by Malaka Wilson-Greene
Avonté Oquendo is not the Black community’s martyr. He was an innocent child whose death we have now been charged to make sense of. While it is important to think about the intersections between anti-Blackness and disability, it is tragic that it has come on the heels of his death. We owe it to Avonté not to make him the face of our conversations around Blackness and disability. He did not ask for that. What he deserved was safety, and love, and care, and access. However, we have once again been struck with the awful reality that there is no body or context in which Blackness is safe.
Avonté was a 14 year-old Black boy with autism. He could not speak and was reported via his Individualized Education Plan to wander away during transitional periods in the school day. The cause of death is as yet undetermined and suspicion has fallen on the school for allowing Avonte to slip past them. Avonté, as a Black, disabled youth was not safe, not even in school.
Blackness, in general, is not safe in schools. This is evidenced by recent, yet seemingly eternal, cases of Black students experiencing abuse and mistreatment by school staff and teachers. Black children are often preemptively charged with being “bad”, threatening or defiant and therefore excessively punished. In fact, a recent Department of Education study showed that even though Black students only made up 18% of students enrolled at the sampled school, they represented 39% of the students expelled. Additionally, studies show that youth with disabilities are significantly overrepresented in juvenile correctional facilities. Consider the School-to-Prison Pipeline, which, via zero tolerance policies that do not meaningfully consider ability, race, socioeconomic status, etc., funnel and prepare Black students for a life of imprisonment. It is obvious that Black students are not valued and, instead, treated as surplus and unsubstantial contributors to educational spaces.
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What is important to think about in Avonté’s case is not only his race but his disability as well. In our society, Blackness connotes unworthy, incapable, and unknowledgeable. In educational settings, Blackness has this in common with disability. This characterization positions Black people as unwilling to do the impossible and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. People with disabilities are also characterized as unable and incapable of learning. Both characterizations are related to our supposed inability to perform to institutional standards. However, studies show that Black students who struggle with disabilities are not given the same attention that is given to white children and most schools lack culturally sensitive resources, staff, and teachers that can help children with disabilities succeed.
I write about this as someone who has struggled through education and academia, because my Black skin and decidedly Black way of communicating were misunderstood and characterized as unfit and unworthy. I know the pain that comes from feeling like you do not belong, the pain that comes from being pushed out of academic spaces because you don’t fit into the model. I write about this as someone who has struggled to find supportive, accessible resources for my 8 year old brother. Through this frustrating, daunting process of navigating the racist medical institution and schools who would rather throw us away than help us, I have become aware that my brother’s position as a student is inextricably related to his being Black. I write about this as someone who wants Black deaths like Avonté’s to cease. I write about this because this is about survival.
As it currently exists, mainstream U.S. education favors a one-size-fits-all model of education that marginalizes students who have different learning styles, abilities, backgrounds, and needs. The U.S. education system lacks culturally relevant approaches that meet students at their level and provide learning environments where students can be continuously engaged and appropriately challenged. Often, poor, Black students, with disabilities who are not able to succeed within this model are ostracized. When we only value one type of intellectual academic achievement and link that specific achievement with superiority, those who do not excel in those same ways may experience classroom marginalization and act out with very appropriate anger. Further, institutions must introduce anti-ableist curriculum to the classroom so that students with disabilities can have an accessible, safe, fully integrated classroom experience.
I am confident that in the next few months, we might find out more about what Avonté’s school life was like. I cannot make assumptions about whether or not his needs and rights for accessibility and love were being met. What we do know now is that we have failed him. We fail him when we do not consider the important intersections between Blackness and disability. Schools fail Black students with disabilities when we do not actively work to make the classroom an inclusive environment.
Overall, there exists a lack of understanding and empathy regarding what it means to be a Black, disabled student. The vulnerability of Black disabled students like Avonté is indisputable yet still invisible and largely ignored. It is imperative to think about the intersections between Blackness and ability in order to provide Black, disabled students with the safety and adequate learning environments that they rightfully deserve. I want Black students that struggle with disabilities to be and feel loved, understood, and protected. I want Black students to the have the opportunity and access that they need to succeed, in whatever way that looks like to them.
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