“Subnormal”: How a British Postwar Education Scandal Gives a Human Context for ‘Neurodivergence while Black’

“Neurodivergent is any brain which functions atypically to the majority (neurotypical), for any reason: genetics, development, experience, [traumatic brain injury], etc…” – Autism Voice United (@autismsupsoc)

Image credit and description: Featured image is of a Black teen student standing in a school hallway and is from the BBC anthology film series, Small Axe (2020).


As a Black neurodivergent [ND] public historian and artist-academic, I have experienced many challenges in how I have been dis-abled by the environment around me. This is the positionality this article was written from. Furthermore, this piece was inspired from a lecture I delivered of the same name in May 2022 to the Black and Global Majority Research Network at Leeds Beckett University.


Intersectionality, one of the core tenets of Critical Race Theory, claims a conceptual lineage since the 1980s (Crenshaw, 1989), but in practice dates back prior to at least the novel Woman of Colour which followed biracial aristocrat Olivia Fairfield in the Georgian period (Anon, 1808). This is also proceeded by Mary Prince’s account of Black disablement under colonial violence in the Caribbean (Prince, 1831).

Following these texts amid others, from the 1960s more Black and Brown authors and revolutionaries extended that lineage – including Maya Angelou (1969), Nikki Giovanni (1970), Beryl Gilroy (1976) Angela Davis (1981) Audre Lorde (1984), Beverley Bryan et al (1985), Gloria Anzaldúa (1987), bell hooks (1992; 1994) and Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar (1993). And in more recent times, other writers have added to the literature including Reni Eddo-Lodge (2017), Afua Hirsch (2018), Mariam Khan (2020), and Moya Bailey (2021). Meanwhile, websites such as NeuroClastic continue to make space for Black and Brown autistic people, many of whom have co-occurring neurotypes (NeuroClastic, 2022).

Intersectionality” as a term was first coined by co-founder of Critical Race Theory Kimberlé Crenshaw

Grounded in autoethnography but using speculative sociological reasoning via Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) and Patricia Hill Collins’ (2019) theorising of intersectionality, this essay uses Britain’s 1970s ‘special schools’ scandal – on children termed as “educationally subnormal” by the state, and histories of colonial racism – to show how colonialism and eugenics still pervade British schools today. Particularly when we consider the experiences of Black students who may have neurotypes including autism, ADHD, dyslexia etc etc that diverge from the so-called default. Some of these students may be termed as ‘troublemakers’ and ‘disruptive’ in classrooms when they simply have different ways of learning and being in the world.

This essay is a perspective lead commentary that uses a mixture of journal articles, books, and journalism op-eds / features and blog posts to bring as many perspectives as possible. The reliance on peer-reviewed texts alone in many academic publications reinforces the colonising of knowledge in the white academy, while also excluding swathes of the non-university general public from access.

By the by, there are few social discourses that happen to Black people that also do not impact disabled people. Whilst not all neurodivergent [ND] people will identify our various neurotypes as disability, this essay is written from a positionality that does position them as disabilities, where we are often dis-abled by our environment and the ongoing violence perpetuated by society’s institutions.

‘The Souls of White Folks’

In the lived experiences of Black people, this reminds me that intersectional violence is endemic to our society. Patricia Hill Collins (2019) argues intersectional paradigms are an indicator that oppression cannot always be narrowed down to singular things, and that multiple forms of violence can work together to produce disadvantage. Historically, we can see how Black people were dis-abled by white supremacy in Nazi Germany, as during the Holocaust Black people were looked upon as inferior (Bergen, 2020; DW Documentary, 2021). To understand this, we must look how far back concepts of “difference” go since “while the Ancient world was for many of its inhabitants was a world of multiple peoples, often enough these peoples were sorted into two sets: Us and Them” (Taylor, 2013: 62).

However, it was in the days of European empire-building that so-called ‘race scientists’ drew on physical and cultural differences for emphasis. Author-science journalist Angela Saini (2019) writes “what Europeans saw as cultural shortcomings in other populations in the early nineteenth century soon become conflated with how they looked” (p11).

