Why Black girls with learning disabilities need more visibility
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Why Black girls with learning disabilities need more visibility

Atira Roberson says she’s Black, female, and has a learning disability — and if you don’t see all three, you don't see her

The Opportunity Gap welcomes Atira to the show for a special conversation about what it means to be a Black girl with learning differences in the United States. Atira shares her journey — from a student with an IEP, unaware of her differences, to a candidate for a master’s in public administration.

She talks about the strong Black mother who advocated for her, and the church community that supported her along the way. And she shares her number one priority for educational change in this country: stopping the criminalization of Black girls with ADHD and learning disabilities.

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Episode transcript

Atira: It's a delicate balance. I'm Black, I'm a female, and I'm a learning disability. All three of those parts make Atira who Atira is. If you don't see all three of them equally, then you don't see me.

Julian: Welcome to "The Opportunity Gap," a podcast for families of kids of color who learn and think differently. We explore issues of privilege, race, and identity. And our goal is to help you advocate for your child. I'm Julian Saavedra.

Marissa: And I'm Marissa Wallace. Julian and I worked together for years as teachers in a public charter school in Philadelphia, where we saw opportunity gaps firsthand.

Julian: And we're both parents of kids of color. So this is personal to us.

Welcome back, everybody. This is Julian Saavedra and…?

Marissa: …Marissa Wallace.

Julian: I think we just need to jump into it today because we have a really awesome guest today. So let's jump in. Learning and thinking differences are common, regardless of race, age, and gender. And we know that learning and thinking differences can look different on everyone.

In today's episode, we want to really talk about how Black girls specifically, and Black girls with learning and thinking differences, are often overlooked and criminalized in school. And we know that we need to have these conversations as many times as possible because it is a gigantic problem across the country.

Today, we want to make sure that we uplift our guest and her story. So today we welcome our incredibly special guest. Not only is she an amazing writer, she's currently pursuing her master's in public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She serves on the Young Adult Leadership Council at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

And she's part of our Understood family. Her goal is to become an education program and policy analyst to shape the future of education. And to, one day, a proudly serving U.S. Secretary of Education. OK, Secretary Atira, welcome to the pod.

Atira: Yes, let's go ahead and speak it into the atmosphere.

Marissa: Just like Julian said, we're super-duper excited to talk to you and get to know you. Let's just start off and just jump on in and tell us about yourself.

Atira: So I am born and raised in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I'm from central Arkansas. I started off the first part of my education career, I always tell people I started off going to Catholic private school. Then I got pulled out and I got put into the public education system, um, which I can get into that later.

So aside from all that time in school, as you mentioned, and then I work part-time, I serve as much as possible. That's one of my favorite things to do is serve, which is why I was so excited to do this. I have no problem, any little bit of anything I can do, because I know there is somewhere out there, a little girl who looks just like me, who needs to hear this.

Marissa: Yes. And we need people to tell their story. So thank you, thank you for being open to doing that because you are absolutely right. So you mentioned a little bit about your schooling and how it changed from being in a private setting to being in a public school setting. So can you talk to us and tell us a little bit more about that experience in both of those different settings.

Atira: Absolutely. So it was, I want to say, yeah, around the early 2000s. It was a Catholic private school here in Hot Springs. I had got pulled out of there, I believe either right before or right after they had pulled me out that the end-of-year standardized tests that they had given us, administered to us, had been outdated like in a substantial amount of years, which I don't even know how that was possible, but it happened. Next thing I know, I'm in this public school, and I was able to get tested for learning and attention issues. And as a result of that, I was obviously behind because I was clearly not being taught what I was supposed to, how much I was supposed to, when I was supposed to.

I got held back. I repeated first grade, which they didn't tell me what was going on, I just, you just went through it. And I get they definitely wanted to shield me, but looking back, I wish they would've told me a little bit more. Of course, you can water it down to where a kid can understand it because they are far more aware than what we give them credit for.

I repeated first grade and thankfully, at the school I went to, it was a performing arts elementary school, I got to, I got pulled out I think almost every day, if I'm not mistaken. And I got to go to resource room and I was able to get more one-on-one time. So I did get tested again, I remember, at some point I want to say around middle school, to find out more about what it was, as far as my learning disability. When I got to high school was when I really was, I guess, kind of involved in it more. We had way more IEP meetings, and I was able to get pulled out of some of my mainstream classes, because the majority of the classes I was in in high school were all regular, except for math, because I do have dyscalculia. I think it would have been nice to know because my senior year we had one final IEP meeting and they handed me this big folder of my stuff, and I sat down one night and I flipped through it and was like, "Oh, I didn't know this."

