to turn in a class project he had just completed for one of his general education classes. His learning center teacher, Ms. Armstrong, was sitting at her desk across the room and told him without lifting her head from her work, 'Yes, get a pass. She'll be so happy.' He stopped in his tracks, looked at her, and asked in a surprised tone, 'Why?' She elaborated, 'She'll fall off her chair. Because you did it.' (p. 455)

Similarly, another participant explained the teacher's lowered expectations in the following way:

Why did we have to keep doing the same thing over and over, she told me it was because we had a learning disability and needed to keep repeating the same work until we got it. (Washington 2011, p. 105)

Participants were keenly aware of the educational gap between themselves and their "able-bodied" general education peers, and they described the lowered expectations teachers have for students labeled as disabled. Special education classrooms, which are designed to provide students with extra time and accommodations to meet their learning needs, were often described by participants to be sites that limited their day-to-day learning experiences and future opportunities.

Psychological and emotional well-being

An equally troubling finding from this synthesis was that participants across all eight datasets regularly experienced disability-related microaggressions and associated stigmas, which further affected their psychological and emotional well-being (Banks, 2017; Connor, 2006, 2008, 2009; Dávila, 2015; Ferri & Connor, 2010; Hernández-Saca, 2016; Washington, 2011). They felt "hurt," (Connor, 2008, p. 78; Connor, 2009, p. 454; Hernández-Saca, 2016, p. 124) "mad," (Connor, 2006, p. 157; Connor, 2008, p. 78; Connor, 2009, p. 456; Hernández-Saca, 2016, p. 110, 195, 229; Whitener, 2014, p. 67) "being punished," (Whitener, 2014, p. 74) "nervous," (Hernández-Saca, 2016, p. 123), "bad" (Connor, 2008, p. 214; Hernández-Saca, 2016, p. 127), "heavy," (Connor, 2008, p. 207) and "embarrass[ed]" (e.g., Connor, 2009, p. 456; Hernández-Saca, 2016, p. 127; Petersen, 2006a, p. 130) due to the disability labels as well as the reaction and behavior of those around them when their dis/ability or other social identity markers became salient within and outside school.

Across studies, participants shared many instances when they were regularly teased and bullied by teachers and peers. For example, one participant shared, "People tease me and bully me for being on the short bus. They say I'm a window licker or a booger picker" (Whitener, 2014, p. 85). Another student explained how bullying and teasing can impact a student's education:

People think you are dumb because you have an IEP but that is not always true. Yet the school doesn't do anything to help you because they are too busy tryna to keep us down. And none of them care about how that makes us feel or how that hurts our ability to focus in class and learn (Wright, 2012, p. 167).

While participants often resisted this stigmatization, our synthesis also indicates that at times they internalized these deficit ideologies (Hernández-Saca, 2016; Petersen, 2006a, 2009; Wright, 2012). Participants questioned their abilities and tried to hide these labels from their peers and loved ones (Connor, 2006; Ferri & Connor, 2010; Hernández-Saca, 2016; Petersen, 2006a, 2009; Wright, 2012). One student in Hernández-Saca's (2016) study internalized the medical view of disability when he stated:

Inside of me it makes me feel bad cause am cause am a little bit slow at learning things and … I think to myself … that (lowers voice) am not smart … So it's like a twist. Like it's making you feel bad (p. 110).

This fear, which is rooted in negative connotations—such as the medical model of disability as internal deficit being located in the human mind and body and associated with the terms such as "retarded," (Connor, 2008, p. 79; Connor, 2009, p. 454, 455, 458; Washington, 2011, p. 113; Whitener, 2014, p. 62; Wright, 2012, p. 88, 89) "disease," (Hernández-Saca, 2016, p. 143) "[not] smart," (Petersen, 2006a, p. 190, 211; Washington, 2011, p. 90) and "slow" (Connor, 2009, p. 455; Hernández-Saca, 2016, p. 84; Petersen, 2006a, p. 82) —often affected participants emotionally, making them feel inferior to those considered "smart(er)" (Hernández-Saca, 2016, p. 106; Petersen, 2006a, p. 222).

Findings from this theme indicate that participants often raised questions about the merits of receiving the special education disability label. They were skeptical of their educational experiences and described experiencing significant emotional costs associated with having a special education disability label. While some students appreciated special education services, participants mostly considered special education as an experience that led to stigmatization, bullying, and limited educational opportunities.

Multiple Identities Informing Dis/ability Labels

Across studies, participants often experienced systemic inequality and marginalization within the education system. They were acutely aware that their educational experiences were rooted in the social construction of other identity markers, and that dis/ability labels were informed by these markers (Banks, 2017; Connor, 2008; Hernández-Saca, 2016; Petersen, 2006a; Washington, 2011; Wright, 2012). They also identified that their educational opportunities were restricted based on the socially created binaries of able/disable, normal/abnormal, White/colored, male/female, and poor/middle class.