Further – in 1795 physician Johan Blumenbach surmised that humanity could be sectioned into racial groups: Caucasians, Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans, and Malays. He did not use the term Caucasian to only mean those read as white, but to also include people from India and North Africa (Tom Nicholas, 2020) – concluding “Caucasian variety. I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighbourhood, and especially its southern slope, produced the most beautiful race of men” (Johan Blumenbach qtd in Painter, 2011: 81).

Considering how race was made, we can see how the Nazis then implemented anti-Blackness into policymaking. Eugenics has also been described as “… the controversial idea that we can improve the quality of the human race by selecting who can and who can’t reproduce” (Saini and Pearson, 2020) targeting groups including the working class, the disabled, and Black / Brown people who were steralised in the name of science (Marius Turda, 2020).

Intersectionality reminds me how discrimination against Black people is rarely exclusive to just race, as most of us will be part of multiple groups. Applying intersectionality to historical events after the fact, may show how intersectional violence is precedented. Yet, one can also argue, being Black in the eyes of ‘race scientists’ was synonymous with being considered naturally unintelligent. As Linneaus articulates:

“Eurpaues albus: ingenious, white, sanguine, governed by law, Americus rubescus; happy with his lot, liberty, loving, tanned and irascible, governed by custome, Asiatic luridus; yellow, melancholy, governed by opinion, Afer Niger; crafty, lazy, black, governed by arbitrary will of the master” (p65).

Quoted in: ‘Race’ by Brian Niro (2003)

Discussing Nazi Germany, Kestin (1992) argues that after 1937 over three hundred Black children vanished – “disappeared without a trace … [speculating] they were deported to “Killing Centers” (p33-34). The ‘race science’ that preceded the Nazi regime reminds me to be Black in Nazi Germany was to be viewed as less than human. Disability also took the meaning of not only physical differences but also mental and / or neurological ones (HMD Disabled; HMD Steralisation).

What is now termed in disability activist spaces as ‘neurodivergence’, in Nazi-occupied Europe many of these traits would have been stigmatised. Particularly since the specific neurotype autism was founded in the Nazi era by Hans Asperger who reportedly collaborated with the Nazis in the executions of many disabled children (Czech, 2018; Connolly, 2018; Slagstad, 2018).  

If this article teaches us anything, it’s how complicit academia is in the oppression of Black people … particularly on the grounds of History, Sociology and Psychology … in this thought, it is worth thinking how some subjects wouldn’t exist if we “decolonised” education (Photo Source: Buzzfeed).

In the backdrop of eugenics, Black NDs would have been targeted, and seen as unworthy of procreation contaminating the so-called ‘purity’ of the gene pool. In 1900, “… disturbing links between British researchers at University College London and ‘race scientists’ in Germany” begin to present themselves (Saini and Pearson, 2020), including Eugen Fischer’s hair gauge used to measure the whiteness of Mixed-Heritage people (University of College London). This followed the Herero and Namaqua Genocide – the first genocide of the twentieth century in what today is modern-day Namibia (then, German Southwest Africa), committed by the German Empire (Olusoga and Erichsen, 2011).

Eugenics has a long history entrenched in white supremacy and ableism, so when we hear anecdotes from Black NDs about violent encounters with public services, it is part of a longer historical continuity in a world where eugenics and ‘race science’ have left their mark – in not only Nazi policymaking, but further contemporary discourses to public services like the education system. As whilst today, British education providers talk about Black students as ‘less able’ (Blad, 2016) this comes with a historical precedent.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK government announced school and college closures (DofE and Williams, 2020) alongside cancellations of General Certificate for Secondary Education [GCSE] and Advanced Level [A-Level] exams that were set to take place that summer (DofE, 2020). These actions saw public debate revisit the effectiveness of predicted grades in educational outcomes. Additionally, conversations about racism against Black students was on the agenda. The work of ‘race scientists’ pervades, subtly through UK education via racist stereotyping.

