Culture defines our way of life. It is dynamic. Culture encompasses beliefs, values, and reflects choices that provide a framework for living. Anyone working with families and persons with disabilities in any setting needs to understand the cultural values, beliefs and accompanying behaviors so as not to misinterpret another’s words and actions. To some families, Western interventions can be seen as intrusive or not effective. Some families rely on a blend of western and their own cultural interventions such as a medicine man, prayer, or acceptance. Cultural competency means being inclusive of all families, children and adults including those with disabilities.

Cultural identity includes ethnicity, socio-economic status, religious/spiritual beliefs, definition of family, region where one lives, language, food, values around receiving help, roles related to age and gender, rituals, communication styles, social and family behaviors, child rearing practices, and perceptions of health and disability. Families may operate in a number of cultural contexts including their culture of origin and the culture of their home community. An important concept about cultural is to understand that our own cultural values give meaning to behavior. An example of this is found in the expectations around eye contact when in conversation. Typically in Western culture, eye contact conveys that the person is listening and showing respect. In other societies eye contact is seen as aggressive and showing disrespect.

Cultural competence can be seen on a continuum from cultural destructiveness to cultural proficiency. Being culturally proficient means that an organization sees culture as an essential element of providing services and is continually developing the most culturally relevant practices, materials, and staff to meet the complex needs of the populations they serve. We all see the world from the lens of our own cultural upbringing and choices we make in terms of the values we live our daily lives. When a person with a disability becomes involved with a medical facility, school, court, or any system where he or she will interact with policies, regulations and structures there is an opportunity for great confusion or great learning.

Cultural competence and proficiency “requires that organizations have a clearly defined, congruent set of values and principles, and demonstrate behaviors, attitudes, policies, structures, and practices that enable them to work effectively cross-culturally”. Given the complex array of services and supports it is imperative that systems and organizations are prepared to be accessible in terms of cultural competency.


Date posted: May 18, 2011. Content created by The Developmental Disabilities Institute at Wayne State University. Last updated: March 21, 2018.

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