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By Rebeca Valdivia

Disability or Delay within a Cultural Perspective
The discussion has thus led us to accept that disability is a socially and culturally situated construct (Danesco, 1997; Harry, 1992; McDermott & Varenne, 1996). Therefore, families of children of diverse cultures (and languages) may not identify a certain series of behaviors or symptoms as being descriptive of a 'delay' or 'disability'. For instance, in her review of the literature, Danesco (1997) found that many culturally diverse parents explained their child's condition as a combination of biomedical and sociocultural or folk beliefs. Families often saw their child's condition as temporary or something that could be remedied. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see families following a combination of 'professional/medical' prescriptions along with home remedies, folk or alternative practices in order to help their child. It should be noted that families varied in how much weight they ascribed to professional, educational, or medical interventions as compared to alternative interventions. Because families had different interpretations of what constituted a delay or disability, even having their child labeled led to misunderstandings and mistrust between them and the professionals who were attempting to be helpful. For example, if everybody else in the family had followed similar developmental patterns, what would the label 'developmentally delayed' given to the youngest child say about the rest of the family? If the child functioned well in the life of the home and community and the concern only existed in the clinic, school, or agency, was the child truly delayed?

Implications for Practice
The cultural implications of the developmental delay category underscore the importance of having a broad array of tools for assessment and instruction as well as a good understanding of the child's culture. Responsive, family-centered programs and professionals have taken many steps to ensure effective communication between them and the children they serve. These have included making interpreters available, making printed as well as audio/audio-visual materials available in the families' dominant language, and connecting parents to a network of other parents with similar issues.

Instruction for children with developmental delay should reflect the goals identified and mutually agreed upon by the interventionist, educators, specialists, and, of course, the family. The learning objectives should include the child's strengths as the foundation. They should be aimed at bridging the gap between what the child is currently able to do in his or her environment and what he or she needs to learn to do in order to be optimally successful in the current or upcoming environments. For instructional strategies and materials, professionals and families are encouraged to implement multicultural practices which honor and respect every child's culture and language.


Danesco, E. R. (1997). Parental beliefs on childhood disability: Insights on culture, child development, and intervention. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 44(1), 41-52.

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Harry, B. (1992). An ethnographic study of cross-cultural communication with Puerto Rican-American families in the special education system. American Educational Research Journal, 29 (3) 471-494.

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Kagitcibasi, C. (1996). Family and development across cultures: A view from the other side. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lynch, E.W. & Hanson, M.J. (1992). Developing cross-cultural competence.Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Mangione, P.L. (Ed.)(1995). A guide to culturally sensitive care. Sacramento, CA: California Department of Education.

McDermott, R. P. & Varenne, H. (1996). Culture, development, disability. In R. Jessor, A. Colby & R. A. Shweder (Eds.) Ethnography and human development. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Srinivasan, B. & Karlan, G.R. (1997). Culturally responsive early intervention programs: Issues in India. International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education, 44(4), 367-385.

Reprinted with permission from:
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
The Council for Exceptional Children
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ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This publication was prepared with funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0026. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education. Copyright 1999 ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education

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