Race equality specialist Sofia Akel (2020) writes:

“Over the past decade or so there has been a huge influx of research and reporting that shines a very revealing light on the covert nature of racism in education, bringing to the fore, conversations on attainment gaps, expulsion rates and now, predicted grading. By simply mapping out these key areas of student life (and more), we can see that through the education system, success and progression becomes a lottery of privilege, in which Black students almost always lose, whilst white, middle and upper-class students cash in.”

From: ‘Predicted grades are a lottery of privilege where Black students almost always lose’

The treatment of Black students in British education today, from schools to universities, being assumed as “less-able” is as Sofia Akel (2020) continues “… often inaccurately equated to levels of education, therefore educational environments often lack widespread recognition that racism does, in fact, permeate these spaces.” The fact that Black students are still stereotyped as being “less able” than their white peers harks back to violent social discourses of eugenics, race science, and IQ tests. Charles Mills’s (2004) work on white supremacy as sociopolitical systems tells us that the rubric for humanity is rooted in whiteness as the default, and anybody racialised outside of whiteness is human— but with qualifiers.

This builds on a longer history where enslaved Black people were considered by white colonisers to be intellectually inferior. Eighteenth century philosophers such as Hume, Kant, and Linnaeus believed white people were intellectually superior (Baker, 1974). In the late eighteenth century, statesman and enslaver Thomas Jefferson (1785) also wrote about his “suspicion” that Black people were “inferior” to white people “in endowments both of body and mind” (p138).

After the “abolition” of British enslavement, dehumanisation of Black people continued. In 1869, Francis Galton’s book Hereditary Genius was published exploring mental abilities in relation to eugenics, basing his estimation on various ethnic groups, concluding that Attic Greeks and Englishmen were intellectually brilliant while Black Africans had low intelligence (Baker, 1974). Additionally, the idea that people from different racial groups had different brain sizes permeated the 1800s well into the 1900s and inspired various studies including texts by Samuel Morton (1839), Robert Bean (1906) and Franklin Mall (1909).

“A sign hangs from the statue of the 18th-century philosopher David Hume in Edinburgh after a Black Lives Matter protest in June.” (Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA, The Guardian)

At the start of the twentieth century, conversations on ‘scientific racism’ were evident. In 1910, sociologist Howard Odum (1910) described his experience with Black American pupils stating it was “… impossible to get the child to do anything with continued accuracy, and similarly in industrial pursuits, the Negro shows a woeful lack of power of sustained activity and constructive conduct.” He also described Black pupils as immoral and “lazy … lacking in persistence and initiative and unwilling to work continuously at details” (p300). Such writing presented opinions as facts in academic texts, one of the reasons I believe lead to rampant stereotyping of global Black communities. Academia has lots to answer for in the derogation of Black people.

Gurminder Bhambra and colleagues (2018) further write:

“Taking colonialism as a global project as the starting point, it becomes difficult to turn away from the Western university as a key site through which colonialism – and colonial knowledge in particular – is produced, consecrated, institutionalised and naturalised. It was in the university that colonial intellectuals developed theories of racism, popularised discourses that bolstered support for colonial endeavours and provided ethical and intellectual grounds for the dispossession, oppression and domination of colonised subjects” (p3)

From ‘Decolonising the University’ Edited by Gurminder Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nişancıoğlu

The role of ‘scholars’ like historian-enslaver Edward Long (1774) in the eighteenth century, pro-enslavement writer Thomas Carlyle (1849) in the nineteenth century, and others in the twentieth century, show how white supremacy can be perpetuated as “research.” The English translation of Alfred Binet’s French intelligence test in 1916 continued this, where Lewis Terman (1916) introduced IQ scoring for the results writing that Black and other minoritised groups have a “dullness [that] seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come” (p91).

