Adai Tefera’s research focuses on improving educational policies for diverse learners with dis/abilities. She is particularly interested in understanding the socio-historical, political, and cultural dimensions that shape policies and impact learning. A second strand of her research focuses on knowledge mobilization, an emerging field that aims to increase the impact and use of research by utilizing interactive strategies that target wide audiences, including educators, policy makers, community organizers, parents, and students. She is specifically interested in knowledge mobilization efforts that advance equity in education.

Taucia Gonzalez is a doctoral candidate at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University in the Curriculum and Instruction program with a concentration in special education. She is interested in expanding literacy practices for language minority students with learning disabilities. More specifically, her work examines how Latina/o language minority students engage in literacy across in- and out-of-school contexts.

Cueponcaxochitl’s research draws on decolonial and socio-cultural theories to examine Ancestral Computing for environmental, economic and social sustainability. Ancestral Computing for sustainability is an ecosystems approach to solving complex problems by interweaving Ancestral Knowledge Systems and computer science. She is a Xicana scholar activist who applies the interdisciplinary frameworks, coloniality of power and figured worlds, to analyze identity formations and civic engagement across learning environments (formal and informal). Her research informs various areas of work such as foundations, teacher preparation programs, curriculum studies and policy in computer science education.

Sarah Alvarado Díaz is a research assistant for Equity Alliance and a first-year doctoral student in the Learning, Literacies and Technologies program, with a special interest in students who are labeled as English language learners, as students who receive special education services, and in particular, looking at disproportionate numbers of English language learners being referred for special education services or being placed in special education programs.  Prior to coming to ASU as a full-time student she worked as an elementary school teacher in a South Phoenix school for sixteen years, where she worked with first through third grade students, and many years as a dual language teacher, in English and Spanish.  

This blog is written from the perspective of our four voices combined. You will see that the lines between our stories are blurred. Our combined experiences in policy and teaching in diverse settings is weaved into the voice of one person with four intersectional paths of theory and practice.

Language encapsulates the worldviews of peoples. When a language other-than-English is native to families’ ways of knowing, and that way of knowing is stripped away from the schooling experiences, English Learners (ELs) are stripped of one of their most powerful mediating tools in learning—their native language(s). This injustice, in turn, exacerbates the probability to confound language with ability differences. In 2000, coupled with an anti-immigrant sentiment, a privately funded legislation, Proposition 203, was passed by 63% of voters in Arizona, marking “English for the Children” an English-only approach for language instruction in Arizona schools. Not only do restrictive language policies in Arizona deny linguistically diverse students the fundamental right to speak in their native languages, these policies (see the more recent SB 1070) can also obscure students’ learning capacities that are evident when they are afforded the right to use their native languages as a resource in the classroom. In some cases this can contribute to the over-identification of ELs with disabilities. The purpose of this blog is to recognize the intersecting identities of language, immigration, and disability given growing evidence that this nexus has real consequences for the educational experiences and outcomes of many students, and is part of an emerging critical narrative that will become more widespread as the nations’ student population continues to diversify.

Arizona’s language restrictive policies resulted in the controversial Structured English Immersion (SEI) program consisting of a four hour language block, leaving English learners (ELs) in classrooms with a separate curriculum from their English proficient peers. At the time of the implementation, I was a teacher and especially concerned about the junior high EL students at my school because while the other junior high students transitioned to different content area teachers throughout the day with their respective grade level, all students classified as EL were placed in a self contained English Language Development (ELD) classroom of seventh and eighth graders combined. Instead of having the same access to content area teachers, I would be their ELD teacher for the entire day.

An eighth grade EL student I had that year captured the first day of school perfectly in a letter she gave me at the end of the year. She wrote (Anonymous, 2009, personal communication):

This student expressed what many ELs were likely thinking and feeling that year. An Arizona state policy intended to provide language support was instead a source of confusion and isolation. This was true for students, teachers, and families alike. In that classroom of 24 EL students six of them—a quarter of all of the junior high ELs—also had reading related learning disabilities (LD). For the first time I was beginning to see why intersectional understandings of my students would better equip me to understand the double and triple binds some of them experienced due to being labeled in multiple categories rather than fitting neatly into one. Local policies and labels intended to support students were adding additional layers of oppression to their schooling experience. While Latina/o students with disabilities already suffer less access to the regular curriculum than their White counterparts, their dual label as an EL furthered their access due to the state’s policy that required their isolation from their English proficient peers.

As I reflect on the stories of students’ perceptions of themselves as learners with labels, it reminds me of the perceptions of parents about their own children, stemming from their daily experiences as English language learners receiving special education services. I also forged strong relationships with parents who shared their feelings of worry and confusion about the tension of being an EL struggling in school. It was often the case that the parents I worked with, many of whom were recent immigrants, feared the labels teachers would often place on their children as “struggling learners” or with a disability. Such suggestions led many parents to contemplate the idea that there might be something “wrong” with their children. But the truth is that, beyond student traits, there are additional factors constantly at play shaping learners’ school competence. I often wondered, for example, how much a student’s primary language was considered before labeling the child “struggling.” Equally important were the countless stories I heard from students about the immigration status of their parents, including the day I spoke with one student who was in tears as she explained, “my dad is in jail because he doesn’t have his papeles (documents needed to show legal status in the U.S.). If they send him to Mexico I am never, ever going to see him, again.” These are the struggles and harsh realities for many students whose lives intersect with the realities of legal status/immigration, learning difficulties, disabilities and language.

