Towards educational equity for Black students

Faculty of Education
Equity, diversity and inclusion
Black History Month
Special education

By Christine L. Cusack

Communications, Faculty of Education

Young students with backpacks walking in school hallway
Professor Tya Collins explains how the intersection of ableism and racism complicates the experience of Black students in inclusive/special education.

“Parachuted in with no training” is how Tya Collins describes starting her first job in a special school for youth with behavioural challenges. “Just do the best you can,” she was told.  

Over time and by taking specific university courses, she added new skills to her professional toolbox. “I just really enjoyed working with these students,” she says, though some colleagues didn’t share her enthusiasm for working with learners who had “issues, codes and big files.”  

“For some reason, I had a really great connection with these kids, and it was all very organic.” 

Supporting students with learning differences

Collins soon realized there were underlying problems. “One of the things I did notice while I was working in that environment, was that there would often be students who would end up in special classes for severe behaviour. I didn’t understand why they were there. I wasn’t seeing any of these issues, so I started to wonder. Most often those students would be Black. I thought, OK, there’s something wrong here.”  

This marked the beginning of Collins’ research in special education placement processes for Black students. In peeling back layers of learning obstacles, she realized that many kids didn’t even know they had “special needs.” “They were not self-identifying as such. They were not aware of the codes that were attributed to them,” she says.  

“I just saw a slew of problems around that,” she says, “because, on the one side, there could be a misidentification, and then, on the other side, there could be students who really needed support but couldn’t access it because they didn’t understand their own needs, the system and the processes that are attached.”   

Collins then moved on to graduate studies. Informed by two decades of teaching and school administration experience, she set out to deepen her understanding of racism and the experiences of Black students. 

“I got a lot of pushback about that,” she says.  She was advised to focus on immigration or ethno-cultural communities in her research, but not to talk about race. The not-so-subtle message was that race was an issue south of the border, but not in Canada. 

“Being a novice, I wasn’t sure how to address that, so I went along with it. But my original idea was still always in my head, and I felt that as I progressed and as I learned about research, I needed to heavily arm myself theoretically, to defend my arguments. So that’s what led me into DisCrit (an interdisciplinary field combining disability studies and critical race theory),” she says.  

Calling out ableist language

For Collins, DisCrit shows how ableism (discrimination against people with disabilities) and racism combine to reinforce social injustice and inequality in educational settings.  

“The language that we use, and the processes and policies that are in place — it was really striking how ableist stuff is embedded in everything that we do, whether we’re calling it special education or inclusive education, there are still undertones of ableism throughout,” she says.  

Examples of how this appears in education policy (or teacher education, or classroom teaching) include the deficit-based language used to describe specific differences, for example, behavioural “problems” and learning “disorders.”  

“How we signal these differences is based on unquestioned norms that are historically founded on ableist and racist ideologies,” she says. “In the past, people with disabilities were deemed uneducable. Institutionalization (in inhumane conditions) was promoted over education prior to the 1960s. Residential schools are also another example of the original model of a ‘special’ segregated schooling system.” 

Tya Collins

“I hope to offer new perspectives for understanding and acting on enduring inequities.”

Tya Collins, PhD

— Assistant Professor, Faculty of Education

From DisCrit to intersectionality and Black feminism

Immersing herself in the scholarship of intersectionality and Black feminism — specifically, the work of renowned thinkers Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks and Audre Lorde — was a game-changer for Collins. It also confirmed her instinct about what she says are “the very nuanced and insidious ways that anti-Black racism circulates systemically.” One of her primary research goals is to make evident how Black students experience both disability and racialization in very distinct and gendered ways, as a way to push for needed changes to educational policy and professional practice.  

Today, Collins’ research on the Black experience in special and inclusive education is also influenced by the emerging framework of Black feminist disability studies. She says it has helped her to capture ableism and notions of disability as a major component of anti-Black racism and sexism, as well as how race can mark Black people as being inherently disabled. Her teaching and research are focused on improving initial and ongoing training of educators, and the importance of youth-informed policy and educational governance. "I hope to offer new perspectives for understanding and acting on enduring inequities," she says