Cultural Differences and Disability
Do you have questions about cultural differences related to disabilities and how disability-related accommodations differ between cultures?
In This Tipsheet:
What to Expect
Disabled or not, all international travelers have experienced the awkwardness of being different or standing out in a new country. Like trying new customs or meeting new people, it's just a normal part of traveling.
As a person with a disability, you may also experience other cultural attitudes that are directed to you because of your disability. This could include:
- Transportation drivers, airport staff, and shop keepers refusing to serve you or talking to your non-disabled companion rather than directly to you
- Overseas exchange staff, faculty, employers or host families not wanting to accommodate you, or, on the opposite extreme, being too protective
- Nicholas Hoekstra, who is blind, on his experiences Fighting the Good Fight on the Japan English Teaching program.
- People staring and asking too many questions about your disability
- Peers not inviting you to go out, strangers not offering assistance when needed, and local people expecting you to do everything on your own
- People downplaying your disability and instead treating you according to your nationality, race, gender, or other identities
- Local people with disabilities having low expectations or disempowering attitudes.
Such experiences can be frustrating. Like any traveler who encounters cultural conflicts, your overall travel experience will largely depend on your willingness and ability to come to terms with foreign cultural ideas and practices.
Also, cultures can change through contact with new ideas. By your very presence, and by your active participation in your exchange program or profession, you can help challenge negative perceptions.
Remember that not all disability-related cultural experiences are negative. During your travels, you're likely to meet people who are very understanding, accepting, and encouraging.
“The United States still has a lot of problems [including] persons with disabilities; however, I am also aware that Americans have... strong enthusiasm and strategies for changing situations. Many people in Japan say, ‘It is helpless. The only thing we should do is leave the situation as is.’”
- Yasushi Miyazaki, international student to U.S. with autism, on Beyond Stereotyping.
Perceptions about people with disabilities vary widely from country to country. You will find a wide spectrum of views between stigma and respect based on such factors as ethnicity, religion, gender, politics, urban or rural setting, and disability type.
While disability has a major impact on the lives of people around the world, economics have an even bigger impact. You may be assumed to be relatively wealthy, based on your country of origin and/or your ability to travel, so you may be treated differently than local disabled people. On the other hand, your disability can help to offset some of the imbalance that typically exists between citizens of richer and poorer countries.
Frequently, it is external factors that define the ways in which a person with a disability is accommodated or treated (see social justice/human rights model of disability).
Each culture has different roles and expectations, and people with disabilities may be:
- Included in their communities and in leadership roles,
- Protected from the outside world by their families,
- Exploited or neglected and begging on the streets,
- Valued or limited in community roles or employment areas,
- Isolated in institutions with restricted rights as citizens,
- Educated in segregated or mainstream settings,
- Excluded from full involvement by a lack of resources, including adaptive equipment or services, accessible transportation, and other barriers.
In some cultures, there is shame attached to being disabled that comes from a belief that one’s disability is caused by that person or his/her immediate family having done something wrong, by black magic or by some ancestral sin. In other cultures, it is seen as an individual condition and accompanied by attitudes of pity or respect for diversity.
Negative stereotypes about disability are often deeply entrenched in these systems and can be internalized by disabled people themselves. To counter this, media campaigns to change perceptions of disability and programs that highlight disability culture in a positive way and that focus on empowerment are becoming more common.
Disability rights movements are at different stages in different countries and parts of the world. Most are making positive changes with support from the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).
People with disabilities are advocating for their rights to inclusive and active participation in all aspects of society, and making advances from voting rights to access to higher education to improved transportation access to changing attitudes in the media to increased employment. To learn more about the status of people with disabilities by country, visit the U.S. Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (section 6).
“I would explain personal space and cultural differences to the younger kids [where I volunteered]. I’d really have to push myself to cope with the differences between cultures, but sometimes when it got overwhelming I just needed to take time away from my volunteer work. Writing also helped.”
- Zach, who has depression and anxiety, participated in a gap year to four countries.
When preparing for the attitudes and experiences you may encounter abroad as a person with a disability:
- Do not rely solely on reports from non-disabled people who may know a lot about the destination country, but may not be familiar with the disability experience and resources in that country.
- Contact national disability organizations overseas for gathering information on accessibility and cultural issues for people with disabilities.
- Ask peers with disabilities to provide advice on what to expect abroad and how to prepare for life in a new environment.
People with disabilities who have traveled abroad have tried a variety of strategies:
- When people stare at you smile and wink back at them, take it as a way they want to learn about you and start a conversation, or see it as part of their culture.
