Black Children and Disability: When Race and Stigma Collide, A Black Mom Goes Hard For Her Baby

By TARICE L.S. GRAY

I entered parenthood fully embracing the idealism that can be associated with uncertainty. I believed my daughter would be different in the exceptional kind of way. Before she arrived in August of 2008, I researched bilingual schools (Mandarin and French), swim lessons taught by former Olympians and baby yoga. My role, as I understood it to be, was to prepare her to be an exceptional citizen of the world — grand, and worthy.

Society can and does often insinuate children of color are not worthy. Not exceptional. I became sensitive to the racial undertone that gnawed at the investment I was making in my child. Casual conversations on the playground had me paying too much attention about what others assumed about my daughter.

“Maybe she’s just a little slow. I mean, it doesn’t make sense, you’re so articulate,” said a well-meaning redhead about my then-2-year-old daughter’s inability to say “hi.”

“She could be an Olympian! I mean my daughter can talk, but look how well yours can jump and climb!” said a tan brunette a year after that.

Slow. Physically capable, but mentally under-developed. I saw the stigma attached to her and didn’t know how to put it in its place. We soon discovered my daughter Missy (her nickname was given to her by my mother) had a severe speech delay. By the time she was 3 years old, she had only twenty words in her language arsenal. It was a crushing discovery that transformed me and altered my advocacy on her behalf.

I had already been her advocate, which is why I had intended on adopting the Tiger Mom principals of willing my child to succeed. I needed her to crush the stigmas already attached with being black. Too much of the media’s portrait of black children is unflattering.

For decades, schools have tracked our children’s educational journeys and lowered academic expectations—as well as their self-esteem. Success stories of “exceptions” in our community are drowned out by the chorus of tragic verses like urban school dropout rates, a ballooning wealth gap that highlights childhood poverty, illiteracy and limited opportunities to do better. The message continues to be deafening and influential. I swore, NOT MY CHILD. Then the doctor determined she had a speech delay.

My family and I had been told it would be something she’d grow out of in her time. “Every child develops at their own pace,” said one speech therapist. “Give Missy time.” I did. All the while I increased her therapy, read to her, sang to her and used flash cards to speed her up. It seemed necessary.

That was the assessment I made after our third lesson on the playground. When Missy was barely 2, we went for playtime. Her exceptional motor skills needed fostering, and what better place? I watched as she played next to a young girl who looked to be around 7 on the wooden climber. The girl frowned at Missy.

“She stinks!” The little olive-skinned girl with straight amber hair sounded insulted. “You must not have changed her diaper.” She looked at me, and I at her.

“She smells fine.” I said, turning my attention back to Missy.

“Well, I don’t play with black babies so you need to take her away.” In an instant, this child had managed to to turn the hue of my skin from golden brown to the reddest shade of rage. Missy who’s expressive-receptive language disorder prevented her from understanding the message of ill-intent, watched my reaction. I had to cool off. But the lesson was learned.

I needed Missy to understand the world her father and I had invited her into. It would judge her according to skin tone. It would dismiss her for having a language disability. It would expect that she be much less than exceptional. She needed to find her voice. But how?

The loneliness of that realization, that my daughter might have to shoulder the consequences of these stigmas, made me heartsick. I’d made myself believe she would only be challenged by her race and gender, not the basic ability to speak her mind.

In my isolated state, I found other mothers of color who shared stories of life in the shadows with a child who happens to be atypical. I was inspired by the advocacy of the one whose 6-year-old-son now hates school because his teacher chastised him instead of suggesting a test for ADHD. The pain of another parent who continues to fight against a school that placed her autistic son on a school bus forty minutes early because the teacher didn’t know how else to control him.

We continue to fight alongside mothers who don’t look like us and don’t fully understand our “other battle.” But in this fight—a fight for understanding, for the improvement of my child and for her validation—I’ve also found inspiration in Missy.

My daughter has come a long way. She can tell me what she wants, what she sees and much of what she knows. Missy is not incapable of learning, of growing. She absorbs the good in practically everything she sees. She points toward the sky and says, “look mommy, beautiful moon,” forcing me to stop, take notice and agree. Missy celebrates after finally reaching the top of the rock-climbing wall she’d been attempting to conquer for months, inspiring me to acknowledge the small victories. She offers comfort and concern to classmates who are upset which inspired a teacher call her “the heart of her classroom.”

I relish in my daughter’s joy, her love for a world she is still getting to know at her pace, and I’ve come to understand that she is not just my responsibility, she is my gift. While I know her innocence will fade as she continues to “catch up,” I cannot falter in my commitment to advocate for her, to learn from her and to simply love her.

Tarice L.S. Gray is a freelance public radio journalist and writer in greater New York. A member of the Writers Guild of America West, she has reported and produced stories for National Public Radio and has written for the NAACP LDF site “The Defenders Online,” The Huffington Post, and Black Enterprise Magazine. This piece, which appeared originally on the Huffington Post, was reprinted with the author’s permission.

