At my sons’ annual school planning meeting 20 years ago, I sat quietly as the group of teachers, administrator, speech therapist, and the psychologist placed my son with autism in a special day classroom with no opportunities for participation in a general education classroom. At the end of the meeting, the school team thanked me for my cooperation and said that I was a wonderful parent to work with. I had never questioned the school’s recommendations, being quite comfortable with him being in a special education classroom, partly because I did not want the embarrassment of meeting other parents with non-disabled children from my own community (South Asian) at school.
My reaction, I later discovered through my research on perception of disabilities in the South Asian communities, is typical, particularly when disability is associated with stigma and embarrassment for the family. Cultural considerations can occasionally be the underlying influence behind families’ choices in educational placements, and they represent one of the most underestimated and underexamined barriers to fostering inclusivity within school environments.
While inclusion for students with significant disabilities has been shown to have tremendously positive academic, social, and vocational outcomes, the data on including students with significant disabilities shows that almost 93% of the students are placed in segregated settings at school. Thus, if schools have to make real progress in advocating for inclusion, special educators must be taught how to gain an understanding of why families may make less inclusive decisions for their children, in other words, special educators need to become culturally competent. While some might argue that cultural competency poses an additional challenge for educators, making an already demanding profession even more complex, it’s essential to understand that a teacher’s cultural competency is instrumental in driving forward the agenda of inclusivity within schools.
My research on South Asian families in northern California also points to themes that reflect a religious interpretation of disability, either due to past actions (Karma), a personal challenge in the parents’ spiritual pursuit, or an astrologically determined occurrence that may not be remediable. Thus, a child’s disability is seen as a divine test or intervention, reinforcing the importance of patience and compassion in their educational journey, rather than active advocacy and involvement with the educational system. In fact, in families where this belief was predominant, there was a lack of agency in the parents and an acceptance of a more restrictive placement in special education settings.
As, Karishma, a parent of a child with extensive support needs told me, “I see it as just one more step in my spiritual journey. This is my personal struggle to be patient with the world outside.” By contrast, those parents who did not subscribe to these beliefs were advocates for more inclusion in general education settings. Moreover, the stigma associated with disability and the perception of disability of a child as a family problem pressures families into not wanting to make public the disability or advocate for inclusion.
One South Asian parent in my class whose daughter had mental health issues pleaded with me to understand, saying, “I have another daughter who needs to get married. You know that no one in the community will marry her if they know my other daughter has a mental health problem.”
Cultural competency, which can easily be achieved by providing teachers tools and professional development time to learn about their students’ cultures, develop deep relationships with their families, and then identify potential barriers to student advocacy, can allow educators to navigate these cultural barriers to inclusion sensitively and effectively. They can engage with families in discussions that bridge the gap between cultural traditions and educational goals, encouraging a partnership that benefits the child’s development.
Cultural competency also plays a pivotal role in reducing disparities in special education. Research has consistently shown that students from minority backgrounds, predominantly Black and Hispanic students, are overrepresented in special education classes and subjected to harsher disciplinary actions. Cultural competency helps recognize biases and avoid misdiagnoses or inappropriate placements, ultimately ensuring that every child receives a fair and appropriate education.
When educators are sensitive to cultural values, traditions, and languages, parents are more likely to feel respected and valued as partners in their child’s education, leading to increased collaboration, better communication, and improved outcomes for the student. Cultural competency can help educators ensure that parents fully understand the educational process and can actively participate in their child’s education.
Finally, cultural competency in special education ultimately leads to improved outcomes for all students as it will benefit not only students with disabilities but also their peers as teaching strategies become more adaptable and inclusive. Moreover, the skills and knowledge gained through cultural competency training can be applied in all aspects of education, making schools more welcoming and supportive for every student, regardless of their background.
It is thus imperative that cultural competency be integrated into special education teacher programs and professional development activities at schools. Educators need the knowledge and skills to navigate the complexities of cultural diversity confidently. By including cultural competency as a foundational element of teacher training, we can equip educators with the tools to become culturally competent, view parents as resources and not problems, and ultimately create inclusive classrooms for an equitable educational experience for all students with disabilities.