Across school districts in the United States, parents of children with dyslexia share an eerily similar narrative of the barriers faced when seeking a diagnosis. The stories echo language, often voiced by public school administrators and educators, that takes a “wait to fail” approach or that blames students and families for academic difficulties. Likewise, families of Black children with dyslexia echo the same story, with the added layer of language rooted in historical and systemic racism: the language of low expectations, misinterpretation of developmentally appropriate behaviors, and the exclusion of families as partners in educational decisions. The consistent nature of these narratives, supported by quantitative data demonstrating disproportionate adverse outcomes, highlights the impact of systemic racism for Black children with dyslexia.
With the prohibitively expensive nature of private evaluations, the public education system’s ability to identify students remains the most likely access to diagnosis. However, the public education system's failure to identify dyslexia disproportionately impacts students of color (Hettleman, 2003). Unfortunately, unremediated dyslexia leads to decreased self-esteem, increased frustration, and stress for students. Perhaps even without knowing the statistics, many families intuitively realize the protective factors of literacy. Protective factors are typically defined as characteristics of an individual or environment that reduce the negative effect of adversities (Mastern & Reed, 2002). Families with resources resort to private and costly evaluations, making dyslexia seemingly a diagnosis of privilege. Yet, literacy is not a privilege; it is a human right. The United Nations includes education, including literacy, as a human right, acknowledging that lack of literacy negatively impacts life outcomes (UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948). McKinsey & Company’s The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools states, “The perpetuation of illiteracy leads to ‘heavy and often tragic consequences, via lower earnings, poorer health and higher rates of incarceration’” (Auguste et al., 2009).
According to The Nation’s Report Card, an alarming 82% of Black fourth graders were not reading at proficient levels compared to 66% of all fourth graders (NAEP, 2019). A study conducted in 2016 sought to determine how the public perceived differences in test scores by race. When asked, “How much of the difference in test scores between White students and Black students can be explained by discrimination against Black individuals or injustices in society?” Nearly half (44%) of respondents chose “None.” Only 10% chose “A great deal” (Valant & Newark, 2016). The results reflect a lack of understanding of historical factors and the effects of systemic racism and fuel implicit bias.
Dyslexia is the most common learning disability (Peterson & Pennington, 2015) and is reported to affect 5-17% of the population (Shaywitz, 1998; Butterworth & Kovas, 2013). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 4.5% of students in public schools are diagnosed with "specific language disorders," which include dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia (Hanford, 2017). The diagnosis is even less for Black children, who are underdiagnosed and misdiagnosed. It circles back to the question, "Why?" Why are Black children less likely to be identified with dyslexia? Although many causal factors must be considered, implicit bias appears to contribute to the underdiagnosis of dyslexia in Black individuals.
What is Implicit Bias?
The examination of implicit bias must not be confused with a game of blame, but rather a move towards professional excellence honoring and serving all students. Implicit bias is a term coined by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, where they suggested that social behavior is influenced by unconscious associations and judgments (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Since 1995, psychologists have extensively researched implicit biases and found that we all possess implicit biases (Ruhl, 2020). Implicit bias related to race and ethnicity is the psychological residue of persistent structural racism (Dhaliwal, et.al., 2020).
“The examination of implicit bias must not be confused with a game of blame, but rather a move towards professional excellence honoring and serving all students.”
Researchers have hypothesized that implicit bias contributes to racial disparities in educational outcomes, suggesting that teachers’ unconscious racial beliefs could produce biased evaluations of students’ academic performance (Dhaliwal et al., 2020). While studies have explored various causal factors, there is limited research on the factors that influence the chances of a dyslexia diagnosis. A consideration of the impact of implicit bias on dyslexia identification in traditional public and private schools is warranted.
“Unexpected” Requires High Expectations
Our definitions and tools must hold up to the pressure tests of structural racism and the resulting implicit bias. In the absence of universal dyslexia screening or a parent’s request for an evaluation, an educator would be expected to recognize the symptoms of dyslexia. The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) defines dyslexia “... as a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin… unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.”