Systemic inequality

Across studies, participants were aware how their multiple identities are historically and currently sources of systemic inequality in the education system. One participant narrated:

Being Black and Latino is hard these days because we don't get taught how White people get taught. I notice that they live in a better world than we Latinos and Blacks do. It is more job opportunities for them and better education. In Blacks' and Latino world, it's a different learning for us. Not only that, it seems like we are ignorant people and we learn from the street … I notice that Black people, it's really hard for them in learning and everything, and White people they … they … it's that they know everything, it seems like. They're smarter in everything … Education is better for them … It's because of their parents, too. It seems that's how they teach you … It's the environment. White people are taught better. (Connor, 2008, pp. 199-200)

This student noticed that since "White people are taught better" and "live in a better world" it seemed that "they're smarter in everything." Many participants noted the disproportionate representation of students of color in special education as well as their differential treatment by teachers and other school staff (Banks, 2017; Connor, 2009; Petersen, 2006a, 2006b, 2009; Washington, 2011; Wright, 2012). One student in Washington's (2011) study noted that "there were not that many African Americans that went to my high school … [however,] it was almost like most of them were in special education" (Interview #2; p. 106). In another example, one participant stated, "It wasn't always as blatant, but it happened all the time. If it wasn't my race, it was other things, like being a woman, or my disability. Passed up, looked over, and sometimes ignored altogether" (Petersen, 2006a, pp. 115-116).

Banks (2017) remarked that teachers' responses to race and disability demonstrate how confounding identities uniquely intersect to contribute to cyclic experiences of labeling that resulted in pejorative stereotypes and lowered expectations. (p. 103) This means that educators often interacted with students with intersectional identities in ways that recreated their oppressive circumstances within the classrooms. The systemic bias within the education system resulted in pejorative stereotypes and teachers' lowered expectations for student achievement.

Power relations

Participants further experienced modes of disciplinary power informed by dis/ability, racial, class, and gender stereotypes. They experienced power relations in two ways. First, they identified that power was often misused by authority figures such as principals, teachers, and other staff members to discipline their bodies in a normativity of ableism and whiteness (Connor, 2008; Dávila, 2015; Petersen, 2006a, 2006b; Whitener, 2014; Wright, 2012). Second, students felt that power was often used to dismiss their life experiences and to be excluded from the classroom (Banks, 2017; Petersen, 2006a, 2006b, 2009). Narrating an incident with a physical therapy teacher, one student shared:

Listening to each of you, I think my physical therapy teacher was trying to fix me, too. At least, I think she was trying to get me to walk like a 'normal' person. She wasn't giving me a pill, but she would make me do these exercises over and over all the while telling me, '… if you just work hard enough, you can walk with just your crutches. Don't you want to walk like that? (Petersen, 2006a, p. 115)

While this student experienced a direct encounter of power with the physical therapy teacher, another student (Whitener, 2014) discussed the misuse of power in the classroom in the following terms:

… once Miss Suzy came in there and tried to take my hoodie away from me and I wrapped it around my hand and kept a tight fist where she couldn't take my hoodie away and it's either I give her my hoodie [or] if I keep that thing they are trying to take away from me they'll call the police. (p. 50)

Power was often exerted through physical or verbal means to normalize conceptions of ableism and whiteness by fixing students and/or policing their bodies (Foucault, 1980) and racial identities in the education system (Banks, 2017; Dávila, 2015; Petersen, 2006a; Whitener, 2014; Wright, 2012) Some students felt the dismissal of their life experiences from the classroom did not prepare them for quality post-school experiences. (Banks, 2017; Petersen, 2006a, 2006b, 2009). For example, one participant observed:

… they teached us like we were the same as the white kids. You know how white kids all have money already and things are not as hard for them? The teacher talked about being doctors and lawyers and teachers, going to college, not getting pregnant and stuff. But we didn't listen to that because that's not real life for us. I'm not going to be any of those things. And when we talked about stuff being expensive and managing money it was about a lawyer. Well of course a lawyer can afford all the good stuff, you know? But not me, so it wasn't real. (Wright, 2012, p. 95)

This participant noted that by providing examples from the culture of "white kids" teachers did not give importance to the "real" problems and situations of students of color living in poor neighborhoods. Participants were aware that in this way, teachers further reproduced the educational inequity for students of color labeled with dis/abilities. Whitener (2014) remarked that for the participants, inequity has become a normal and accepted practice within their schools. Because their educational experiences have become normalized … a hegemonic discourse has been achieved. (p. 109)

Findings from this theme indicate that participants made sense of their educational experiences based on their multidimensional identities and troubled the "singular notion of identity such as race or dis/ability or class or gender" (Annamma, Connor & Ferri, 2016, p. 19). They further identified the dominant conceptual categories such as normal, able-bodied, White, or middle-class as defining characteristics of conceptual Whiteness in American society (DiAngelo, 2018; Feagin, 2010; Harris, 1992; Zuberi & Bonilla-Silva, 2008). Participants often narrated their experiences with intersecting oppression in terms of systemic inequality and power relations. In retrospect, we also acknowledge that these students worked hard to overcome and to negotiate their oppressive circumstances as well as education trajectories.

Doing Identity Work by Performance and Resistance

Participants were involved in an ongoing process of identity work through acts of performance and resistance. Identity work is defined as "the mutually constitutive processes whereby people strive to shape a relatively coherent and distinctive notion of personal self-identity and struggle to come to terms with and, within limits, to influence the various social-identities which pertain to them in the various milieu in which they live their lives" (Watson, 2008, p. 129). By "performance" we mean the conscious and subconscious decisions that participants made to interact with those in power, in ways that were progressive for them in the long run (Mitchell, 2013). In contrast, resistance means the ways that they actively rejected, critiqued, and negated the "social processes that oppress disabled people," as well as questioned the stereotypical assumptions around their multiple identities (Gabel & Peters, 2004; Giroux, 1983a, 1983b; Hernández-Saca et al., 2018).

