Family, Culture, and
A booklet designed for administrators,
teachers, and parents to learn about the
impact of families’ culture on educational
services in students with disabilities
By Norma Samburgo
EEX6756 Spring 2017
Disproportionate representation.........................................................................4
Culture and Special Education………………………………………...........6
Cultural Responsive Pedagogy……………………………..………………….9
The purpose of this booklet is to help administrators, teachers, and parents to understand how
the family's culture can impact the type of educational services the student with disabilities can obtain.
Topics such as disproportionate representation, similarities among multi-cultural and special
education, and culturally responsive pedagogy are developed in the next pages to give a better
understanding of how having high-quality multicultural intervention services can help improve the
students long-term educational and societal opportunities.
Disproportionate representation
Disproportionality refers to “the extent to which membership in a
given group affects the probability of being placed in a specific
special education disability category” (Oswald, Coutino, Best, &
Sing, 1999, p. 198). African American children are significantly
overrepresented in special education programs, specifically in the
categories of mild mental retardation and severely emotionally
disturbed. Students who are inappropriately placed in these
programs may suffer many consequences for example for students
with special needs, it is likely this label will remain with students
throughout their entire education experience. Also, diminished
expectations, unequal access to the curriculum, lack of
opportunities to connect with peers that haven’t been labeled.
Disproportionate representation (cont.)
Causes of Overrrepresentation
According to the research over-
representation occurs due to (Ferri &
Connor, 2005; Hosp & Reschly, 2004;
Losen & Orfield, 2002):
teacher bias
testing bias
cultural bias
inadequate access to research-
validated instruction
institutionalized racism
The Law
The Individuals with Disabilities
Education Improvement Act (IDEIA,
1997, 2004) mandates that school
districts address and correct over-
representation through financial
sanctions and professional
According to the U.S. Department of Education, African American students
account for only 14.8% of the general population of students 6 to 21 years
old, however, they are enrolled in 20% of special education programs
across U.S. and they spend more than 60% of the school day in self-
contained classes. Moreover, compared to the White peers, African
American students with disabilities have lower graduation rate (Center for
Public Education, 2009).
Culture and Special Education
Culture is a way of describing the combination of the various groups to which one
belongsracial, ethnic, religious, and social, among others. To be part of a culture
generally entails sharing a variety of customs, attitudes, practices, values, educational
expectations, and ways of relating to others. And, though many cultures share
particular attributes and values, it is important to remember that major differences
exist between and within them.
We need to examine the ways culture affects the development of the following
educational processes: • Valid assessment measures.
The articulation of intervention goals for children that reflect socially and culturally
relevant skills and academic skills.
Sensitive delineation of roles of family members, as well as the roles of
professionals. An investigation of changes in and challenges to the Westernized
middle-class notions of child development.
The preparation of personnel to assist in the identification of children with
disabilities and the provision of services.
Cultural Beliefs About the Causes of Childhood Disability
• If mom cuts her hair during her pregnancy, it will cause a miscarriage or shorten the life of
her baby.
• If mom views a person with deformities during pregnancy, she will give birth to a similarly
deformed baby.
• Having sex during pregnancy produces a child with disabilities.
• Eating a grape or fish during pregnancy will produce a birthmark in the shape of grapes or
• If mom eats fish during her pregnancy, her child’s skin will be scaly.
• If mom eats spleen during pregnancy, it causes a dark birthmark on her baby.
• If mom eats spleen and touches a part of her body then her baby will have a dark
birthmark on that area.
• If mom smells certain foods during her pregnancy, she must lick her right hand to prevent
the food from causing childhood disability.
• If mom kills a lizard during her pregnancy, the baby will have visual disorders.
• God causes disabilities in order to examine a couple’s patience.
• To ward off the evil eye, a parent must spread black coal on the newborn’s forehead.
• A new mother should keep a copy of the Koran and a broom close to the newborn to avoid
red genies that would disturb the mother and baby.
• No meat should be brought into the home of a newborn for 40 days to avoid newborn
• No women who are menstruating can visit a newborn baby or the baby will become ill.
• The newborn should wear a red ribbon to protect it from harm.