Marissa: So for our listeners, just reminding everyone that an IEP stands for an Individualized Education Program, and it's really important because that is your program; that is designed for you, it's to support you. It's your plan so that you can learn in your best possible way.

Atira: And thankfully, you know, with the power of Google and internet, period, I'm able to research and dive into it more. Because I didn't know; they didn't tell me; the school wasn't going to tell me. And really the school didn't think I was going to really do anything outside of high school day? My academic adviser had told my mom that she would be lucky to do anything beyond high school or go to a vocational school, which I don't know why he would make a slur about vocational school, because there is nothing wrong with that.

A degree is a degree, no matter where you get it from, as far as I'm concerned. I will never fault anybody for doing what they need to do. Also, it saves money. So go to that vocational school, please.

Marissa: That's a pretty intense decision that he's making for you at that age. And Atira, you had mentioned that you were shielded from the process. Does that shielding come from school or from your family?

Atira: I would say definitely both. And I understand why, but looking back, I think preparing me to do stuff for myself, because when you get to college, you have to handle your own paperwork, go to your own meetings, and communicate, communicate yourself.

So I was, when I ended up going to undergrad, I was forced into the position of do it and figure it out, which thankfully I had access to a really good disability resource center, which was absolutely amazing. Even then, there was things I feel like could have been done to help mitigate that, because I did have, unfortunately, low self-esteem. And when you do have that low self-esteem, you are an easy target. People smell that on you. It made me easy to get bullied and so I did, because I was ashamed. Not thought you owe anybody an explanation. But I feel like it's important. We do end up having way more conversations at the topic of learning disabilities. And especially when you are a Black person with learning disabilities, because there are far more out there than what people are aware of.

Julian: Atira, so I wanted to ask specifically about the intersection of you being a Black woman and having a learning disability. You know, you spoke about your experiences in school in relation to some of the programming that happened.

There's something very specific about our experience being Black folks in this country. And specifically in relation to all of the challenges you may have faced. Can you speak more about how that intersection of being who you are racially, but also in the way you're learning and thinking differences related to that?

Atira: It's been like a really hard time for me to get to it, but I'm proud of this. I had a conversation with a friend of mine where people were like, "Oh, you need to call it a gift," and I'm not going to sugarcoat it. I have a learning disability. This is what it is. And it's not a bad thing. I don't know why we're so scared of the word "disability." It's good. It's — it is what it is. It doesn't have to be bad just because it makes you uncomfortable and makes you want to clutch your pearls doesn't mean I need to apologize for it. What am I going to do that for? Because it's never going to change. I will be someone with a learning disability until the day that I die. I have no reason to have a seat at the table, but I deserve to be here whether you think so or not. So I'm going to take the materials and build my own table and my own seat because I matter. We matter in this conversation because we're not going away. There are so many Black students who go unnoticed because there's, like, a disparity between those who can have access to it and those who don't. I didn't —

Julian: An opportunity gap is what you're talking about.

Atira: Look! Pun intended. There we go. Perfect. But it needs to be all across the board because the problem is, is if you don't willingly go, if you don't go out and look for this information, you're really not going to find it. And the thing is, even if you go out looking for it, you got to have a general idea of how to look for it, if that makes sense. So you can get lost. And by the time you figure it out, it can be too late and let's be real, it is expensive to get assistance. When I had first left for grad school to go in San Antonio, fall of 2019, I was trying to get assistance at the new school I was at through disability services. I sent them a copy of my paperwork that I had through disability services and my undergrad. And the way they work, they send — you request what you need, and it goes before a decision committee. And so you can either get confirmed your accommodation requests or they can deny you. I had never heard of this before. I was like, it's already mine. Why are you going to deny me of what I'm supposed to already have? That doesn't make sense. They denied me access to be able to take my exams in a reduced distraction environment.

And so I called my old disability counselor and I was like, "Can you explain to me why I had access to it here?" and they were like, "You had ADHD and you displayed those symptoms. So that's why we gave it to you." So I called them and they still denied me. And they were like, "If you go get tested again, you can have it."