Identity work

Participants identified themselves as "normal," (Connor, 2006, p. 155; Connor, 2009, p. 455; 460; Petersen, 2006a, p. 157) but also struggled to not "internalize the recurrent negative messages they received surrounding their race, disability, gender, and class" (Petersen, 2006a, p. 221). They took pride in their racial identity and were determined to change their economic circumstances through quality education (Banks, 2017; Connor, 2008, 2009; Ferri & Connor, 2010; Petersen, 2006a, 2009). Many of them rejected the stereotypical assumptions related to intelligence and race (Connor, 2008; Ferri & Connor, 2010; Hernández-Saca, 2016; Petersen, 2006a, 2009; Wright, 2012). However, there were times when they also grappled with the meaning of disability as a consequence of innate limitations within their academic abilities or a result of inappropriate instructions provided by classroom teachers (Banks, 2017, p. 102). They often felt "self-conscious," (Banks, 2017, p. 102) "ashamed," (Hernández-Saca, 2016, p. 98, 139; Petersen, 2006a, p. 130) and at times "internalized" (Hernández-Saca, 2016, p. 113, 225, 235, 239; Petersen, 2006a, p. 192) the assumptions surrounding dis/ability and smartness. They also feared that these disability labels would come to define them and tried to conceal it from their friends and loved ones (Connor, 2008; Ferri & Connor, 2010; Petersen, 2006a). One participant shared her internal struggle about her disability label the following way:

It feels that some person is better than you because [you] don't understand something or you don't know how to solve it that fast like other people do and learn it fast … and they think that they're better than you just because they're smarter than you, they learn everything fast (Hernández-Saca, 2016, p. 106)

Participants viewed themselves as normal (e.g., Ferri & Connor, 2010; Hernández-Saca, 2016) yet also struggled with explaining dis/ability as a "disparaging social marker" of identity (Banks, 2017, p. 102). They were aware of the stereotypes associated with their other markers of identity, which made some of them internally struggle with understanding their true selves.

Washington (2011) argued that the stigma of carrying dual labels [African American and learning disability] during schooling has the possibility of causing psychological damage to a students' self-perceptions and alters their sense of self (pp. 166-167). However, we want to emphasize that a psycho-emotional disablism framework underscores emotions and affects that the participants experienced as the social and emotional constructions of their intersectional identities (Wetherell, 2012). This is in contrast to the idea that these social and emotional realities are rooted in psychological educational theory, which situates the problem in their neurology. Our interpretation of students' voice, narrative, and emotionality at the nexus of their dis/ability and other identity markers offer a counter-narrative to the dominant master narratives these students experienced regularly in schools.


Participants performed certain tasks and behaviors to negotiate the school setting as well as the stereotypes and stigmas associated with their multiple identities (Banks, 2017; Connor, 2008; Petersen, 2006a; Wright, 2012). They complied with the system by "adjust[ing] [themselves]" (Banks, 2017, p. 103), or simply "stay[ing] quiet" (Dávila, 2015, p. 458) to avoid the structural aggression. One student described his experience with an authority figure in the following way:

Dolores: She told me, why was I even coming to school, that I should drop out and go to continuation school and that um, I shouldn't be here, why do I waste my time coming.

Researcher: And how'd that make you feel?

Dolores: Really bad 'cause she said it in front of the whole class and then everyone started laughing.

Researcher: So how did you respond?

Dolores: I didn't say nothing. I stayed quiet. People were telling me to talk back, but then, I just didn't want any problems. (Dávila, 2015, p. 458)

This student decided not to engage in a way that would lead to further marginalization. Another student negotiated a similar situation in the following way:

It got harder at times. I used to wish I didn't have to deal with it … all of the negative labels and assumptions from students, from instructors. I had to deal with White male instructor issues. So I realized [to be more successful] I can adjust my actions, and that's what I did, I adjusted myself, and it got easier. I deal with that [stereotype] a lot, but I'm ready to address those issues. Luckily, I didn't disengage. (Banks, 2017, p. 103)

Across studies, student participants often complied with the system by staying quiet. However, they also employed different strategies to negotiate their educational experiences. These strategies include "acting White," (Connor, 2008, p. 91; Ferri & Connor, 2010, p. 116) as "code switching," (Ferri & Connor, 2010, p. 116) "request[ing] to be placed in special education," (Ferri & Connor, 2010, p. 116; Washington, 2011, p. 87) "swap[ing] labels" (Ferri & Connor, 2010, p. 117) to survive humiliation, "hid[ing]" the disability label (Connor, 2008, p. 76, 98; Peterse, 2009, p. 433; Wright, 2012, p. 179) to "maintain a certain degree of control" (Ferri & Connor, 2010, p. 111) over how others viewed them, gaining access to college as "code of power," (Ferri & Connor, p. 112) and visiting the university/College disability service office (e.g., Connor, 2008, p. 121; Petersen, 2006a, p. 106) for better education. They demonstrated critical awareness of their marginalization and engaged in strategic performances to negotiate their multiple identities within the school spaces.