Further, in the decades following both world wars, Intelligence Quotients [IQ] went on to have an impact on the British education system. Education academic Paul Warmington states that Black children entering schools in Britain during the 1960s “entered a maelstrom of new ideas about education … one of the strong influences of that time was the cult – and I would call it a cult – of IQ”(Shannon, 2021 – 21:10-21:25). So, the role of “colonial science” and its intersection with eugenics sets the tone for how Black Caribbean children were treated by the British state from the 1960s, which has an enduring legacy.

Subnormal: A British Scandal

At this juncture, Caribbean migration was at its peak with people from these islands moving to Britain in their thousands. In Subnormal: A British Scandal, education academic Sally Tomlinson tells us “The Department of Education decided schools should have no more than 30% of immigrant children” (06:15-06:20). Here, the term “immigrant” was largely euphemistic for those of Black Caribbean and Asian heritage. The Government suggested that to not break this quota, it would be reasonable and practical to spread the concentration of these children across numerous schools.

Lyttanya Shannon (2021) states,

“From 1965, eleven local authorities nationwide adopted government recommendations to disperse. It became known as ‘bussing’ with many travelling for miles to their new schools, but bus children were often separated at the schools they were taken to.”

(Subnormal, 06:46-07:01).

These schools were termed as institutions for the “educationally subnormal” [ESN] and were overrepresented by Black and Brown children. Within inner-city London in 1967, the proportion of these children in ESN schools was nearly double mainstream schools with most of these children being Black Caribbean (Shannon, 2021 – 10:19-10:32). This state violence that so impacted Caribbean children went on to be scandalous in the Caribbean community, first exposed in a paper academic Bernard Coard delivered at a conference organised by the Caribbean Education and Community Workers’ Association (CECWA) in 1970. This paper was developed into a book first published by New Beacon (Britain’s first Caribbean publisher) in 1971, and supported by figures including John La Rose and Jessica Huntley.

In short, this scandal that broke in the early 1970s, was in response to the state-sanctioned racism, placing Black Caribbean children into schools for the “educationally subnormal” really for being Black. The racism that Black people experienced in the late 1960s and into the 1970s was mirrored in other parts of society including violent stop-and-search practices by the police. One example was the Mangrove restaurant in Notting Hill, which was consistently targeted by the police on the grounds of drugs possession.

On 9th August, 1970, the Black Caribbean community protested, marching to the local police station. The 2020 film Mangrove directed by Steve McQueen as part of his anthology Small Axe dramatises these events. It tells the story of the Mangrove restaurant, the protests, and the trial of nine protesters who were arrested and became known as The Mangrove Nine, including activists Darcus Howe and Altheia Jones-LeCointe. It is accompanied by the three-part documentary series Uprising (by Steve McQueen and James Rogan) and Black Power: A British Story of Resistance (directed by George Amponsah).

The episode called Education is the finale of the anthology series Small Axe which talks about Black-white race relations in the UK’s Caribbean communities (largely London) in the 1970s and 1980s.

Police racism was not isolated. This came in partnership with the racism members of the Windrush experienced in their jobs (Olusoga, 2019; Ventour-Griffiths, 2021), whilst ESNs proved how racism permeated through education where Caribbean children made up “three quarters of all immigrant children in these special schools” (Coard, 1971: 28). Yet, many Caribbean parents were unfamiliar with the particulars of English state education and believed “special schools” to mean enhanced, later shocked to find “special” meant schools for students believed to have low intellect (Shannon, 2021).

In 1968, a leaked report (otherwise known as The Doulton Report) from Haringey Council in East London fell into the hands of Black parents, stating the intelligence of Black Caribbean children was inferior to that of white English children (Black Education Movement, 2011). The figures of 1970 state Caribbeans were four out of every five of all immigrant children in these schools (Coard, 1971: 28).

Around this time, there were also “academics” that produced theories equating race with a person’s intelligence. Such people included Hans Eysenck (1971), whose work in the late twentieth century built on earlier colonial “science” (as discussed in section, “The Souls of White Folk”) that positioned Black people (thus children) as intellectually less capable than white people (thus children).