It was $300 to get tested. That is expensive. We don't have that, because there is, because there's a financial gap between Black people and white people. It's not just accessible. So I was like, "OK, there it goes that." So I, thankfully I was able to have professors who I had went up to ahead of time to talk to. I was like, "Hey, this is what it is. This is what I need from you. Are you on board or not?" And I used to be ashamed of having to get like that, 'cause I'm a very chill, reserved, laid-back person until I really get the chance to, like, warm up to you, so to speak, I'm going to be really reserved. And even if that's not the case, that's just me.

I'm a nonconfrontational person. But I have understood, unfortunately, through the years that you have to get confrontational. My mom had to get confrontational at these meetings because they did not want me in mainstream classes. They didn't want to have to do the work to make sure I was ahead. And at first I was like, "Oh my gosh, my mom is so embarrassing."

Julian: Listen, we know how Black mothers get down. We know.

Atira: They have to though. I don't — I'm not even sorry for that. Thank you, Black moms everywhere, because we would have fell through the cracks. Let's be real. There's no — I could have easily not been blessed with the opportunity to sit in front of you right now. But my mother was a very extremely big role in making sure I didn't fall through the cracks. She knew I could do my work. Am I going to have to do it in a different way? Yes. Am I always going to be a slow reader? Yes. Is my attention span going to be shaky sometimes? Absolutely. "Find a way to make it work for her because that is your job. That is what you guys signed up for." And fortunately, it shouldn't have gotten to the point to where she had to get angry. And sometimes she did raise her voice a little loudly and use a few explicatives, but it had to happen. And now I see when I got to college and I saw her doing that, but I have to do it in my own way. And that's OK. I know I'm not being ghetto. I'm not being loud. I'm not being obnoxious. I am being Atira Roberson.

Julian: Atira, one question I have related to what you're saying is — not even a question, a statement. You have a confidence that does not come from nowhere. Right? I want to know — the confidence, the intelligence, the candor that you speak with, it comes from somewhere.

And I was fortunate to read the article you wrote, "Black in America With a Learning Disability." And in the article you talked about candidly about your mother, uh, Ms. Jackie, and how Ms. Jackie, as you said, supported you through and through in the school experience and she raised her voice and did what she had to do to make sure you were getting the services you needed.

My question is, especially for all the parents out there listening, what are some of the things that your mother did with you at home to help you develop this confidence that you have?

Atira: Well, let me just make it clear. This hasn't been, I have not been like this all my life. Like I said, I was far more reserved even up until a few years ago. This has been an evolution. 'Cause, like, I was ashamed of who I was. I hated everything about being Atira. I would not be, if you would've told me three to five years ago, I would be doing this, it was more of an awakening moment to where I said, "No, not anymore." You know, and I have my down days, just like everybody else. But when you realize there is a bigger purpose. And like I said, it's not an accident that I have a learning disability, but here I am. And my mom told me, "Don't be ashamed of who you are; run with it." It's going to be easier some days, it's going to be harder some days, because I mean, let's be real. The world is definitely not a happy unicorn rainbow place.

Not everybody is going to be Team Atira. You gotta be Team You before you invite anybody else into the circle, otherwise anybody else is not going to mean anything. You have to be your biggest fan first before anybody else can. She taught me that. And if it wasn't for that and having extra tutoring outside of school, that my dad and my mom, you know, paid for, and me going to different little workshops and stuff on the weekends.

And she even put me into tae kwon do at one point, like, helped break me out of my shell because she, we're not going to do this. "Forget what they say. What do you say?" I'm different. I'm going to do things differently. My voice is squeaky sometimes. Sometimes I'm up here, sometimes I'm not. Let me just be me and own it. Don't run away from it. This is who I am and it's never going to change. Either take it or leave it.

Julian: I'm sure s lot of the things that you say they were directly told to you. Ms. Jackie, I hope one day we're fortunate enough to meet you, but shout out to you, sis, for crafting this young lady.

Marissa: And obviously you're giving credit to your mom. I'm curious, though, is that in addition to your mom and that experience, what are some other places where you have felt completely yourself and your authentic self?

Atira: I would definitely say my church family. They are absolutely amazing people. The most chill, down-to-earth people you will meet. I call them my family; I'm in church or not. I grew up around them my whole life. They knew me and I didn't really start talking —

Julian: Let's get them shouted out too.