Another important finding from this synthesis revealed that participants often actively resisted the oppression they experienced in the schools through overt or covert acts of resistance. They demonstrated overt acts of resistance such as "kicking the door," (Petersen, 2006a, p. 117) "throw[ing]" school furniture (Whitener, 2014, p. 48, 50, 76, 80, 83) and "unwilling to be silent when [their] friends were teased" (Whitener, 2014, p. 75). One participant engaged in an overt act of resistance in the following way:

The principal called me in and he said, "Hey I've got five other people that said you destroyed the bathroom. You vandalized school property." I was like, "Man I didn't destroy anything. I didn't touch it." He [principal] just kept saying I was destroying the school property and he was going to get me for vandalism or something like that … "He was pushing my buttons," … "I picked up the chair and threw it against the wall and said I'm leaving. (Whitener, 2014, pp. 47-48)

Participants also demonstrated covert acts of resistance such as through facial expression and body language, hiding the label, not engaging in aggressive behaviors, and ideologically denying the disability label (Connor,2008, 2009; Dávila, 2015; Petersen, 2006a, 2009; Washington, 2011; Wright, 2012). For example, one participant recalled not engaging in overtly aggressive behavior with his teacher when the teaching assistant (TA) told him that this teacher wants to "get rid" of him (Wright, 2012, p. 137). He noted:

It makes me mad that they can even make me or my mom think about giving up. I refuse! I refuse to give up. I am not a quitter. I am Jordan! And Jordan doesn't quit. Jordan succeeds. My plan, my goal, is to graduate high school and go to college. And these bad teachers will not stop me! (Wright, 2012, p. 138).

Similarly, many students across sampled studies indicated a willingness to prove themselves and their abilities to teachers (Connor, 2009; Dávila, 2015; Petersen, 2006a, 2009). Washington (2011) noted that her participants agreed that they needed extra assistance to meet the rigorous academic standards … but … denied the existence of an innate disorder that impaired their ability to learn and retain information. As a result, these participants [did not] identify themselves as having a learning disability. (pp. 156-157)

Positive and negative impact of performance and resistance

Our synthesis identified that participants' use of performance and resistance had positive and negative impacts on their educational opportunities (Banks, 2017; Connor, 2006; Dávila, 2015; Ferri & Connor, 2010; Petersen 2006a, 2006b & 2009; Whitener, 2014). At times, they successfully navigated the system to save face (Banks, 2017; Dávila, 2015; Ferri & Connor, 2010; Petersen, 2009), as previously indicated in the example of the student "adjust[ing] [himself]" (Banks, 2017, p. 103). However, other times the strategies they used simply added to their oppressive conditions (Ferri & Connor, 2010; Petersen, 2006a, 2009). For example, concerning one student in their study, Ferri and Connor (2010) noted:

When peers inquired about why she was in special education, Chanell swapped labels, claiming to have a behaviour problem rather than a learning disability. A tactic called on to save face among her peers, Chanell survives a potentially humiliating social situation. Yet, she simply swaps one set of stereotypes for another, both of which are saturated with problematic ideologies of race and gender (p. 117)

This student negotiated the disability-related stereotype by swapping one disability label with another. She replaced her "disability" label for the stereotypical label of "African American" associated with behavior problems (Ferri & Connor, 2010).

Similarly, different acts of resistance had positive (Connor, 2009; Petersen, 2006a) and negative (Banks, 2017; Connor, 2006; Petersen, 2006a, 2009; Whitener, 2014) impact on students' education as well as their self-consciousness and well-being. For example, in the Whitener (2014) study, the participant's act of "throw[ing] [the chair]" was followed by the consequence of the student's placement in a behavior disorder (BD) program three days after the incident. While the student willingly entered the BD program, he was convinced he could not be successful in the regular education program because of persistent bullying not only from his peers, but the school's administrator (Whitener, 2014, p. 48). Across studies, participants experienced different consequences for their acts of resistance. Petersen (2009) identified the impact of these overt and covert acts of resistance on the lives of her participants in the following way:

Each woman resisted the discourses surrounding their marginalized identities in a variety of ways and with various outcomes. In Courtney's and Kiesha's experiences, resistance led to more positive life outcomes. In Tasha's and Shana's experiences, resistance inadvertently reproduced their oppressive circumstances. (p. 438)

This quote is representative of the struggles of participants and how their awareness helped them to navigate their oppressive educational experiences. Thus, participants in the studies sampled performed different strategies and resisted their disability labels in ways that had both positive and negative outcomes. Through their identity work, they were empowered as well as constrained.

Summary of Findings

Findings from our synthesis suggest that students with intersectional identities such as dis/ability, race, social class, and gender made sense of their educational experiences in diverse ways. We acknowledge their educational experiences as their lived realities, which relate and differ in many ways. While students overwhelmingly perceived disability as an assigned identity within the general and special education system, some of them also struggled with explaining it as a social construct. They also experienced the psychological and emotional dimensions of disability labels (Thomas, 1999), which constrained their abilities to act within educational contexts because of the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding those labels.

Our findings further revealed that participants were involved in an ongoing process of identity work. They negotiated their educational experiences through the means of performance and resistance (Gabel & Peters, 2004; Giroux, 1983a, 1983b; Hammack & Toolis, 2014; Mitchell, 2013; Watson, 2008). While they were successful in certain situations, other times their resistance came at a cost of further limiting their educational opportunities or feeding the narrative of "defiant behavior" in the case of overt resistance. In either case, we acknowledge that they persistently negotiated their educational experiences, which came with a desire to change their socio-economic realities and determination to overcome their oppressive circumstances.