Eysenck’s theories were not considered scandalous by the wider white population, but entirely normal – and in character for a society that has fostered a culture of white supremacy since the days Britain got rich off the backs of the labour and toil of enslaved Black people.

Lyttanya Shannon’s documentary, Subnormal: A British Scandal, features former-education psychologist Waveney Bushell discussing the racism in IQ testing designed to favour white English students over Black immigrants. For example, one question asked, what the word “tap” meant. In the UK, the word means an instrument that releases running water or gas from a pipe. Yet, in the Caribbean a tap is known on many islands as a pipe. Black Caribbean children understood what tap meant in concept, but not the terminology. They were made to feel inferior when many of the questions asked of them reflected a specific Englishness which they had no frame of reference for.

Some students forced to attend ESN schools were incorrectly and inappropriately labelled “disruptive” and “difficult” when there were concrete reasons for their behaviour. For example, in the documentary Subnormal, Maisie Barrett tells us she was later diagnosed with dyslexia saying in school she got reprimanded for “fidgeting” or would get her ears pulled for “moving about” (28:29-28:34). She implies her dyslexia made her a target. Furthermore, Maisie also states that her headteacher believed she [Maisie] needed “special support because I [she] was backward” (28:55-29-16).

Here, I wonder how many of these children that were sent to these ‘special schools’ had undiagnosed neurotypes that deviated from the neurotypical [NT] default? We also must consider how there are still racial disparities, especially on neurotypes like autism and ADHD (Joseph, 2020; Dattaro and Jeffrey-Wilensky, 2021).

Today, many of these neurotypes are grouped under the rather problematic term “Special Educational Needs” [SEN]. Whilst some of the students were put in ESN schools because they were Black, I ask us all to think about the stigmas that come via the intersections of being disabled while Black. Whilst not all people that have co-occurring non-neurotypical neurotypes would identify as disabled, what I am thinking about here is how the state would see this person.

For example, myself who was dyspraxic all through my school experience was labelled as an SEN student also at the brunt of low expectations of Black students from my teachers. However, as we know many of these neurotypes appear differently in Black people than white people (Doyle, 2020; Ngwagwa, 2020; Sibonney, 2021; Tre Ventour Ed, 2022), what we must consider is how simply being Black can be dis-abling in a white supremacist society. And in the lives of Black people today who continue to be disadvantaged in all facets of life, the added intersection of disability means we can be dis-abled at least twice over.

Should I have been a child of the 1970s, my dyspraxia and other neurotypes would have been interpreted as “disruptive,” and thus, I may have been incarcerated into a “special schools. On a deep level, I relate to many of these children, including Kingsley Smith played by Kenyah Sandy (Small Axe, BBC)

In The Souls of Black Folk, historian WEB Du Bois (1903) posed a question that is still as relevant to Black people today as it was at the start of the last century:

“How does it feel to be a problem? … being a problem is a strange experience, – peculiar even for one who has never been anything else …” (p7).

From: The Souls of Black Folks by WEB DuBois (1903)

His question brings a brutal timelessness where Black (ND) people are still treated as ‘space invaders’ (Puwar, 2004). The ‘space invaders’ concept illustrates that ‘privileged bodies’ (i.e white neurotypical) are entitled to spaces at the expense others (i.e Black ND). People who are also intersectionally marginalised entering spaces they have been historically and conceptually excluded from are thus seen as space invaders. So, the way in which a person is made visible as a ‘space invader’ not only comments on their experience, but also the interconnected relationship between bodies and space (Ahmed, 2007).

Predominated by metrics of whiteness and neurotypicalisms, Black neurodivergents may be seen as invaders into spaces that we are historically and conceptually excluded from. For Black NDs in the UK, it could be argued we are seen as “space invaders” (Puwar, 2004) twice over, as Black people in a society coded by whiteness and Black NDs in a society coded by neurotypicalisms. And for Black people in Britain, schools have long been a battle ground against racism where the 2020 case of Child Q is simply one of the latest in a long line of examples in policing and education:

“In 2020, Child Q, a Black female child of secondary school age, was strip searched by female police officers from the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). The search, which involved the exposure of Child Q’s intimate body parts, took place on school premises, without an Appropriate Adult present and with the knowledge that Child Q was menstruating” (p2).