Atira: The Union Missionary Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas, Pastor Corey Scott. Yes. They definitely gave me the support. And I used to be, like I said, I used to be shy to even get up and do stuff there. It's a safe space and I knew they would not judge me at all. And they are there to help me. I can tell you right now if I call one of them or even my pastor, or even my first lady and be like, "I really need your help right now." They, either they would come theirselves or they would send somebody. Like we, we roll deep when we roll. They have always been there for the get-go, and some of them have even helped raise me, to be completely honest, because they knew what I was capable of.

Julian: Um, so Atira, so Marissa and I are both longtime educators. We got into this work because we wanted to make sure that the students that we work with were getting the appropriate choices and the opportunities that they deserve.

So I've been an educator for, you know, almost 18 years. I'm an assistant principal now in an urban district; Marissa is working on her doctorate in special education. So it's something that we're really passionate about. And we hear that you want to join us in this work and ultimately work specifically in education policy. Can you tell me more about why you would like to make this your career and why specifically the policy side?

Atira: So I ended up even getting into this. I was enrolled in a class my senior year called nonprofit leadership management something. We had to do an individual project. I started, um, doing research and I ended up springing upon NCLD. So I was like, "OK, I'll use them for my final project. That's cool. I have a learning disability. Why would I not?" And as I was doing more research about this organization, I find out they have a leadership council, a two-year leadership council. I had never heard about them. I've never heard anything about this.

And I mean, I applied anyway and found out that summer that I was accepted. Through getting connected with them and being more educated about things that go on within the world of learning disabilities, I was like, "Oh my goodness." I really loved it. I mean, it's my life, so I'm way more — you become way extra fascinated in it then, but then learning more about it and then seeing myself in it and being connected with these people. I was like, "Oh my gosh, why wouldn't I do this for the long haul?" And I ended up when I had, the beginning of 2020, I went to speak at a conference by Education Trust. I spoke about classroom inclusion. And of course my experience with the learning disability and being able to be in a room full of minority students who are like you or not even like you, but educators who want to learn, how do we make this better? And me sharing my experience as a student. 'Cause I have been a student for a very long time. I have. A moment of "This is what I need to do. Oh my gosh. I love this." So it was like that moment I was like, "OK, I'm here, we're running with it. Let's go full speed ahead." And I've really been on this train so much.

Julian: So it all came from this one project and this one class, this few clicks, and here you find yourself being exposed to the work that's being done at the policy level. And to me, it sounds like it's one of these other barriers that we as Black people endure in education, where there's not exposure to all of the things that are out there to support us, and specifically to support students with learning and thinking differences.

Marissa: And you said something about the evolution of your story, right? And that, I think that's so important because there's so much life experience that you have that has made you who you are today, and the fact that you can now confidently define yourself and be OK? What do you think are the number one issues facing Black girls with learning differences?

Atira: The way we discipline. I'm doing — my final project right now is actually racial disparities on school discipline. Because we already know Black students get disciplined more than white students. And when I was digging and working on my lit review, I had read one piece where there was actually a high portion of Black girls that got suspended or disciplined, because I didn't see what type of discipline was used, but even a few of them had learning disabilities.

And we, the way we discipline students, anyway, needs a complete overhaul because there's too much — not free will, but there's too much room for discretion. If there's too much room for you to make your own personal narrative of what happened when it's not even close to what actually happened, but because you're the teacher and I'm the student, they're going to believe what you say versus me, because I'm the troubled kid. I'm the one who's acting out and being loud, when, really, I was just passionate about what we were talking about. That's a very big problem that I see, and it's — I didn't even know it was this bad until I started doing research, and I was like, "Oh my gosh, we're priming our little Black girls and our Black boys, especially the Black boys, to go through the school-to-prison pipeline." And it shouldn't have to be like that. And then by the time you realize it, you want to try to pull back and fix the damage. And the damage is done. If we can unlearn and relearn a better way to discipline our students, that would definitely help.

We need, we need way more funding to spend time on special education. Especially for our students, because sometimes you're not going to get it in the classroom. You need outside help, and that's OK. We need to train our teachers better because what I have seen is, unless you're someone who specializes in special education, you're not really going to learn much about it.

That's something that I feel like every teacher should know. And I'm not saying you need to be 100 percent expert in it by any means. No, but you need to learn how to work with every student. The ones that look like you and especially the ones that don't look like you, because we're not a threat. I deserve the same time, love, and attention that you're giving that other student.

