Hardly a day goes by that discussion of cultural diversity doesn’t occupy the focus of newspaper articles, television programs and employee relations workshops. The drastic and rapid change in our nation’s demographics has even resulted in the controversial consideration of modifying the process by which civil liberties are realized. Diversity in its full manifestation has arrived.
Special education has likewise been greatly influenced by this cultural phenomenon. Take, for example, educators and service providers across the nation who work with diverse student populations receiving special education services. Many, particularly those in rural and urban settings, have recognized a recurring disconnect between the values espoused by the special education process and those of select individual students, their families and their communities, often related to their cultural identity.
Commonly, the disconnect stems from differences in ideology related to the concept of individualism versus collectivism in terms of personal culture identification. Individualism is the predominant, mainstream set of values in the U.S., which includes self-determination, competition, individuality and self-reliance. Collectivism, the social orientation most non-Western cultures embrace, promotes interdependence among members of families and communities and values the contribution of how each member physically, financially and otherwise benefits the group as a whole.
In light of the clear contrast in these distinct frames of reference, how do notions of self-advocacy, parent-led advocacy and student-centered planning as functions of the special education process fit into these collectivist cultures? What are educators doing to reach out to those who hold opposing values, and how are they recognizing, validating and incorporating the traditions of various cultures into the special education programming these children receive?
Creating new tools to become a formal part of different special education processes has been proposed as a means of accomplishing this increase in awareness. For example, the creation and implementation of an individualized CDL (culturally diverse learner) inventory tool, developed similarly to existing tools for ethnographic interviewing, could function to facilitate the necessary assessment of each family’s cultural perspective. This information could then serve as a reference point or baseline from which to build subsequent steps in the IEP and transition planning process. Students and their families would complete the inventory themselves, with assistance as necessary, thereby avoiding inadvertent stereotyping and inaccurate assumptions. Cultural information derived from the CDL inventory tool would act as another layer to the traditional social assessment individual students already receive as part of their IEP development.
Change begets change. Consideration of cultural diversity in improving outcomes for culturally diverse learners is an important, current focus in education. These examples of the unique challenges that our ever-changing society presents to our nation’s educators show the need for the creation of cultural assessment tools to be utilized in the special education process to unify student, family, community and school.
There is little doubt that with mindful consideration and a “tincture of time,” further best practices relating to cultural issues will be identified, shared and implemented.