When Culture Meets Disability

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

When we discuss diversity and inclusion, especially in regards to employment, there is a tendency to divide people into separate categories: Women, aboriginals, visible minorities, LGBT, and persons with disabilities. Attempts at hiring diverse talent often includes targeting individuals who appears to represent one of these distinctions.

However, human beings rarely fall into such clearly delineated categories. We are complex beings and have multiple identities.  It is not extremely rare to see an aboriginal woman living with a disability, or a gay man who is also a new migrant to Canada. Understanding how to truly be inclusive, and overcoming barriers and misconceptions, then requires an understanding of how our different identities interact. Our personal lives, relationships, and workplaces can all be impacted by different conceptions of culture, religion, sexual orientation and disability.

Specifically, let's talk about culture and disability. It is common to think of culture as something foreign - so when we discuss culture in the workplace we often frame it around non-Canadian identities. But it is important to remember that we all have our own sense of culture and identity, and that these identities are formed all the way down from nationality to community to family. Different communities, cultures, and even religious faiths can respond to disability in different ways.

In an increasingly multicultural city like Calgary, it is becoming more and more common for us at Champions to see people respond to their disability differently - based on their various backgrounds and ethnicity. For example, in Canadian culture we have a tendency to explain disability in medical terms (Although this dominant way of thinking is often challenged by persons would rather see disability defined in terms of how society creates barriers to the disabled). However, other cultures and religions may explain disability in different terms, such as through blame, punishment, or a form of karma.

In many cultures it is not unusual for a disability to be blamed on the activities of a mother or parent. It may be blamed on something they did during pregnancy, but also extend to sins or transgressions they may have committed in this life or in previous ones. In this sense a disability can often be treated as a source of shame, resulting in it being quietly ignored within a family or social circle. Responding to disability in this manner can lead to neglect of the person, or isolating and separating them from society.

Treating disability in this manner happens in all cultures. People living with HIV/AIDS in Western cultures were often treated with total neglect and isolated during the early stages of the outbreak as people feared their disease but also associated them with a highly stigmatized lifestyle.

When we talk about disability awareness and strategies for inclusion, whether it be in society or in the workplace, it thus becomes imperative to understand the different ways each of us respond to disability. People living with their disability may view their condition as a gift, a curse, or just an unfortunate accident. Similarly, people may explain another person's disability in those terms as well - which can create conflict when viewpoints differ.

Any discussion of inclusion must include an exploration of culture, faith and personal background. We often say that everyone experiences their disability in a unique way - there is not set path or golden ticket to building an integrated society. But if we pay attention to the details along the way we may just get a little bit closer.

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