While Arizona’s recent immigration and language restrictive policies had profound effects on students and their families, it also illuminated an area of reflection for myself as an educator and rooted my future research.  In my classroom of 24 EL students, six of them—a quarter of all of the junior high ELs—also had reading related learning disabilities (LD). This disproportionality was shocking to me and really made me pause to reflect on my own practice. As a fifth grade teacher, I always considered myself conscious of making sure I knew which of my students needed additional language support or accommodations, but I had never stopped to think about the students that were ELs with disabilities and what that might mean for how I supported their development. Yet, there in my ELD classroom, not only did I have a moment to reflect on my practice, but also to reflect on the structural practices that resulted in the disproportionate number of ELs with LD.

Disproportionality is the representation of a racial or linguistic group in a disability category that exceeds what would be expected for that group, but can also include underrepresentation of students with gifts and talents. Research has shown that it is often the case that non-dominant students (e.g. students of color, low-income students, ELs) in special education are placed in more segregated programs and receive fewer resources than their white peers with the same disability diagnosis. While there has been growing attention on the problems associated with racial disproportionality, particularly for African American and Native American students, little research has focused on understanding whether and to what extent ELs and students at the intersection of multiple “differences” (e.g. race, language, gender, social class) are disproportionally placed in special education classrooms. Why is this important? Nirmala Erevelles and Andrea Minear asked us to consider, “What if some differences coalesce to create a more abject form of oppression?” That is, what if being an immigrant, labeled with a disability, and designated an EL leads to multiple levels of oppression?

The lack of attention on the placement of ELs in special education has occurred despite the fact that the number of ELs has grown significantly in recent years. According to the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), from 1997 to 2008, the percentage of ELs grew by 51%, with the majority of the ELs designated as Spanish speakers. Alfredo Artiles, Robert Rueda, Jesús Salazar, & Ignacio Higareda (2005) suggested this might be particularly important to investigate in certain regions of the country (e.g., Southwest) and for students in their later years of high school.

These growing numbers suggest the importance of including linguistically diverse students when determining disproportionality. To highlight this, I retrieved data for all high school districts in Arizona and found that one of the largest urban districts in the state, serving a large number of ELs, face significant issues with disproportionality. Using the 2011 Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights Data Collection (OCR), I calculated the relative risk for ELs to be identified as students with disabilities. I used the relative risk ratio (RRR) to examine this problem. This index allows us to compare the risk of a particular group to other groups. Generally, a RRR of at least 1.5 is considered to be disproportionate. This means that the group in question is 50% more likely to be identified in a given disability category. Based on the data made available by OCR, I was able to determine that the RRR for ELs in 2011 in Arizona was approximately 1.9 in this large district. That is, ELs were nearly twice as likely as their English proficient peers to be placed in special education in the district. Data were not available, however, to determine the race of ELs with disabilities, illuminating the need for improved access to more intersectional data on students. While this analysis allowed me to quickly examine high school districts in the state to understand trends in disproportionality, questions remain, such as How many districts in the state/region/country are facing disproportionality for ELs? Are there significant trends that need to be illuminated and understood? What factors lead to increase disproportionality for ELs?

The intersections between language, disability and immigration are inextricably linked by multiple systems of power and ideologies, a set of ideas that form the basis of economic or political theories. In an effort to consider more effectively the nexus of power and ideologies with disability, language, and immigration, we offer the following recommendations:

  • Disaggregate data for students labeled with disabilities that includes race, social class, gender, and language
  • Include language status when considering disproportionality in special education
  • Set common criteria for determining thresholds for disproportionality that includes ELs
  • Build collaborative programs with students, parents and stakeholders that include a critical understanding regarding how power and ideologies might shape policy based on rooted experiences of students and their families

Restrictive language and anti-immigration policies are only a small part of the hostility that non-dominant populations experience in places like Arizona. It is important to consider to what extent these politically hostile policies may be mediating students’ experiences and referrals into special education, particularly for ELs. In many instances identifying students with a disability category can afford increased support, access, and outcomes, but for linguistically diverse immigrant students in lower income areas, identification can often result in more restrictive placements and constrained access and outcomes (Ong Dean, 2006). Although linguistically diverse learners can have disabilities, we must not equate learning difficulties associated with language differences with learning disabilities. How might we go about challenging de-humanizing ideologies that channel linguistically diverse students into special education? Explorations regarding this question require a collective effort of continued critical thought and practice, while challenging hostile policies that negatively affect the family unit, as well as teaching and learning in schools.

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One Response to “Teaching and learning at the matrix of language, immigration and disability junctures by Adai Tefera, Taucia Gonzalez, Cueponcaxochitl D. Moreno Sandoval, & Sarah Alvarado Díaz”

  1. Irma Hernandez on 10/21/14 8:39 AM US/Eastern

    I believe that you are on the right track with regard to this topic. I work for a diagnostic clinic and my program focuses precisely on evaluating Latino individuals of all ages who may or may not have a developmental disability. It is imperative that the educational services have the correct information on a student before placing them in a cubby hole of sorts.

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