In 1987, James Ysseldyke, serving as editor of Exceptional Children, called for data-based research on the inclusion of underrepresented populations of exceptional students (i.e., students with disabilities) in intervention research.  Thirty years later, nine researchers have collaborated to update the field on the extent to which diverse research participants have been included in research, and share the methods researchers have employed to recruit and retain diverse participants.  The researchers find that while progress has been there are still underrepresented populations.

The researchers conducted a systematic review of 12 peer-reviewed journals selected for their rigorous research criteria, high visibility in the field, circulation rates, and impact scores.  Articles were included only if they met four criteria for high-quality intervention research.  The final sample contained 495 studies (from 5,180 articles) that included 6,663 students with disabilities (37% of students overall, N = 17,901) in the intervention treatment groups.  Demographic data were analyzed by (a) gender, (b) race-ethnicity, (c) age, (d) grade, (e) English language learner status, (f) primary home language, (g) socioeconomic status, and (h) disability status/classification.

Based on the total population of students and the population of students classified with having disabilities, congruence was found in research that included students classified with intellectual disabilities and students with emotional and behavioral disorders.  There was underrepresentation in research that included students classified with (a) speech or language impairment, (b) other health impairment, and (c) Autism Spectrum Disorder.

There were no studies that met inclusion criteria that reported sexual orientation and/or gender-identity.  The researchers identify this as having particular importance because there is a far greater risk of victimization, in and out of school, for youth of all ages who do not express a cisgender or heteronormative identity.  The researchers explicitly advocate for the inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation demographic data, as appropriate.

Students who are English language learners are over-represented in special education but were found to be underrepresented in the intervention research.  Additionally, there was a low rate of articles that reported students’ primary home language.  This is important demographic data to include in future research given our country’s rapidly changing demographics.

Race and ethnicity was reported in 271 studies (54.7%).  This included 4,849 (72.8%) of the students with disabilities in all of the studies.  Analysis showed (and with statistical significance [p > .05]) that Black and White students with disabilities were over-represented in special education intervention research, and Asian, Latino/a, and multiracial students with disabilities were underrepresented.  This is an improvement from 1987 and 2000 but the researchers note that still nearly half of the articles failed to report race and ethnicity data.

The researchers, in order to recruit and retain diverse research participants, recommend (a) partnering with community-based organizations that are familiar faces to participants and their families, (b) offering highly personalized invitations that are culturally and linguistically appropriate, and (c) providing incentives, advance notice, and multiple reminders through multiple formats.

Article citation

Sinclair, J., Hansen, S. G., Machalicek, W., Knowles, C., Hirano, K. A., Dolata, J. K.,  & Murray, C. (2018) A 16-year review of participant diversity in intervention research across a selection of 12 special education journals. Exceptional Children 84(3), 312-329.    doi: 10.1177/0014402918756989