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Author Q&A: What is Cultural Reciprocity?

Find out in this Q&A with the authors of Cultural Reciprocity in Special Education: Building Family–Professional Relationships

Q:Your new book talks about cultural reciprocity in special education. Can you start by distinguishing what you mean by “culture” in this context?

A: We believe that culture is not just the overt aspects of differences in people that are easily recognizable, such as difference in the color of skin, dress, food preferences, accent, etc. but the more subtle aspects that we often take for granted in our own cultures, the deep-seated values that underlie our attitudes and behaviors. For example, as Americans we have a shared understanding about the importance of individual rights.

At some level, we are all aware that we believe in this value. But we may not be aware of how it affects not only the major aspects of our lives—such as having freedom of speech and being able to practice our religion of choice, but in our daily life as well—such as when we might complain to the police about the noise our neighbors are making as a violation of our personal space, or when we choose to commute to work in our own car instead of using public transportation.

Most important, we believe that “culture” isn’t associated with difference or with minority status. Many of our Anglo-American university students tell us, “We’re white. We have no culture.” Culture is about having a shared understanding and being part of a group, whether personal or professional, that has that shared understanding.

Q: Can you explain what “cultural reciprocity” refers to when talking about the work of special educators?

A: Cultural reciprocity is the process of becoming aware and understanding these subtle, deep-seated values in our professional beliefs and practice so that we can explain them to families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who might not share these same values. By clarifying to ourselves why we recommend a particular practice to a family, we become aware of the imbedded cultural values and begin to recognize that our assumptions about what is “right” practice may not be universal.

By explaining these values to the family, we give them “cultural capital” or the knowledge and skills that can help understand these imbedded values and thus better negotiate the special education system. Cultural reciprocity, as opposed to cultural competence, is a two-way process. It not only helps us as professionals to identify our values and differences in families’ values, it also helps families to understand these differences and make informed decisions.

Q : What are some necessary elements that are required for achieving cultural reciprocity when working with families?

A:The willingness to reflect on one’s practice is crucial. It’s also important that we respect difference and recognize that there’s no universal “right” way; believing and doing something differently doesn’t necessarily make it “wrong.” For example, some people may believe that spanking a child is a form of abuse; some of us may perceive male circumcision as a form of abuse. In our book, we’ve described instances of many different parenting styles, all rational and completely suited to the expectations for becoming a competent, productive adult in that particular society or community.

Q: Oftentimes we are not even aware of the cultural assumptions we carry—how do we get professionals to recognize their own assumptions and examine their own biases?

A: If every time we make a professional recommendation to a parent we ask ourselves Why?, we can begin to increase our awareness of the imbedded cultural value. Some people feel that this involves a lot of time and that few of us have the luxury of time to engage in self-reflection. However, we believe that cultural reciprocity is not something you “do” like an on/off button, but a state of being, an internalization that allows constant introspection.

Sometimes this can be obvious: when a professional tells a parent, “Your son has difficulties with processing skills,” and the parent replies, “No, he’s very neat and tidy. He follows the rules,” it’s obvious there’s a difference in understanding the term “processing skills.” Other times, this can be less obvious: when parents become silent at an IEP meeting, we must question what we think their silence means, and not assume we know why they are silent.

Q: This type of introspection can be challenging—what is the ultimate goal of cultural reciprocity? (why should special educators do the hard work, essentially?)

A: As professionals and special educators initiated and indoctrinated in the field, it behooves us to extend ourselves to families. The field of special education is familiar to us but a “foreign country” to parents. This doesn’t mean we have to bend over backwards. Indeed, we recommend that professionals lean forward ever so slightly to narrow that gap and create a common space between families and professionals—the ultimate goal of cultural reciprocity.

Q: What are some cultural assumptions with regard to disability that can get in the way of progress?

A: Perhaps the most serious cultural assumptions are that there’s only one way in which to bring up a child or only one parenting style, and that this style is the “right” way. These assumptions of universality and deficit result in some unfortunate consequences: As professionals, we might impose what we believe are our values and practices for making children independent and competent adults in society on families who may have different benchmarks or goals for measuring competence and even different definitions of independence. By believing that there is only one “right” way to bring up a child, we neglect to respect what parents bring to the table and might conclude that a parent is bad or inadequate because they do things differently.

Q: Can you give an example to illustrate cultural reciprocity?

A: In our book, we’ve presented numerous anecdotes to describe such situations and to help readers through the process of cultural reciprocity. Here’s a recent example that isn’t in the book that is based on Maya’s experience:

Working as a special education professional and technical advisor in inclusive education to the Ministry of Education in Cambodia, I met a family with a 12-year-old blind daughter who had never been to school because her parents believed her blindness made her incapable of learning. However, in conversations with her, I noticed that she was bright and eager to learn and, with my Ministry colleagues, began to try to persuade the parents to send her to school.

We explained that the Ministry of Education had just developed a collaborative pilot initiative with a local non-profit agency to enroll students with visual impairments at the local school and provide them with the necessary supports to ensure their academic success in inclusive settings. It was the first such effort in the country—surely the parents would want to avail of such an opportunity!

But the parents sounded reluctant. How could she learn anything if she was blind and started to study so much later than her siblings, they asked. They pointed out that, at 12, their daughter would be older than her classmates and would be teased. No, she was useless, they said, she couldn’t even help to plant rice!

As I listened to the family, I realized that what the family wanted for their daughter was for her to contribute in some way to the family income. Perhaps there would be good outcomes for her by going to school and being a good student, but there would be better outcomes for both her and her family if she could help to reduce their burden of poverty. And although I believed that the girl had the right to an education, to this family and community, the group prerogative was more important than her individual right.