From the Inquiry into the Case of Child Q

This disproportionate treatment, of a child no less, revisits structural violence across policing and education. Published by Hackney Council, the report shows how under white supremacy, Black children are robbed of their childhood. The adultification of Black girls (Epstein et al, 2017) represents how the intersections of anti-Blackness and misogyny as “misogynoir” (Bailey, 2010) are ever-present. It has since been revealed that London Metropolitan Police have strip-searched over six hundred and fifty children in a two year period (2018-2020) with the majority being innocent and nearly 60% being Black.

Previously, Crenshaw’s original articulation of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989) responded to the treatment of Black women in the American legal system. Hence, thinking about Black children’s interactions with police, we must consider “adultification,” where Black children are viewed as more adultlike than their white peers (Dancy III, 2014; Georgetown Law, 2019).

While Crenshaw’s original articulation addressed race and gender, her treatise has gone on to be encompassed at other sites of oppression, including race / disability, showing how authorities may begin to see how individuals can “… exist at an intersection of recognized sites of oppression” (Delgado and Stefancic, 2017: 51). In my experiences, the stereotyping of Black people made through the white gaze (like stoicism and violence) are also common in neurotypical projections of neurodivergent people especially when individuals are specifically autistic while Black. Thus, intersectionality gives alternative ways of seeing social discourses of violence outside of normative ways of thinking, and understanding how:

“Multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and can create obstacles often not understood within conventional ways of thinking – about anti-racism or feminism, or whatever social justice advocacy structures we have … a prism for understanding certain kinds of problems.”

(Kimberlé Crenshaw qtd in NAIS, 2018).

So, histories of anti-Blackness entwined with “race science” and eugenicist discourses bolster a social paradigm that erases Black disablement from view, where under the social model one does not actually have to be disabled to experience ableism (Lewis, 2021). Being Black under white supremacy can be dis-abling in of itself, and white-looking (Heilker, 2020; Morénike, 2020; Garcha, 2021) as the rubric for “seeing neurodivergence” cannot be stricken from the record.


Within an operating standard grounded in whiteness, is it surprising to see neurodivergent Black people harmed by institutions? “… [implying] the existence of a system that not only privileges whites but is run by whites, for white benefit” (Mills, 2004: 31). If we consider moving our thinking from the medical definition of disability (that puts responsibility exclusively on individuals) to a social model (that puts the onus on institutions and structures to make changes), we may see how ableism works intersectionally.

Talia Lewis (2021) describes ableism as:

“A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normality, intelligence, excellence, desirability, and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s language, appearance, religion and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and “behave.” You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”

Considering this definition of ableism, Patricia Hill Collins’s (1990) “matrix of domination” theory may be appropriate. Although she does not explicitly discuss disability, does she have to? Disablement threads through classism, misogyny / misogynoir, and other axes of violence.

Under white supremacy, neurodivergent or not, could Black people claim disablement due to having to live in a world where white supremacy exists a sociopolitical system? As “invaders” into spaces coded as white, we are dis-abled in spaces we have been conceptually and historically excluded from.

Histories of “race science” and eugenics place Black people as space invaders (Purwar, 2004) where Blackness and disablement were viewed both as separate and the same. For Black people who do not identify as disabled and / or neurodivergent, when they enter a space, it revisits how certain spaces are constructed inside as white with that term “white” being euphemistic for “abled.”

No matter how basic this looks, this bag of potatoes is a useful starting point to understanding the “space invaders” concept articulated by Nirmal Puwar (Source: Game Art Academic, Twitter).

