People with an intellectual disability who are from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds will be highly likely to experience multiple forms of discrimination throughout their lives. They are likely to experience discrimination from the wider community due to their ethnicity and discrimination from both within their cultural group and the wider community due to their disability (NEDA, 2001).

In common with people with an intellectual disability, people from a CALD background will often (NEDA, 2001):

  • Have language and communication difficulties that present significant obstacles in gaining access to services 
  • Miss out on generic and psychiatric support services 
  • Be unaware of the range of services and supports available and lack the knowledge necessary to access appropriate services 
  • Experience extreme isolation 
  • Experience financial vulnerability and fewer opportunities 
  • Experience reduced capacity to participate in social, economic, political and cultural life. 

In addition, people from a CALD background may misunderstand how services operate and be misunderstood by health and welfare professionals (MMHA, 2004).

According to the National Ethnic Disability Alliance (NEDA, 2001), three-quarters of people from a non-English speaking background who have a disability miss out on accessing disability services and supports. NEDA suggests that many services seem unable to accommodate linguistic and cultural diversity because:

  • Ethnic communities tend to be overlooked when considering the ‘target group’ of people with intellectual disability
  • The disability service system has not adopted basic mechanisms for people from CALD backgrounds, such as interpreters or the publication of materials in languages other than English 
  • There are insufficient strategies and practices to ensure that people with a disability who are from CALD backgrounds, and their families and carers, participate in decision making 
  • The myth of extended family support is still subscribed to by both service providers and funding bodies. 

Counsellors working with people with intellectual disability from CALD backgrounds need to consider their ‘cultural competence’ (Gow, 1999). Globalisation and migration continues to increase movement and contact across geo-political borders and continues to increase the complexity in communication between two or more cultures.

Culture is something that is learned and encompasses the beliefs, values, norms, symbols, behaviours, perceptions and customs of a people (Francisco & Carlson, 2002). Cultural practices and traditions can define roles within society, give meaning to life events, provide recognition of milestones and important transitions, and give a sense of belonging. The experiences of ethnicity and disability are interdependent and one cannot be valued over the other (NEDA, 2001).

People with intellectual disability from CALD backgrounds may not be given the opportunity to participate fully in the cultural life of their own ethnic group or that of the dominant culture. There may be multiple reasons for this: a person with intellectual disability may experience discrimination or shame within their cultural group because of their disability; a person may experience separation from their family of origin due to institutionalisation or removal from their families due to abuse or neglect; or a person with intellectual disability may receive support from a service or organisation, and that service may not provide the support required for the person to participate fully in their culture and its traditions.

Strategies that may aid cultural understanding include:

  • Use an interpreter, if needed 
  • Develop an understanding of the client’s perception of disability – how does this client (or family or culture) perceive the disability? Is this similar or different to the dominant culture? 
  • Develop an understanding of the roles that religion and faith play in their life and in people’s well-being 
  • Develop an understanding of the role of cultural traditions in the client’s life 
  • Ask whether the client has had an opportunity to fully participate in their culture’s practices and traditions 
  • Consider why the client came to find themselves in a different culture and what impact this might have; the history of the family’s migration may be significant
  • Resist making generalisations about cultural groups and applying them indiscriminately in specific situations; there will be different views about disability within cultures and within family groups as well as between cultures 
  • Consider the impact of historic discrimination 
  • Develop an ability to recognise when you have been culturally insensitive or unaware (it’s bound to happen) and develop strategies to recover from these mistakes.
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