Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Disability Culture Around the World

A young American woman seated on a yak signs "I love you" in sign language.
A young American woman seated on a yak signs "I love you" in sign language.

Thinking about culture shock? You might experience an additional layer of cultural adjustment related to attitudes around disability.

As a traveler with a disability, you may experience some surprising cultural differences related to disability. Some cultural scenarios you might encounter include:

  • Drivers, airport staff, and shop keepers refusing to serve you or talking to a non-disabled companion rather than directly to you
  • Overseas exchange staff, faculty, employers or host families being extremely protective, or on the opposite extreme, not wanting to accommodate you
  • People staring or asking many questions about your disability
  • Locals jumping in to lift you or guide you – sometimes at your request and sometimes against it – through inaccessible buildings, streets, or transportation
  • People downplaying your disability and instead treating you according to your nationality, race, gender, or other identities
  • Peers not inviting you to go out, strangers not offering assistance when needed, or local people expecting you to do everything on your own
  • Local people with disabilities having low expectations or disempowering attitudes

During your travels, you’re also likely to meet people who are very understanding, accepting, and encouraging. And, like any traveler who encounters cultural differences, your overall travel experience will largely depend on your willingness and ability to come to terms with foreign cultural ideas and practices.

“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, returned U.S. Peace Corps volunteer with cerebral palsy

Check out the Table of Contents to learn more about global perspectives on disability and to find strategies for addressing disability-related culture shock.

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