Center on Race and Social Problems

Race and Developmental Disabilities: A Study of Racial and Ethnic Disparities Among African Americans

Principal Investigator(s): 
January 1, 2003 to January 1, 2004

This pilot study was a preliminary investigation of racial disparities among African Americans with developmental disabilities. Such studies have here-to-fore constituted an extremely limited area of research. Those studies that have been done have primarily been epidemiological investigations of prevalence in the general population and of racial disparities in a few studies where it could be detected. Prevailing methodologies have relied heavily on large national samples. This effort, in contrast, drew upon local, county activity data. Interested in disparities from a programmatic or operational stance, in other words, from the day-to-day experience of community support systems more so than the perceptions of survey respondents, this study acquired MH/MR service systems data. The conceptual values advanced in the Americans with Disabilities Act and ensuing programs, which characterize the disabilities movement, are matters of local, not federal implementation. Those values of inclusion, independence, and integration are challenges for local municipalities and analysis of the success in achieving them is a core issue for disparities research. That developmental disabilities community support policies and programs are principally implemented and managed locally, not nationally, offered sufficient reason for an exploration of county participatory data.

Program participation data for Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services for the April 2002-January 2003 program period was examined. The four variables fashioned from these data and serving as the principal foci of the research were, system enrollment, education attainment, employment, and residential type.

System Enrollment

The system enrollment disparity consisted of the comparison of the black/white ratio in the general population compared to the black/white ratio in the development disabilities population reflected in the county data. U.S. Census of Population data for 2000 estimated that blacks comprised 12.4% of Allegheny County’s population. County participation data, however, revealed that blacks constituted 20% of the total MR/DD population, a disparity approximating an 8% overrepresentation. Participation according to age revealed a sharp inverse pattern between black and white participants. Blacks were 14.1% of participants aged 1-21 compared to 85.9% for whites. They were12.6% compared to 87.4 % for whites ages 22-64. For ages 65 and older, blacks were only 5.6% compared to 94.4% for whites. That black longevity is less than that for whites contributes to this, variation, however, it also suggests the more historical absence and comparatively recent representation of blacks in formal, community-based support programs.


The education data revealed that although blacks constituted 20% of the total MR/DD population, they were only 12% of the system’s total education population. Addressing the distribution of blacks at key points in the educational system revealed that they accounted for 14.6% of all high school students. Similarly, they were 12.8% of 8th grade pupils. More emphatically, however, while blacks were 13.8% of all special education students, a resounding 50.3% of all black students were in special education! This compared to 43.2% for all students and 41.8% for white students! These data underscore a prevailing and historical disparity regarding the overrepresentation of blacks in special education programs.


The analysis of employment data intensifies the challenge confronting people with disabilities. Work and independence are values present throughout disability policy and advocacy programs. The data examined here, however, underscore how elusive that employment goal remains. Blacks were 14% of the full time employed a disparity of nearly 6 percent compared to their 20% representation in the population. Whites were 86% of full time employees. The more revealing statistic, however, was that overall, full time employment represented a very small proportion of the black-white aggregate; 3.4% for blacks (N=39) and 2.9% for whites (N= 242). Neither observation suggested optimistic prospects. The case for part-time employment was only slightly better. Here, blacks were 16% of all part time workers. As a percentage of all black employed, part timers accounted for 20.3% of all black workers and 14.8% of all white workers. The slight advantage, which appears for black workers, is most likely a factor of the extremely low participation numbers for both black and white workers, rather than any advantage blacks would have had in the employment market.


The residential data was subdivided into twelve categories. Four of them, the State Residential System, MR Residential System, MH Residential System, and the Overall Residential System were of interest to the study. Blacks constituted 12% of the total residential population although they were 20% of the total population, a disparity of about 8%. Of the State Residential System, they were 19%, the State accounting for 5% of the black population and 3% of the white population. The disparity continues where blacks comprised 19% of the MR Residential, about commensurate their overall population distribution of 20%. In contrast, however, blacks accounted for only 5.8% of the MH Residential System.

These data were consistent with the study’s research hypothesis regarding residential distribution. It had anticipated that Blacks would be more highly represented in the State and MR System and less so in the community and MH Systems. This contention requires further examination to test it more fully. Data on private residential selection was not available in the data base which the study used although the ’03-’04 data was beginning to be divide in this manner. The implications of this hypothesis, if true, are considerable since community based residential living is central to current policy and program rhetoric. The data considered here suggest a substantial disparity in the realization of that objective.

Conclusions and Recommendations

This study had three expectations:

  1. That it would draw attention to the influence of racial dynamics in developmental disabilities

  2. That it would test the efficacy of participatory data as an alternate research strategy

  3. That it would provide insight into the potential for a multi county, comparative study using this strategy.

The completed research automatically invites attention to the subject, thereby giving it visibility and underscoring the need to expand and intensify examination of disparities in developmental disabilities. This study was purposely directed at tangible, pragmatic issues with the expectation that any measure of success would expand the present discourse. This is expected to become increasingly true as the results of this work circulate.

The use of participatory data in future endeavors is critical to successful operational research. There are numerous “pitfalls,” however, which must be considered. First is the need to create incentives, which encourage disparities research. The subject often frightens or intimidates such that researchers shy away from it and agencies find reasons to deny access to their data. Second, problems of equivalency must be overcome in order to conduct valid, comparative analysis. This includes the use of common definitions and concepts across the developmental disabilities field and throughout the political jurisdictions responsible for the administration of programs and services. Common conventions in the collection and storage of data would also enhance large-scale research efforts. Finally, the application of research findings and the evaluation of their contribution would help in promoting these efforts.