Kevin Agyakwa

Learning and thinking differences don’t discriminate

By Kevin Agyakwa, Understood

Learning and thinking differences don’t discriminate. They don’t care how rich or how poor you are. They don’t care about your race or ethnicity.

While they may impact us all the same, how we go about navigating them and their implications looks very different if you’re Black.

I’ve seen it in my own family. It makes the day-to-day tasks of going to work and school more complicated for us because we worry about one of our family members. On top of this family member’s learning and thinking differences, he’s a Black individual in America. We know, unfortunately, that means being judged much more harshly and not being afforded the same grace as our counterparts.

Learning and thinking differences are differences in how the brain processes information that can affect reading, writing, math, language, focus, and following directions. Examples include, but are not limited to, ADHD, language disorders, and learning disabilities like dyslexia.

These difficulties have a heavy impact on Black communities. And the truth is, we can’t begin to address those inequalities unless we’re elevating the voices of the people they affect.

Students with learning disabilities and ADHD face challenges across the board. For example, these students are more likely to be bullied. They’re three times more likely to drop out of school. And they face greater incidence of incarceration. Evidence shows that more than 40 percent of inmates report having a disability, with learning disabilities like dyslexia being the most commonly reported type.

For Black families, the challenges of learning and thinking differences are even greater. For example, learning losses due to the pandemic have taken an especially heavy toll. McKinsey estimates that students of color could be six to 12 months behind at the end of the 2021 school year, compared with four to eight months for white students.

And consider the matter of diagnosis.

Without the right diagnosis, it’s harder for students to get the support they need and deserve. But if a student is identified with a condition they don’t have, that can cause problems of its own. So getting the right diagnosis is critical. It’s also complicated.

Across the nation, students of color are more likely to be identified as having a disability. At the same time, other research has found that Black students’ disabilities may be underdiagnosed when they attend schools where most other students look like they do — schools that are attended mostly by students of color.

Why do we see these unsettling patterns?

For starters, there are structural factors like poverty, inadequate access to health care, and under-resourced school districts. In addition to these structural factors, societal discrimination, racism, and social adversity also influence the presentation of symptoms.

Unaddressed bias likely plays a major role. Very few Black students encounter educators who look like them or who come from similar environments. For example, fewer than 11 percent of special education teachers in United States public schools are Black.

Biases, when left unaddressed, inform the decisions we make. They also impact the relationships we build. And when we take a deeper look, we see how biases continue to impact the systemic challenges that organizations like Understood are committed to solving.

Having a learning or thinking difference is nothing to be ashamed of. But for communities of color, these experiences are too often filled with shame. And in some cases, Black families may be wary when it comes to having their child diagnosed, in part due to the perception of overdiagnosis and fear of social stigma. But there’s power in amplifying the voices of the misunderstood.

We recognize that this is an ongoing and extremely important mission. We’re dedicated to changing the narrative for the one in five with learning and thinking differences, including in Black communities. We’re working to help remove barriers so people of color with learning and thinking differences can thrive.

Kevin Agyakwa is a program and communications manager at Understood. He holds an MS from the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and a BA from SUNY Potsdam. He uses data, strategy, and his upbringing to inform decision making, branding, and initiatives to create inclusive and equitable environments for all.

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