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2. ADHD Diagnoses In Black Children Increases By 70 Percent—Along With the Use Of Strong Meds
3. Just Say “NO” To the Stereotyping of African American Parents and Other Moms and Dads Of Color

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14 Comments

  1. Me, too. I worry about our children and how disability is perceived in our society. So much emphasis is put on the myth that if they just try harder, they can overcome their disability (without any change needed on society’s behalf), that they just need to change their behavior (as if they don’t need any supports), that it’s just a matter of effort or a better attitude. This is doubly challenging when race stereotypes add to disability stereotypes. Your story is important. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. What an amazing and moving piece, and such a love letter to your daughter. Let me know if you want to write a book.

  3. I have autism .an my mom dealt with this at times growing up with me .i seen people pull kids away when I was younger .having a disabilitys open u up to the same stuff you go though it like you have something contours or something ,it very hurtful .an what worse was when I stared to understand more but still couldn’t verbalized. An even when I can my understanding isn’t always quick to respond or no what to say .but people say the rudest things sometimes .im Jewish an my dad grew up when there was tons of predugist that still out there .you have to be mad at parents not the kids .they don’t no any better .i don’t understand .adult bully who like to pick on us becuse they think they can .stay strong for your litte girl .my mom become a bear for me

  4. Thanks for sharing you story. It is very moving and inspirational. There is so much stigma in the community around children with disabilities. The faster we find out the better our children will be in this judgmental world we live in.

  5. Thank you for this post. Long story – short version. I have 3 sons (twins and a bonus). When my youngest son began speaking in full sentences, I wondered why my younger twin son wasn’t. He spoke few words but he and his twin brother could converse in a language only they understood. Yes, he held on to “twinspeak” for what seemed like forever. When he was was 2 1/2, I started asking questions and after months and months of testing for everything from autism to various praxis we got the answer we’d waited for. Our son had a speech deficit. I could go on and on to tell you the battles he’s had to wage because of his inability to speak in what society deems “normal” but I’d rather tell you that next week our son will be recognized for his academic accomplishments. Yes, our son is a scholar and yes, our son STILL receives speech therapy BUT above all, he’s our son and we were his voice when he needed us to be. Continue to fight on your daughter’s behalf. Much love.

  6. I can relate, my son, now 12 and graduating elementary today (yay) is disabled. I moved form Boston to Atlanta almost 7 years ago and realized then like I do today, society has been taught to look at our babies differently and treat us differently. No matter what keep being a sounding voice, stay on her education, this is where there are LARGE gaps in how to educate our children. I have fought and have learned that all of us “learn, speak and think differently”. They just don’t do it on the pace that society has set. For the first time in his educational career, the elementary coordinator, asked “what can he do, so we can write the IEP to reflect his strengths not his weakness”. I broke down, it took 9 daggone years for an administrator to ask what skills he has and how can we brighten him not stifle him. Keep up the fight and don’t stifle your voice, find what works and keep at it, trust it pays off.

  7. My child is diagnosed Aspergers, but appears to most observers to be neurotypical. He doesn’t show many of the more obvious signs associated with austism spectrum disorders. Some of his teachers have viewed his differences as rudeness, defiance, willfulness.

    Last year, he had a wonderful year in a class with a teacher who appreciated his strengths – which are many – and supported him in areas of difficulty.

    This year has been the complete opposite. Two suspensions, detentions too numerous to count… I honestly believe his brown-ness has a lot to do with it. Behaviors that are not considered problematic in other children are treated like huge issues when exhibited by my child. And of course, when I speak about my concerns (as a parent, and as a teacher with a Masters degree in Special Education and 17 years experience), no matter how politely, I’m seen as the “angry Black woman.” This year has been the most frustrating year ever, as related to his life in school. I expect better from teachers, but am so frequently disappointed.

    To have to raise my child to understand his differences, and also to understand that he – as a brown boy – will be judged negatively by others, is an ongoing challenge.

    I feel your pain and know your daughter will be fine because she has a mother who is her advocate. I worry tremendously about children who don’t have parents who know how to advocate effectively for their children.

  8. You should reach out to the National Black Disability Coalition! They’re a great resource… http://www.nbdc.org

  9. THANK YOU for writing this piece. I have several friends parenting children with special needs, some of those kids are brown-skinned. I think the ultimate, difficult combo is to parent a Black, male child w/special needs. All the stereotypes and stigmas! I get what you are saying here…totally. I have three Black children, all of whom we adopted. We face racism AND adoptism—and sometimes it just really, really sucks, even when you are brave and educated and articulate (as you’ve mentioned) and confident…it still can really hurt you and your kiddos. Why do people feel the need to comment? And why do parents not step in and correct children who (innocently) make inappropriate remarks? So many wimpy parents who like to either make a BIG deal out of difference or who want to ignore difference and pretend that the world is a happy-go-lucky melting pot. Sigh. I’ve had to explain adoption to MANY children b/c their parents simply stand there speechless at their child’s questions (asking why I’m “pink” and the kids are “brown” and how could I be their mommy?). Rock on. You are doing a great job!

  10. Fantastic article, Tarice! Moving beyond words…

  11. thanks if anyone has any qustion i can try an help or answer any qustuion been living this for long time

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