Ryan on 'Poverty as Disability' and Reforming Special Education Law

October 31, 2012

Students whose learning problems are connected to poverty may be wrongly excluded from access to special education programs under federal law, University of Virginia law professor Jim Ryan argues in a new article.

Jim Ryan
Jim Ryan

Recent neuroscience research raises important new questions about the underlying assumptions in federal special education law regarding brain development, function and dysfunction, Ryan explains in the article, "Poverty as Disability and the Future of Special Education Law," which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Georgetown Law Journal.

The emerging research suggests that the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, wrongly excludes from eligibility students whose learning problems are connected to "economic disadvantage," Ryan said.

In the article, you note that IDEA does not recognize children's learning disabilities that are brought about by economic disadvantage. Should this be changed?

I don't think IDEA needs to be amended to single out economic disadvantage as a cause of learning disabilities. Right now, the law specifically excludes economic disadvantage as an eligible cause of learning disabilities. I think that exclusion should be removed, because at the moment it acts like a thumb on the scales against identifying poor kids as learning disabled. The original idea behind the exclusion was that economic disadvantage was simply an external cause of learning problems, and that students with real learning disabilities had internal processing problems. That distinction, however, is inconsistent with neuroscience research, which shows that conditions associated with growing up in poverty — like chronic stress and a relative lack of cognitive stimulation in the home — can have physical, internal effects on brain function and development. The idea that economic disadvantage is simply an external cause of learning disabilities, therefore, is outdated and excluding economic disadvantage as a potential cause of learning disabilities is untenable.

What are some of the implications of your proposal? And, more specifically, what might it mean for schools with high rates of poverty?

It is hard to say, if only because states and school districts vary quite a bit with respect to how much attention they currently pay to the exclusionary clause. I would imagine, however, that this could lead to an increase in students classified as learning-disabled, which in turn could create pressure to change special education more significantly. Interestingly, the law is already changing in ways that could accommodate an increase in students who receive some additional help to overcome learning problems, especially young students.

Do you anticipate any opposition to your argument? If so, on what grounds and what might your response to that criticism be?

I could envision objections on at least two grounds. The first is that the special education system is already bursting at the seams and can't afford an influx of more students. The answer, as suggested above, is that the way special education is delivered might have to change. The second objection might be along the lines that this paper is suggesting that all poor kids are permanently damaged cognitively. This would be a misreading of the paper, which instead argues that some poor kids suffer internal damage because of conditions related to poverty. But that damage can be limited and in some instances reversed with the proper interventions — just as it can with most students who have learning disabilities.

Why did Congress originally exclude learning problems related to economic disadvantage from the law's list of recognized learning disabilities? What has changed?

As suggested above, the exclusion was originally based on the notion that learning-disabled students have internal processing disorders, whereas poor children face difficult external circumstances. What has changed is our understanding of the various ways that external factors can have internal effects on brain development and function, which in turn makes it difficult to exclude economic disadvantage as a potential cause of learning disabilities.

Your article is the first installment of a broader project to study IDEA, particularly in light of recent insights from neuroscience. Along those lines, are there other changes to IDEA that you think are necessary?

I'm still in the research stage of the broader project, but two issues that stand out so far are how students are diagnosed with emotional disturbance and how special education students are disciplined. I think both areas are ripe for rethinking based on current neuroscience research.

What led you to study this topic?

I have been interested in and writing about law and education for a long time. Most of my research has been about educational governance, broadly conceived, so it has addressed issues ranging from school desegregation to school finance to school choice. I've recently become convinced that neuroscience and technology are likely to transform education as much as, if not more than, changes in governance. The topic addressed in my article jumped out at me as a first point of entry into the intersection of neuroscience and education because I had been reading a good deal about the neuroscience research regarding impact of poverty on brain development, and the exclusionary clause regarding economic disadvantage in special education law seemed pretty inconsistent with that research.

What will you be working on next?

My carbohydrate intake. I'm running the New York City marathon next week.


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