The goal of this Qualitative Research Synthesis (QRS) project was to advance the theoretical frameworks in DSE through synthesizing qualitative literature within the field. This QRS synthesized current research about how students of color with disabilities make sense of their disability labels and how they negotiate these labels in their daily experiences at school. The QRS's objective was to privilege students' voices (Annamma et al., 2013) to explore how students of color, labeled with dis/abilities, make meaning of dis/ability labels, negotiate, and potentially challenge these labels in school settings? Our findings from the second-order thematic analysis contribute towards a better understanding of students' counter-narratives concerning their identity work and development of self as a complex and on-going intersectional phenomenon (Gonzalez, Hernández-Saca, & Artiles, 2017; Hammack & Toolis, 2014; Hernández-Saca, & Cannon, 2016).

We agree with scholars in DSE that disability is intersectional, and that there is a clear need to know more about the social construction of multiple identities and the cost that students pay for being 'defined' by these socially constructed categories (Annamma et al., 2013; Artiles, 2015; Crenshaw, 1991; Hernández-Saca et al., 2018). Students of color with dis/abilities consistently engage in identity work through acts of performance and resistance against disabling master narratives within the education system. Our findings further suggest that the psychological and emotional impact of the stereotypes associated with students' multiple identities (e.g., microaggressions) can restrict and restrain their sense of self and identity. While on some occasions students internalized these master narratives, our synthesis also made us aware of how the psycho-emotional dimensions of dis/ability can lead students to resist the hegemonic power structures in the classroom (See Figure 1: Student Intersectional Identity Work, visual representation).

Identity Work: Power and Agency

Participants identified how the hegemonic power structures of ableism and whiteness flow within educational settings to maintain unequal power relations and erase the day-to-day realities of multiply marginalized students (Crenshaw, 1991; Foucault, 1980). Participants regularly experienced intersectional oppression and were often aware of the prevailing repressive ideologies influencing their multiple identities (Connor, 2008; Ferri & Connor, 2010; Petersen, 2006a; Washington, 2011; Wright, 2012). However, despite the continuous denial of their subjectivity and agency, they actively exercised agency through performance and resistance (Annamma et al., 2013; Hammack & Toolis, 2014; Watson, 2008). While the strategies used to negotiate the system differed, their acts of resistance empowered them to engage in counter-narratives against the prevailing master narratives surrounding their multiple identities (Bamberg, 2004; Hammack & Toolis, 2014; Humlebaek, 2018; Lyotard, 1979; Watson, 2008).

Diagram with circle in middle divided into 4 quarters: Dis/ability, Race, Gender, and Other markers of difference. Arrows depict clockwise motion from one quarter of the circle to the next. Text in diagram summarizes findings of student identity work. More description above and below.

Figure 1: Student Intersectional Identity Work, visual representation.

From a DisCrit perspective, participants identified Whiteness and ability as property and indicated how some disability labels produced limited opportunities and unequal treatment in comparison to their white middle-class peers (Annamma et al., 2013; Crenshaw, 1991). It is critical to understand the existence of prevailing master narratives, as well as the binary nature in which intersectional identities are created and maintained in the education system to uphold a mythical and "flawless" "normed" body and identity (Annamma et al., 2013; Galvin, 2003). Wright (2012) explained the impact of the differential and unequal educational treatment on students' intersectional identity work in the following quotation:

The disproportionate representation of minority students in special education at each school the participants attended, the inequity in treatment and education they and their peers faced, and the policies/practices that inform and allow inequitable educational practices have all attributed to the racism and disparate treatment each student has endured and described in their respective oral histories. These experiences have, in part, shaped who these four individuals have become. Their perspectives and outlooks on life and society, the social settings and careers they are prepared for (or not) were directly affected by the normalized institutional and individual racism they faced as students. (pp. 190-191)

Across studies, participants questioned the disproportionate representation of students of color receiving special education services and connected this over-representation with whiteness and systemic inequality.

Psycho-Emotional Disablism

Our findings support the proposition that intersectional identity work is an on-going process. While students mostly exercised agency (Annamma, et al., 2013), they also experienced the negative psycho-emotional dimensions of disability (Thomas, 1999). To reiterate, by psycho-emotional dimensions of disablism we do not intend to represent the "psychological reaction to loss and personal tragedy" that can be remedied through medical procedures or learning to cope (Galvin, 2003, p. 150). Rather, we argue that the disability labels have a long-term impact on students' psychological (Annamma et al., 2013) and emotional wellbeing, which further restricts what they can do and who they can be (Thomas, 1999). Participants often felt pressured, burdened, and silenced in the classroom for fear of disability microaggressions, or often hid their disability label from peers and loved ones for fear of humiliation or the threat of being left alone. These experiences at times lead students to internalize the master narratives surrounding their multiple identities, thereby impacting their intersectional identity work.

Intersectional disablism

Furthermore, our findings lead us to propose what we term intersectional disablism—a form of social oppression enacted by the social processes such as disablism, racism, sexism and classism that works to restrict the social activity of people from marginalized identities and influence whom they can become by undermining their psychological and emotional well-being. Participants in the sample studies often felt hurt, insecure, worthless, unattractive and emotionally threatened because of the stereotypes and stigmas attached to the dis/ability labels, race, or gender. On certain occasions, they also internalized the master narratives surrounding their many different identities. This internalization constrained their self-perceptions, leading them to feel unwanted, incompetent, less desirable, and decreased their social activity. For example, one participant internalized the master narratives about her gender, stating, "You know, I think I just bought into the idea that girls aren't good at math. I guess I just accepted that because I was a girl I couldn't do math. So why bother trying …" (Petersen, 2006a, p. 136) The stigmas associated with multiple identities often made the psycho-emotional disablism an intersectional experience. For example, Ferri and Connor (2010) argued that being the only girl in special education often made girls feel overburdened due to the dual nature of the stigma (gender and disability label), which emotionally threatened these girls and caused them to internalize that they were "less desirable, even as friends." (p. 109)