So, together, this family of rice farmers and the special education professionals set about developing a modification that would allow her to plant rice. What I learned is that there are two steps involved in planting rice. In the first step, the seed is sown at random, even thrown in, where the daughter could be involved if she used small sweeps of her hand to keep the seed within the rice bed. But in the second step, the transplanting, each plant must be placed manually in neat rows at equal intervals, a back-breaking task undertaken by women because of their manual dexterity.

But if she couldn’t see the rows and measure these distances, how could she help to transplant the rice? The device that the group came up with was low-cost and used local materials: two sticks that would be placed by a sibling at two ends of a row and connected by a string that had knots at the same distance at which the shoots should be transplanted. By running her hand along the string, the daughter would know where to place the new shoot; when she came to the end of the row, her sibling would just move the stakes to the next row. The family was delighted with this simple device and, at the end of our visit, even said they might consider enrolling their daughter in the school once the planting season was over!

Q: How did your own interest in cultural reciprocity develop?

A: [Dr. Kalyanpur] I started my career as a special education teacher in India. I came to the U.S. as a graduate student eager to learn the best practices in special education for children and young adults with mild to moderate intellectual impairments, and found that some of these best practices in the U.S. didn’t transfer very well to the Indian context.

My first assignment as a graduate assistant was in a group home for adults with intellectual impairments; I was told that group homes were the “best thing since sliced bread” because these adults were now living in the community and were independent from their families. I realized, however, that this was because they had been in institutions before this where they had lived very segregated lives, whereas in India, as we had no legacy of institutions; people with intellectual impairments were living in communities anyway and hadn’t been isolated.

Additionally, like my contemporaries, I had continued to live with my family even after I got my first job, and then moved in with my husband’s family after I got married. Marriage was what made me independent, not living on my own. I thought about the prospect of trying to persuade a family in India to place their adult son or daughter with disabilities in a group home. Did group homes make sense in India? The research on international special education seemed to think so—there was an implicit assumption that what “worked” in the U.S. would work in the rest of the world.

Later, I was to conduct a research study with Native American families on a reservation and realize that the negative consequences of the assumptions about universality applied equally to culturally and linguistically diverse families in the U.S. Thus was I initiated into the idea of the need for cultural reciprocity.

A: [Dr. Harry] Like Maya, my interest in cultural reciprocity developed when I moved to the U.S. and developed a context for cultural comparison. Coming from Trinidad, about four years after my daughter Melanie’s death [you can read about Dr. Harry’s daughter in her memoir Melanie, Bird with a Broken Wing: A Mother’s Story, I was steeped both in the family experience and the cultural context in which I had begun to learn about disabilities.

In response to Melanie’s cerebral palsy, I had started a small private school in Trinidad to serve young children with disabilities as there were no publicly supported services for children under age 6 who had disabilities. Through that effort I became intensely aware of how culture and context influence beliefs and practices.

When I began my doctoral studies at Syracuse University, towards the end of the de-institutionalization movement, there was great emphasis on developing inclusion both in school and in the community. The concept that hit me most forcibly was individualism and the power it exerted on professional recommendations and the development of disability policy. This was evident in assumptions about independent living for young adults with disabilities and about the value of supported employment. In Trinidad, independent living for young adults was not an expected goal, as most individuals with or without disabilities lived with their families until marriage.

Regarding supported employment, although I could see the value of work, I was incredulous that this society was wealthy enough to provide funding to support paid employment for people with people with disabilities. In Trinidad, where the unemployment rate was at least three times higher than in the U.S., many able bodied people could not find paid work, so providing supported employment for people with disabilities would not even have been thought of. A more likely goal for a young adult with a disability would have been that they would become a helpful member of the family by being able to help around the house, or run needed errands.

It was not the fact of different expectations that shocked me, however. Rather, it was the difficulty many of my classmates and professors had in recognizing how culturally based their values and expectations were. They seemed to assume that the goals they held for people with disabilities were “the right” goals, without recognizing that they resulted from a particular set of values and a particular economic context. The concept of cultural reciprocity emerged as Maya and I discussed and compared our impressions. We thought, “What if people could just recognize that their values are cultural, not universal—wouldn’t that make a difference in how they respond to families?”

Q: When it comes to special education and cultural reciprocity, what change would you most like to see happen?

A: We would like to believe that if more professionals applied cultural reciprocity in their practice, there would be

  • more families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds acquiring more “cultural capital” about special education that would enable them to make informed choices about services for their child or young adult with a disability
  • fewer students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds being labeled and placed in special education settings (given the over-representation of minority students in special education), and
  • more professionals creating common spaces of shared understanding with all families in special education that might help to reduce the non-collaborative, often confrontational, and even litigious, nature of many IEP meetings!

About the Authors

Maya Kalyanpur, Ph.D., started her career as a teacher of children with intellectual disabilities in India in 1981. She received her Ph.D. in special education from Syracuse University, New York, and taught at Towson University, Maryland, for 14 years, retiring as professor.

Dr. Kalyanpur has authored books and numerous articles on special education policy and families from culturally diverse backgrounds in the U.S. and India. Since 2006, she has been a consultant in Cambodia on projects relating to inclusive education. Currently, she is Inclusive Education Advisor to Cambodia’s Ministry of Education under the Global Partnership for Education fund.

Beth Harry, Ph.D., is a professor of special education and chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami’s School of Education. A native of Jamaica, she received her bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Toronto and her Ph.D. from Syracuse University. Her teaching and research focus on issues related to the intersection of disability and diversity, with a particular concern for their impact on families.

Dr. Harry has published several books and articles on these topics and, in 2002, she served on the National Academy of Sciences panel on ethnic disproportionality in special education. Beth entered the field of special education as a parent of a child with cerebral palsy, an experience that she has chronicled in the memoir Melanie, Bird with a Broken Wing: A Mother’s Story.