Nirmal Puwar writes:

“The moment when the historically excluded is included is incredibly revealing. The unease generated by the position and posture of a [B]lack figure in a privileged public space invokes the constitutive boundaries of the imagination of the nation. The consistency of the play of national symbols, stories and monuments is jarred by the impending arrival of this figure. It threatens to dislodge the established configuration of the inter/national and history” (p1).

From: Space Invaders by Nirmal Puwar (2004)

Thinking about neurodivergence while Black into a wider discussion of disablement, we must not only consider how there is white privilege in whose experience is often taken seriously, but how white supremacy as a system features in our day-to-day lives.

Charles Mills (2004) identified dimensions through which white supremacy operates. While earlier I discussed Child Q – Mills’s juridical sphere applies to politics, the construction of laws, and their usage in the legal system. With this Black child as a victim of police brutality, this places them into a context of overpolicing. Further to the overrepresentation of Black children in Pupil Referral Units (Perera, 2020), Child Q shows how children’s rights are abused including being at school while Black. So, we must also predict this to include neurodivergent Black children.

Moving along to the cultural sphere – this is most relevant to how neurodivergence is presented in films and television shows. It panders to the continued centreing of white people as the default in the human experience of neurodivergence on screen. The latest resurgence of Black Lives Matter in 2020 saw a reinterest in putting Black history on curricula. However, what these conversations did not cover is that also means conducting intersectional analyses, including on histories of Black disability. I think mainstream takes on Black history still often follow a cishet, (often male), neurotypical abled norm.

Next is the cognitive-evaluative sphere that revolves around colonial epistemologies centring white ways of seeing, acting, and being. The reasons why Global Northwestern screen media texts as far neurodivergent ‘representation’ so focus on cisgender white (heterosexual) boys may not be exclusively due to the fact of white male privilege in diagnosis, but also because white western ways of thinking and seeing were historically constructed as the norm:

“The way in which we come to know, … and view the world … is learned throughout our lifetimes […] The British education system itself, is firmly rooted in colonial epistemology, … What this can look like in schooling is a whitewashed retelling of the history of empire … omitting its evils, the voices of the oppressed and the lasting legacy of imperialism today. […] Within education there exists a complex web of coded and overt systems through which some forms of knowledge are ‘legitimised’ – those which fit a narrow, conservative view of ‘British values and the government of the day’s agenda”

From: What Decolonising The Curriculum Really Means by Sofia Akel (2020)

What Sofia Akel writes is applicable to the whitewashing of disability. Here, I am forced to consider how Black neurodivergents are pushed to not only mask as safety from neurotypical violence, but also codeswitch in white spaces to shield against white supremacy (Ventour-Griffiths, 2022).

Next is the somatic sphere; this is how society sees people’s bodies, but I would take this further. Following the ideas of Crenshaw and Hill Collins, somatically Black neurodivergent people may be seen differently to Black neurotypicals with Black neurodivergent women and girls also at the brunt of misogynoir (Bailey, 2010). Mills also names a philosophical metaphysical sphere referring to the idea that our idea of humanity is rooted in the emotions, welfare and upliftment of those racialised as white.

The 1970s ESN Scandal may give us a conduit into showing how the violent outcomes of Black students in British education today is precedented. Especially when some may have unmet needs that also simultaneously challenge the neurotypical default of the education system. These students are labelled as troublemakers and fall through the cracks. Though not explicitly discussing Black students in their thesis, it’s as Carla Shalaby writes, “these troublemakers – rejected and criminalized – are the children from whom we can learn the most about freedom” (Shalaby, 2017: xx).

If today’s stigmatised children were placed into that ESN 1970s context, they would have been labelled “educationally subnormal.” Black boys generally are also more at risk of stop-and-search and longer sentences than their white counterparts (Andrews, 2019: xxiii). In the Lammy Review on racial disparities in the British criminal justice system, David Lammy MP states that in 2015/16 Black inmates were 20% of all children in youth prisons whilst only making up 3% (1.9m) of the UK population (Lammy, 2017: 3). Furthermore, 41% of youth inmates came from a racially minoritised background (p4), but by June 2020 this number had risen to 51% (David Lammy, Facebook 2020).