For an educator to suspect dyslexia, the educator must first expect that a child can be taught to read. Given the research on implicit bias and lower teacher expectations, the reliance on unexpected difficulties negatively affects Black children with dyslexia. When educators are unaware of their bias, there is no internal check to self-monitor, which increases the likelihood of perpetuating bias when applying the definition of dyslexia as “unexpected.”
Synthesis of teacher expectations studies from 2008 to 2018 showed that teacher expectations are associated with students’ long-term academic pathways (Johnston, Wildly, Strand, 2019). Specifically, studies also found that White teachers have lower expectations for Black students and the lowest for Black boys (Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016). Furthermore, Odegard found that if Black students attended school with a greater population of Black and Brown children, the child was less likely to be identified with dyslexia or special education needs, which further creates a disparity (2020). For Black students with dyslexia, their difficulty acquiring reading raises no alarms due to these low expectations and, therefore, excludes them from a dyslexia diagnosis.
“For Black students with dyslexia, their difficulty acquiring reading raises no alarms due to these low expectations and, therefore, excludes them from a dyslexia diagnosis.”
Implicit Bias and Behavioral Expectations
This is potentially devastating for Black children with dyslexia because it is met with harsher punishment for similar behaviors as their White peers, despite research confirming that Black students do not misbehave at a higher rate (Whittenberg, 2021). Research documents that academic underachievement and over-discipline correlate with the school-to-prison pipeline (Stanford et al., 2018). Implicit bias fuels the dyslexia-to-prison pipeline at a disproportionate rate.
Excluding and Undervaluing Black families
The voices of parents and caregivers matter when advocating for their child and as part of a larger movement towards equity. However, implicit bias also contributes to the way schools engage with Black families and inhibits equitable parent participation (Brion, 2020). Implicit bias creates notions that Black parents are less engaged with their children’s academics (Bridges et al., 2012).
While grassroots parent-led dyslexia advocacy has had an undeniable impact on dyslexia legislation, a glance at the membership in most dyslexia advocacy groups will reveal a gross underrepresentation of Black families and an increased amount of contentious debate around the necessity of a focus on Black literacy.
Let us not forget that advancements in both racial equity and disability rights in public education stem from the efforts, marches, and sit-ins of Black families and allies leading to Brown v. Board of Education, thus laying the foundation for disability cases that followed. To exclude Black families is to ignore their cultural assets and victorious legacy in the fight for educational equity.
This discussion focused on implicit bias as just one possible barrier to dyslexia identification and diagnosis. As we explore solutions, the first step is to approach this subject with a degree of intellectual and cultural humility. There is a lot we do not know about dyslexia in Black communities, mainly because we have not asked or looked, and we have not engaged Black families as stakeholders.
We have not acknowledged the duality of existence and the lived experiences of Black children with dyslexia. And as outlined in this brief article, we have not accepted that the effects of systemic racism shape our beliefs, practices, and actions.
Let the fight for literacy continue, but be warned, literacy is not the great equalizer when it exists in the shadows of implicit bias fueled by systemic racism.
About the Author
Resha Conroy is the founder of the Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children, a non-profit organization working to eliminate the amplified inequities for Black children experiencing unaddressed dyslexia and related learning disabilities.
A mother of two children with learning disabilities, including a son with dyslexia, Ms. Conroy is motivated by her family's journey to pursue her lifelong passion for education reform. She has over a decade of experience in education and non-profit management, serving on school leadership teams and as a consultant for charter schools in Washington, DC and New York City. Ms. Conroy has shifted her career to a clinical and direct service role; she is currently a speech-language pathologist and an executive functioning coach with a strong interest in language, literacy, and culture.
She is a proud lifelong New Yorker and graduate of the Bronx High School of Science. She has a BA in economics from Smith College, an MPA in non-profit management, and an MS in communicative sciences and disorders from New York University.