• During pregnancy, mom must avoid greasy foods as the grease collects in the unborn
child’s brain.
• Messages about the baby and the baby’s health come to mom in
dreams during pregnancy.
• If mom lies face down to sleep, baby will be deformed.
Multicultural Investigations of Parent
Perceptions of Disability
Several studies have examined the
perceptions and beliefs that parents use to
understand the causes and meanings of their
children’s disabilities. • Cho, Singer, and
Brenner (2000) compared the experiences
and perceptions of Koreans and Korean
Americans who were parenting children with
developmental disabilities. Eighty percent of
the Korean parents attributed causes of disabilities to their own mistakes relative to
prenatal enrichment practices and parenting attitudes (poor “Tae Gyo” which translates
to “education during pregnancy”) while 63% of Korean American parents attributed the
causes to a divine plan (God’s will for the family and child) as well as poor “Tae Gyo.
• From Australia, Gray (1995) reported that 25% of the parents of children with autism
mentioned religious, magical, or psychological reasons for the cause of their child’s
disability. • Among Chinese-American parents of young children with disabilities in a
study by Ryan and Smith (1989), at least one-third of the parents considered
supernatural and metaphysical elements in describing the cause of their child’s
outcome. • According to Mardinros (1989), Mexican-American parents of young
children with disabilities perceived the causes of childhood disability to be either a
biomedical etiology (health problems, genetic diseases, birth trauma) or a sociocultural
view (marital difficulties, divine intervention, past sins, and negative attitudes). • In
Yoruba society, congenital disability is understood as an indication of family sin that
requires punishment by ancestors or gods, and the subsequent need for parental
atonement (Olubanji, 1981). • According to Serpell, Mariga, and Harvey (1997), in the
central region of Africa, some tribal societies attribute disability to magical or religious
explanations; however, as in many rural areas characterized by a subsistence economy,
these authors point out that individual differences are widely tolerated so that the degree
of disability would need to be severe before it would become conspicuous. • Caprara et
al. (2000) studied the cultural meanings of tuberculosis in Sumatra, and found that TB
was actually understood as a “semantic network of illnesses.” The disease could be
caused by a contagious germ (biomedical category), hard work (poor economic
conditions), conflict (social transgressions), and poisoning (supernatural powers).
Cultural Responsive Pedagogy
Culturally responsive teaching can be defined as
using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences,
frames of reference, and performance styles of
ethnically diverse students to make learning
encounters more relevant to and effective for them.
Culturally responsive teaching has the following
• It acknowledges the legitimacy of the cultural
heritages of different ethnic groups, both as
legacies that affect students’ dispositions, attitudes,
and approaches to learning and as worthy content
to be taught in the formal curriculum.
• It builds bridges of meaningfulness between
home and school experiences as well as between
academic abstractions and lived sociocultural
• It uses a wide variety of instructional strategies
that are connected to different learning styles.
• It teaches students to know and praise their own
and each others’ cultural heritages.
• It incorporates multicultural information,
resources, and materials in all the subjects and
skills routinely taught in schools (Gay, 2000).
When teachers learn about their students’
backgrounds and personal experiences, they have the
potential to change how they provide instruction.
Further, teachers who embrace a fuller
understanding of their students’ backgrounds and
personal experiences can use them as a tool to make
connections for their students. Teachers can do this
Including curriculum content about the histories, contributions, experiences, points
of view, and concerns relevant to students from diverse backgrounds
Providing curriculum content to students in a way that is validating and meaningful
Using a number of sources in addition to textbooks to provide curriculum content
Making connections between background knowledge and content standards
Utilizing an array of instructional strategies (e.g., role-playing exercises, response
cards) to address students’ distinct preferences
Teaching students to respect their own and others’ cultural identities and differences
Promoting multicultural education during instruction as well as during other school
Using multicultural literature to teach reading and writing and to illustrate the social
or cultural contributions made by various groups of people (The Iris Center).
Cultural and Linguistic Differences: What Teachers Should Know. The Iris Center. Retrieved from
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Irvine, J. (2012). Complex relationships between multicultural education and special education: An
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Disproportionately Represented in Early Intervention and Early Childhood Special Education?
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