Regardless of race, there is a further correlation between neurodivergent people in general and their encounters with the criminal justice system (Brain Charity, 2022). Here, there is an overrepresentation of people who have neurological conditions such as brain injuries and learning difficulties, further to the neurotypes autism and ADHD (Criminal Justice Joint Inspection, 2021).

Applying what we know about social discourses of ableism and white supremacy today to the violence of the ESN Scandal and prior histories of colonialism, we can draw parallels. In the UK, those “special schools” became today’s Pupil Referral Units and little has changed. So, being Black in a white system was enough to be considered “disabled,” and these histories of violence reflect our institutions historically grounded in authority (Russell, 1916).

Talia Lewis’s (2021) definition of ableism moves away from the medical model and into a social formation that puts the onus on institutions and structures to make changes. Campaigns such as #BoycottSpectrum10k, #StoptheShock, and #DefundthePolice are backed by centuries of pain and suffering.

Our anti-racism must be anti-capitalist. Furthermore, anti-colonial … because colonialism isn’t a historical time period, but an ongoing and normalised social practice. For example, how the Global North (largely colonisers) still continues put pressure on the Global South (largely colonised/formerly-colonised) through politics, economics and others means to profit. i.e “wars” (Photo: Jon Tyson on Unsplash).

Considering Black disability at large, there is a human context – and few things happen to disabled people that do not also happen to Black people: “The capacity (or incapacity) to labour and to be used for the purpose of white patriarchal capitalist interests lays at the centre of both colonial logics and ableism.”

These discourses to infantalisation, degeneracy, superhumanisation, and dangerousness are four tenets radical psychologist Guilaine Kinouani (2021) further highlights pervading both groups.


Organisations claiming to support the rights of neurodivergent people – who in many cases have co-occurring neurotypes – need to do better. This includes hiring and consulting us on all things related to neurodivergent communities. Nothing about us without us.

These organisations need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. For example, disability activists and advocates have long condemned Applied Behavioural Analysis [ABA] for its roots in eugenics and conversion therapy. Yet institutions like schools still advocate for ABA in all but name.

Provisions for neurodivergent students in schools are still largely run by neurotypicals, while we continue to use social media platforms like Twitter and TikTok as platforms to speak on trauma we experienced at the hands of many institutions.

Whilst we do have precedent with the ESN Scandal, in relation to other spheres they have long escaped pressures to be held accountable, much of the debate overshadowed by other sector like higher education and criminal justice. And if you look at our institutions throughout history (and they are prolonging the violence of that history), the price of accountability has always been paid in blood.

Key Texts

Black Power. Dir. George Amponsah. Available: BBC iPlayer (UK) and Amazon Prime (USA)

Coard, B (1971) How the West Indian Child Is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain. London: New Beacon.

Crenshaw, K (2018) What is Intersectionality? YouTube.

Hill Collins, P (1990) Black Feminist Thought. Abingdon: Routledge.

Kinouani, G (2021) Intersectionality, Ableism and Colonial logics. Race Reflections

Puwar, N (2004) Space Invaders. London: Bloombury.

Small Axe: Education. Dir. Steve McQueen. Available: BBC iPlayer (UK) and Amazon Prime (USA).

Subnormal: A British Scandal. Dir. Lyttanya Shannon. Available: BBC iPlayer (UK) and Amazon Prime (USA).

The Secret Windrush Files. Pres. David Olusoga. Available: BBC iPlayer (UK) and YouTube (UK/US).

Uprising. Dir. Steve McQueen and James Rogan. Available: BBC iPlayer (UK) and Amazon Prime (USA).

Ventour-Griffiths, T (2021) The Alternative History of the Windrush Scandal. Medium.

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3 Responses

  1. This is brilliant, Tré. Made me cry. Every Black neurodivergent person needs to read this.

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