Julian: Let me ask, then, thinking about you're now working on learning more about how educational policy can shape the experiences of students like us. What do we do to help uplift some of the younger sisters right now, some of the younger sisters that are in there that are like you, but they're not the fully formed young woman that you are, and they haven't found their voice yet. What advice would you give to them? What things would you say to them so that they can develop themselves the way you have?

Atira: I would definitely say, if I could speak to them, if I could speak to a younger version of myself, I would definitely say, "Do not be sorry. Don't be sorry about who you are and what you are. You are here for a reason. You are beautiful. I see you. You matter. They didn't make you, so they certainly don't have permission to break you, at all. You're here for a reason. This is only, this is just going to be only the beginning. This is one part of a whole beautiful big book story. Just keep going. I know it sucks. I know it hurts. And there are going to be times where you cry and want to tap out, yes, but just keep going. Because I have times like that all the time." 

And that's the thing. People think that Black women are just so strong and fearless, and we're not. I can tell we are tired of being superhero. You have to have a healthy amount of selfishness because I cannot pour into you at the expense of losing myself. That's what I used to do. I, that's what I used to do, but I'm not doing that anymore. I'm not just somebody that you can pick and choose and put, pick up, and put down when you want to. My heart is too fragile for that. We are too fragile for that. You got to learn how to say no sometimes, and know that saying no is a good thing. Sometimes that's one of the most powerful weapons you can have is saying no. And you don't owe anybody an explanation why. 

Sometimes that's the difference between you going on or you snapping and doing something irreversible to yourself that you can't take back. Because Black mental health is real. This is something that's going to take years and years to fix because it's generational, because we were taught this. So I got to unlearn it. I got to teach my kids and my kids' kids "That's not OK. This is the new way we're doing things. And this is what we should have did, but back then, they didn't know. But now we know, so it's got to stop."

Julian: In terms of the kids and the generations that have to learn things. I'm thinking about all the listeners out there that are parents, and they're parents who might be parents of children who are experiencing learning and thinking differences right now, as we speak. What kind of things would you say they should be doing to help support themselves, but also support their children?

Atira: I would say in the event that you do find out that your child has a learning disability, that's not the end of the world. It's not your fault. You're going to have to do things differently, yes, but it's OK. It's going to be a process. You gotta, you have to embrace the process. It's a struggle, but you have to embrace the struggle and trust the process because everything happens for a reason. Sometimes it's gonna suck, but you got to push through it. It's not going to be the end of the world. 

And don't put that on your child, even if you are scared. "Oh my gosh, what do I do? My child has dyslexia. Where do I go from here?" Don't, 'cause kids feed off fear. So if I can tell that you're concerned for me, then I'm going to be concerned about myself on top of worrying about your concern, which, and I'm not saying don't hide, do not hide anything from your children, but let's have an open dialogue. Don't be ashamed of your child. 'Cause you don't know what he or she could end up doing as a result of being able to have a learning disability. It's going to be different and it's going to take more work, but it's going to work out. It's not the end.

Julian: And I hope that more people like you get out there and do this work because we need you. We need you badly. And I really hope that whenever you are ready to become that secretary of education, just come and find me and I'll come work for you.

Atira: Look, the manifestation is real. Better watch out.

Julian: But I just wanted to close this out by saying I am so fortunate, and we are so fortunate to have had you joining us tonight. You are such a gem. You have so many positive stories that come with you. I really appreciate everything you're doing, and we support you, so thank you so much for joining us.

Atira: Thank you for having me. This means a lot, like I said, I never would have thought a few years ago I would have been doing this, but I know it's not by accident. So thank you for the opportunity. I truly do appreciate it. I don't take it lightly at all.

Marissa: Thanks for joining us.

Julian: This has been "The Opportunity Gap," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "The Opportunity Gap" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Marissa: If you found what you heard today valuable, please share the podcast. "The Opportunity Gap" is for you. We want to hear your voice.

Go to u.org/opportunity gap to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash opportunity gap.

Julian: Do you have something you'd like to say about the issues we discussed on this podcast? Email us at opportunitygap@understood.org. We'd love to share and react to your thoughts about "The Opportunity Gap."

Marissa: As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one to reach and support more people in more places.

We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference. And we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at understood.org/mission. "The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Andrew Lee, Cinthia Pimentel, and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors.

Julian: Thanks again for listening.

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    is an assistant principal in a public school in Philadelphia.

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