- When people try to give you unwanted assistance, ask yourself if accepting this assistance would put you in an unsafe or uncomfortable situation. If so, be assertive in refusing help. If the situation is not dangerous, consider just going with the flow.
- If people make prejudiced comments, stay calm. One blind traveler rates their level of offense which helps to keep her cool and sometimes will tell them how they rate.
- If you are not getting what you need or are expected to ask for it, see if you can find a disability advocate in the community to learn from, acquire leadership or technology training through disability organizations, and/or develop your diplomacy and independent living skills and the confidence that comes with that.
- If people question your capabilities, find ways to show your independent skills, and identify allies who respect your abilities; with time people often come around to think differently about you.
- If you feel frustrated or like no one understands, connect with other foreigners with disabilities who might know what you're going through and can share positive coping skills. Connect with local people with disabilities, too, to gain new understanding of the other point of view.
If you push yourself outside your cultural comfort zone, and open yourself to learning more about the world and about yourself, you will be well-equipped to be a cross-cultural traveler.
It can be difficult to explain a disability, especially a non-apparent disability, in the language or cultural context of the host country, and the explanation may not receive the kind of response you expect.
-Mike Hoenig, who is blind and studied in Mexico
Different cultures or countries will have different understandings of terms like "equal opportunity" and "rights." In some countries, fairness means that you should treat people each uniquely and with an understanding of their personal situation. Other countries see that fairness means treating people the same, following policies and procedures, and making sure no one is provided an advantage or disadvantage.
Different cultures also have different approaches to including or accommodating people with disabilities, such as:
- Doing what is required by rules or law (This approach is common in the U.S.)
- Having direct conversations about what is needed and why
- In some cultures, the family members or friends of the person with the disability are relied upon for arranging accommodations.
These cultural differences can affect whether, how many, and what type of accommodations should be provided, and by whom.
Requesting Formal Accommodations
“As the weeks passed, I became more accustomed to the rhythm of family and village life. I discovered that the countless offerings of unsolicited help were not meant to demean me. Rather it is the way Kiribati families and communities work.”
- Pam Houston, U.S. Peace Corps volunteer with Cerebral Palsy
Example #1: Before going abroad, you thought it was smart to ask your university's disability services office to give you copies of a formal letter describing your disability accommodations needs to bring with you. But when you got to the host university, you found out that there is no disability services office and your new professors were confused when you tried to give them the letter.
- Do you need to have more face to face contact or personal relationships to gain leverage with decision makers (professors, administrators, employers, etc.)?
- Do you understand that universities may not have disability services, but there may be community organizations or host families to offer support?
Requesting Informal Accommodations
Example #2: In your home country, your coworkers at work assist you with tasks that are otherwise difficult for you to do due to your disability. But when you arrive for your professional fellowship exchange overseas, your new supervisor is flustered because you didn't disclose your disability-related needs in advance. If you had, she would have given you a form to fill out describing your specific needs and would have ordered special equipment or software that you could use. You ask why your new coworkers can't just assist you when needed, but she says that it would take too much of their time or be a potential liability.
- Do you know of the appropriate offices and professional resources where you can seek out what is needed?
- Do you need guidance on how to follow the appropriate steps and processes, so you provide all of what is required for approval and gain the legitimacy of formally approved accommodations?
The differences between whether you come from a group-oriented or individualistic society influences your perceptions and expectations of how and where support is to be found, and can ultimately make for an extra challenging experience if not understood.
“The community at our program site in rural Ecuador had had very little interaction with Americans, let alone someone with a unique medical condition who was part of the group. In a community where people with disabilities usually stay at home, it really changed their mindset. That, to me, is citizen diplomacy.”
- Linda Stuart, the Director of Global Citizen's Network.
Through your long-standing relationships, you as the exchange staff have the ability to move attitudes towards the positive.
- When you are signing or renegotiating contracts or partner agreements, make it clear that you have a diversity of participants, including those with disabilities, and policies for non-discrimination.
- If you encounter attitudes that make it sound impossible to make inclusion happen, get specifics about what concerns they have and problem-solve or dispel them one at a time.
- There's always allies or champions for people with disabilities in any community; find those with the right connections to align with to get the first movement in the positive direction.
- As diplomacy is key to cultural interactions, learn how change happens in their culture and what motivates reconsideration - is it leveraging personal connections, bringing up legal or economic arguments, or showing how others do it?
It is good to advise participants with disabilities on what cultural differences may come up and who they can talk to if they need to process it. Connect these participants with peers with disabilities to offer advice and resources to learn more; our National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange can help.
However, keep this discussion balanced with reassurance in the participant's coping skills, that being uncomfortable is an opportunity to grow, and that cultural connections often end up being most meaningful part of an overseas experience.
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