Again, this does not imply that the students in these studies were passive victims; they exercised agency and often resisted the hegemonic power structures around their multiple identities. However, at times they experienced psychological as well as emotional consequences of being labeled as disabled along with their multiple identity markers (Artiles, 2013; Artiles et al., 2016; Galvin, 2003; Hernández-Saca, & Cannon, 2016, Thomas, 1999). As a result, resistance to authority figures could also be an emotional consequence of feeling misunderstood and disrespected. In the example in Whitener's (2014) study, one could easily identify the emotions such as anger and frustration behind "throwing the chair" in front of the principal for not feeling listened to and respected. His post-incident placement in the BD resource room indicates how often the blame is placed on the students for not "complying" with the system, rather than respecting their sense of self and personhood and acknowledging emotionality as intersectional structural oppression.

Finally, while DisCrit scholars acknowledge all acts of resistance and recognize the material and psychological impact of being labeled disabled (Annamma et al., 2013), our findings also highlight the psychological and emotional cost of disability labels to one's sense of self and personhood. Thus, we advance the scholarly discussion within DSE by highlighting students' intersectional identity work through resistance and acts of performance. Our synthesis extends this conversation in two ways: (1) we expand Thomas' (1999) definition of psycho-emotional disablism to its multiple and intersectional dimensions, which we termed intersectional disablism; and (2) in making an argument for the intersectional psycho-emotional dimensions of disablism within DisCrit, as we critically explore students' identity work at their intersections. In addition, our synthesis contributes to the growing body of DSE scholarship on dis/ability at the intersections in U.S. schools and society from a historically marginalized and subverted perspective (e.g., Bell, 2011; Cannon, 2019).

Conclusions and Implications

Our QRS study showed that students engaged in not only intersectional identity work, but also language use (Gee, 2011) through their (counter-)narratives about negotiating their multiple and intersectional identities. By language use, we mean the internal and external speech that contributes to one's narrativization within educational contexts (Gee, 2011). Their language use revealed issues of identity, power, difference, and privilege. Master narratives or commonsense assumptions enacted through language use about the identities of students of color labeled with dis/abilities have influenced practices (Artiles & Kozleski, 2016; Bourdieu, 1977) within society, schooling, and education, affecting the lived realities of historically marginalized children and limiting their educational opportunities (e.g., McDermott, Edgar & Scarloss, 2011). Our QRS study revealed characteristics of the educational lives of these students and how they made meaning of their intersectional lives. With recent calls for acknowledging a so-called silent majority, and the current government administration's appropriation of historical master narratives about other groups, our QRS work offers a timely counter-narrative. Calls against being politically correct and the politics of identity within society and dominant institutions result in the erasure of the progress that critical academic fields such as gender studies and Black feminism have made towards justice. The conservative zeitgeist we are witnessing is not new (Artiles, Dorn & Bal, 2016). According to Artiles (2011, 2013), special education disability labels are a social justice remedy for one group such as—students with disabilities—has become a liability to the civil rights of those at the intersections of race and disability (e.g., Connor, 2008). This indirect consequence of special education labeling practices at the intersections of identity and power has resulted in the over 60-year-old problem of disproportionality in the educational system that has contributed to the segregation of students according to dis/ability categories as well as social differences (Artiles, Kozleski, Trent, Osher, & Ortiz, 2010; Ferri & Connor, 2004). The voices of students at their intersections have been absent from much of special education theory, research, practice and policy (Gonzalez et al., 2016). Our QRS critically centers these voices through the counter-narratives K-16 students of color with dis/abilities. We hope these QRS findings inform education reform efforts towards more dynamic and liberatory educational policies that center student voices,' acknowledge and develop individual and transformative systemic change based off of their intersectional and psycho-emotional realities (e.g., Conner, Ebby-Rosin, & Brown, 2015; Tefera, Hernández-Saca, & Lester 2019).

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  1. This participant quotation is from Petersen (2006a), one of the studies sampled for this Qualitative Research Synthesis
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  2. Hernández-Saca and Ellison are both co-second authors on the article given that they contributed equally and democratically to the development and writing of the project, but specifically, Ellison contributed methodologically and Hernández-Saca conceptually.
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  3. By the dash (/) within the word (dis/ability), we mean the social construction of both ability and disability as opposed to the medical-psychological model of disability. In addition, dis/ability foregrounds the Disability Studies in Education paradigm that views dis/ability as an intersectional identity with other markers of difference. Given our QRS synthesis, we argue that students of color labeled with disabilities experience dis/ability as an emotional and affective phenomenon at their intersections. Nevertheless, we are aware that some within the Disability Studies (DS) and Disability Studies in Education (DSE) scholarly community do not use a dash and might even take offense at the use as ablest since it focuses on "ability." Further, we are aware that within DS and DSE proper, disability without the dash also asserts disability pride and identity. For us, "dis/ability," also includes this tradition of disability as natural, diversity, and identity pride.
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  4. We selected our time frame based on Erevelles, Kanga, and Middleton's (2006) "How does it feel to be a problem? Race, disability, and exclusion in educational policy." We acknowledge that DisCrit is a new theoretical framework. The scholars in DSE have previously highlighted the need to explore the "critical connections between the two historically disenfranchised groups [students of color and students with disabilities] within educational contexts." (Brantlinger, 2006, p. 77) With an intent to explore how researchers have engaged the multiple marginalized identities of students of color labeled with disabilities in the recent literature, we went beyond DisCrit in time to include data for this synthesis.
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  5. [The * means that the studies with the * were included in our database]
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Appendix A

