White Papers & Research

White Papers & Research

Ruderman White Paper on the Criminalization of Children with Non-Apparent Disabilities

Transcript of Ruderman Podcast HERE



Unlike people with visible or apparent disabilities, people with non-apparent disabilities often don’t receive the accommodations guaranteed to them under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Due to the “invisible” nature of disabilities like autism, Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, dyslexia, or any number of mental illnesses, some behaviors that are a direct result of these disabilities are often seen in school contexts as laziness, inattention, disrespect or defiance. Instead of receiving legally due accommodations for their disabilities, students with non-apparent disabilities are disproportionately labelled problem students.

In combination with zero tolerance policies at schools, these students are suspended at disproportionately high rates and ultimately criminalized. The result of this systemic discrimination is that over half of our incarcerated population has a mental illness and another 19-31% have a non-apparent disability, like cognitive or learning disabilities. Our jail and prison systems are effectively warehouses for people with non-apparent disabilities. This problematization and criminalization starts very young—even in preschool.

Focus and Findings

We examine in detail the disproportionate impact that the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and the Foster-Care-to-Prison Pipeline have on children and youth with non-apparent disabilities. While the effects of these Pipelines are well-known in regards to other minorities, we have found that people with disabilities are over-represented in all the minority groups traditionally impacted by this type of systemic discrimination. These findings suggest that the intersection between disability, in this case specifically non-apparent disability, is a significant factor in systemic discrimination.

We also examined the role of trauma in the development of non-apparent disabilities. Trauma-survivors are more likely to develop mental illness and about 35% of them develop learning disabilities. This means that children who have Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are more likely to be caught up in the School-to-Prison Pipeline. And given that children are very often placed in foster care because of abuse or neglect, these findings about trauma also indicate some of the underlying causes in the Foster-Care-to-Prison Pipeline.

To better illustrate the impact of this systemic injustice on individuals, we collected personal statements and vignettes from persons impacted by this discrimination. One contributor’s words about these systems that work against our youth captured the injustice of it all very incisively: “… you feel like you’re being punished when you haven’t committed any crime.”


This systemic violation of the rights of people with non-disabilities, not only impacts the individuals funneled into the to-Prison Pipelines, but disrupts and harms communities by having the stress and discrimination and incarceration burdening and separating families.

The long-term consequences of incarceration are devastating given the high recidivism rate (almost 50%) and the lack of supports in place to re-integrate people, especially people with non-apparent disabilities, back into the community.

Finally, this system of discrimination also hurts the wider community and tax payers given that it costs more than $140,000 a year to incarcerate a young person, and only about $10,000 to educate them.

Therefore every one of us is impacted by this injustice in our communities and we must put an end to it. Disrupting the to-Prison Pipelines with more sensible school discipline policies, greater awareness raising, more support for trauma-survivors, more wide-spread testing for non-apparent disabilities, better supports and education of teachers and school resource officers are among the first steps we can and must take now.


Published in August 2017

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