Table 3. Demographics of sampled studies
StudiesNo. of participantsAge rangeDescription of the sample studiesResearch Question(s) and/or Central Premise of the Studies
Banks (2017)719–28 years oldSeven male African-American college students, labeled with at least one Learning Disability were selected for this study. Students reflected on their K-12 education and transition experiences. Five of the seven students were labeled when in elementary school, and two at the high school level. At the time of this study, all students completed at least one college semester at a four-year historically Black mid-Atlantic university. Their narratives provide insights into their educational experiences as it intersects with issues of race, disability, gender, and to some extent with socio-economic status.
  • (1) In what ways do African American males labeled as students with learning disabilities perceive that race/ethnicity, gender, and disability status impact their opportunity to learn?
  • (2) In what ways do African American males labeled as students with learning disabilities perceive self-contained classrooms—segregated classrooms designated for students labeled with exceptional learning needs—as a benefit or limitation to their opportunity to learn?
Connor (2006)119 years oldThis study explores the educational experiences of one young Black working-class male labeled with a Learning Disability. The participant received a disability label in elementary school. The analysis provides his critique of special education along with the binaries of ability/disability, white/black, and middle/working-class experiences within education. The central premise of this study is to explore the phenomenon of intersectionality of learning disability, race, and class. The data presented were co-constructed with Michael, the participant-researcher,1 as part of a larger year-long study exploring young adults' understanding of their positionality within the discourse of LD.
Connor (2008)818 – 23 years oldThis study explored the educational and lived experiences of eight Black and Latino/a working-class Urban youth labeled with Learning Disabilities. At the time of this study, five participants were enrolled in the Post-high school vocational program and three were in Community colleges. All participants received a disability label at either elementary or secondary grade levels. Their day-to-day struggle with the special education system as well as with the stigmas and stereotypes associated with their intersectional identities provide a powerful counter-narrative to the master narratives surrounding race, disability, gender, and social classIf an individual is Black or Latino(a), working class or poor, and has been given the label LD, how much that label influence the student's educational opportunities?
Connor (2009)818 – 23 years oldThis study used the same dataset as Connor 2008. Participants received disability labels at either elementary or secondary grade levels. At the time of the study, five of the participants were in post-high school programs and three in Community colleges. Their experiences indicate awareness that race, class, and gender impact disability identification and influence their placement in special education classrooms in comparison to their no-disabled, white, female, middle-class peers.
  • (1) How do working-class Black and Latino/a urban youth labelled as LD describe the ways they understand their positionality in the discourse of LD through their lived experience?
  • (2) In what ways do the intersections of disability, race, and class, inform us about how power operates among these discourses?
Dávila (2015)20 – 10 male & 10 females16 – 20 years oldThis study explored the high-school special education experiences of Latina/o students (9th-12th grade) labeled with disabilities. The study extends the construct of racial microaggressions to disability-related microaggressions by analyzing students' experiences with racial, gender, and disability-related microaggressions in special education classrooms. Data for this study were collected in two phases: (a) 3 academic semesters of ethnographic observations in the learning center, (b) In-depth, semi-structured interviews conducted with 20 Latina/o and/or Hispanic students with an Individual Education Program (IEP).
  • (1) How do Latina/o students experience special education, and, more specifically, how do Latina/o students respond to their special education experiences?
Ferri & Connor (2010)5 female participants18–20 years oldFive Black and Latino(a) working-class women labeled with Learning Disabilities. They were involved in post-high school vocational programs while preparing to become special education paraprofessionals. Their narratives provide insight into their special education experiences as well as their awareness of the hegemonic norms concerning intersectional experiences of disability labels, gender, race, and social class.
  • (1) How does disability status complicate the ways that young women negotiate the 'conflicts, contradictions, and ambivalences of femininity' (Gonick 2003, 6)?
  • (2) If girlhood, as an idea, emerges within particular cultural, material, and discursive contexts (Gonick 2003), how does the space and place of special education complicate these ideas?
  • (3) How [do] participants resist these social forces and create spaces for oppositional knowledge claims and practices?
Hernández-Saca (2016)313 to 14 years-oldThree Latina/o students - 2 girls and 1 boy - attending seventh or eighth-grade were selected for this study. Participants' narratives provide insights into their educational experiences surrounding the intersections of ethnicity, Learning Disabilities (LD), language, gender, immigration status and history of their families, and low socioeconomic status, as well as their emotion-laden talk surrounding LD labels in relation to their other identities. The socioeconomic status of all students was verified by the Principal of the Nodding Elementary School (research site) as well as by participants themselves. Their emotion-laden talk about being labeled with LD highlighted their individual and unique experiences of psychological and emotional experiences within the discourses of schooling, special education, and LD.
  • (1) What are the emotion-laden talk of Latina/o students about being labeled with LD?
  • (2) What are Latina/o students' emotion-laden talk of the idea of LD?
Petersen (2006a)418 to 25 years oldThis study shared the stories of four African -American women labeled with disabilities - surrounding the discourses of race, disability, gender, and social class. At the time of the study, all women were at different levels of their education career; one of them was preparing to graduate with a master's degree from Midwestern University, the second one was preparing to graduate with her BA in Sociology, the third one graduated from segregated residential school and the last one had taken some courses at community college. All women received disability labels at different levels of their education; as a toddler with multiple disabilities including cerebral palsy, in elementary school with Learning Disability, during sophomore year of college with ADHD and anxiety disorder, and senior year of high school with pseudotumor cerebra and intracranial hypertension. Their stories represent their awareness and critical consciousness of the dominant and hegemonic narratives surrounding race, disability, and gender within the education system. Participants' narratives provide insights into their past and current educational experiences surrounding (a) educational and social barriers, (b) questions of identity, and (c) frustration and resistance at the intersections of disability, race, gender, and social class. The participants actively engaged in challenging and resisting the dominant master narratives surrounding their multiple identities.
  • (1) What are the educational experiences of African American women with disabilities and from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds? How can these experiences be described and analyzed?
  • (2) How do gender, race, disability, and class shape the lived and educational experiences of these women?
  • (3) How do these women define themselves and enact their identities?
  • (4) How do the "realities" of gender, race, disability, and class inform and intersect with one another in educational settings?
Petersen (2006b)121 years oldThis study shares the layered account of the schooling experiences of an African-American adult woman. At the time of this study, she was enrolled as a college student and reflected on her in-school educational experiences at the intersection of race, disability, and gender.
  • (1) What are the experiences of an African-American woman with disabilities in schools?
  • (2) How might these experiences be theorized?
  • (3) Do these experiences offer new ways of understanding oppression that may contribute to empowering individuals labeled with multiple, intersecting identities?
Petersen (2009)418 to 25 years oldThis study used the same dataset as Petersen (2006a). Four African-American women labeled with multiple disabilities were included in this study. Participants both reflected on their school experiences as well as narrated their present University experiences of intersecting oppressions.
  • (1) To what extent was each woman aware of how the discourses surrounding race, gender, and disability limited her opportunities?
  • (2) How did each woman reject the dominant ideology surrounding each discourse?
  • (3) To what extent was each woman aware of how the discourses surrounding race, gender, and disability interconnected to limit opportunity?
Washington (2011)6 students: 3 male and 3 females 19 to 20 years oldSix African-American students with disabilities (AASWD) - specific learning disorder - who lived in communities with low socioeconomic status were selected for this study. All participants received disability labels when in elementary school. They attended a single high school between the years of 2008-2010 and spent 70% of their time in general education settings. Furthermore, all participants received academic support from a resource service provider. A multiple case study approach was used to provide insights into how these students made meaning of their unique educational experiences in school and how these experiences influenced their sense of self.
  • (1) How do cultural, social, and economic factors in poor urban communities inform students' understanding of themselves and their view of education?
  • (2) How do low-income African American students with learning disabilities (AASWLD) make meaning of their educational experiences?
Whitener (2014)412 – 19 years oldThis study provides insight into the special education experiences of four minority students – 2 Native American male, 1 Hispanic female, and 1 bi-racial female of African-American and Hispanic descent. At the time of this study, 2 participants were attending middle school and two were attending high school. Three of these four participants were from low socioeconomic homes. Their stories provide insights into their educational experiences on how disability labels, race, and low socioeconomic status are often determinants of the limited educational opportunities and access to quality education. Although gender did not appear in participants' narratives as intersectional oppressions, researcher explicitly commented on a need for future studies stating:

"Although their primary diagnosis was learning disabilities, the male participants received special education services for behavior disorders in a program segregated from abled students" (p. 43).

"Although the male participants were completely segregated from abled peers, the female participants had access to regular education students. Perhaps gender bias is at play in the research sites where males are seen as more threatening. This is perhaps an area for future study" (p. 94).
  • (1) How do minority students with disabilities describe their school experiences?
  • (2) How do minority students with disabilities describe their opportunities to participate in the larger school community?
Wright (2012)415 – 26 years oldThis study provides oral histories of four students of color - 2 African-American males, 1 Guatemalan descent female, and 1 Mexican descent female - exhibiting ethnic/racial disproportionality in at least one high incidence category of special education – specific learning disability (SLD), mental retardation (MR) and emotionally disturbed (ED). The participants reflected on their K-12 educational experiences to provide detailed accounts of being special education students and minorities. Their stories reflect on how these students of color, attending poor Urban schools, often made sense of race, social class, and disability labels as socially constructed, while narrating the positive and negative consequences of being placed in special education. Additionally, although gender was not included in the research questions asked in the study, participants' gendered experiences were embedded within the narratives of racism, and the disproportionate representation of students of color in special education. For example, researcher quotes:

"Jordan knows that being a black male affects the way that people in society, particularly his school at this point, view him. He believes that people negatively view young black males and base their interactions and beliefs on stereotypes more than on reality" (p. 151)

"Erica's perceptions and experiences are created within the intersectionalities of being both Latina and an immigrant, being young and a mother, being female and having a disability" (p. 200)
  • (1) What are the experiences and perspectives of students of color in special education programs in school districts with racial/ethnic disproportionality?
  • 1a. What positive consequences do students of color self-identify based on their experiences in disproportional special education settings?
  • 2b. What negative consequences do students of color self-identify based on their experiences in disproportional special education settings?
No. of studiesData setsNo. of Participants

Note. Terms are used as they appeared in the sampled studies

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