Addressing Trends and Developments in Secondary Education and Transition
February 2004 • Vol. 3, Issue 1
Addressing the Needs of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students With
Disabilities in Postsecondary Education
By David Leake and Margarita Cholymay
Persons with disabilities usually must overcome a variety of challenges not
faced by their peers without disabilities in order to gain entry to and succeed
in postsecondary education. These challenges are likely to be especially difficult
for persons with disabilities of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD)
heritage. Compared to non-CLD students with disabilities, CLD students with
disabilities are more likely to face language and social barriers, the negative
effects of having grown up in poverty, and difficulty processing “standard
English” oral and written information, all of which may contribute to
their risk of school failure (Greene & Nefsky, 1999). It has also been argued
that persons with disabilities comprise a minority group whose members, like
members of other minorities, are often stereotyped and subjected to negative
perceptions and low expectations. From this perspective, many CLD persons with
disabilities face a double burden of discrimination (Fine & Asch, 1988).
In view of the multiple challenges faced by many CLD persons with disabilities,
it is not surprising that the initial National Longitudinal Transition Study
found that, compared to non-CLD persons with disabilities, they achieve significantly
poorer transition outcomes, including lower employment rates, lower average
wages, and lower postsecondary education participation rates (Blackorby &
Wagner, 1996). Low postsecondary education participation rates are reflected
in Table 1, which shows that the proportion of college students reporting a
disability is considerably lower for each of the CLD groups (with the exception
of American Indians/Alaskan Natives) compared to Whites. This brief will outline
the major challenges that tend to be faced by CLD persons with disabilities
in postsecondary education and how to address these challenges.
Table 1. Percentage of 1995-96 Undergraduates Who Reported a Disability,
||Percentage of students reporting a disability
||Hearing impairment or deaf
||Other disability or impairment
|American Indian/Alaskan Native
-- sample size too small for a reliable estimate.
Note. Percentages will not sum to 100 because some students reported
Adapted from: Horn, L., & Berktold, J. (1999). Students with disabilities
in postsecondary education: A profile of preparation, participation, and outcomes
(NCES Report #1999-187). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics,
U.S. Department of Education (Table 2, p. 8).
The following challenges tend to be especially great for students with disabilities
who also come from CLD backgrounds.
Social Inclusion and Natural Supports
Most postsecondary students know few people when they first arrive on campus,
yet most of them develop social support networks with peers, faculty, and others.
Some CLD students, however, have a harder time and may develop a sense of social
isolation due to a “basic mismatch” between their home and community
culture and the educational culture commonly found in schools (Carey, Boscardin,
& Fontes, 1994). This challenge is likely to be compounded for CLD students
who also have disabilities. However, most support programs for postsecondary
students with disabilities focus on academic issues, despite the fact that having
a social support network is often essential to maintaining academic progress
How to address this challenge:
Postsecondary disability support programs should include a social component
to promote inclusion in activities and events involving nondisabled peers. For
some students, especially those with more severe disabilities, additional efforts
may be needed to address difficult challenges such as low self-esteem, depression,
or undeveloped social skills. One promising approach is the creation of “circles
of support” around individuals, consisting of significant persons in their
lives (friends, family, faculty, etc.) (Cotton et al., 1992). An example of
this approach is provided by the Solutions Through Advocacy and Resource Teams
(START) Project at San Francisco State University, demonstrating how a problem-solving
team model can build supportive peer mentoring relationships that can help fill
gaps in the lives of students with disabilities. Ideally, circles or teams are
established during high school and follow the student into the postsecondary
setting, helping to ensure a smooth transition.
A major challenge for many students with disabilities is the change in how
services and accommodations are planned and provided as they move from high
school to postsecondary settings. According to the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (IDEA), which applies to students until high school graduation
with a standard diploma, schools are responsible for identifying students with
disabilities, and a team creates an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
By contrast, postsecondary institutions are subject to the Americans with Disabilities
Act (ADA), under which students themselves must inform school officials of their
disability, provide documentation, and propose viable options for accommodations.
Such self-advocacy is often especially hard for CLD students due to cultural
values against disclosing personal challenges and/or asking for help, a lack
of experience or confidence in dealing with persons perceived to be of higher
status, and other CLD-related factors.
How to address this challenge:
CLD students with disabilities should be supported to gain self-advocacy skills
during high school. A number of self-advocacy programs and curricula have been
developed and demonstrated, such as the Can
I Make It? Project of the University of Illinois Transition Research
Institute, (http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/sped/tri/makeit.html) featuring
a 20-hour curriculum during which each student creates a “self-advocacy
portfolio.” Further, Roessler, Brown, and Rumrill (1998) describe a training
program targeting 17 specific self-advocacy behaviors.
Role Models and Mentors
Persons with disabilities, especially those of CLD backgrounds, are still
poorly represented among both postsecondary faculty and graduates, depriving
CLD students with disabilities of role models and mentors for postsecondary
How to address this challenge:
Postsecondary institutions need to expand efforts to increase the proportion
of faculty and other personnel of CLD backgrounds, who can serve as role models
and mentors for CLD students, including those with disabilities. Peer-mentoring
programs are also valuable for helping CLD students with disabilities adapt
to the postsecondary environment and enhance their social support networks.
Postsecondary faculty, administrators, and support personnel often lack the
awareness, attitudes, skills, and knowledge necessary to effectively support
students with disabilities. This lack may be even greater with regard to CLD
students with disabilities, often due to differences in guiding cultural values
(e.g., conformity versus personal expression, respect for authority versus personal
initiative, group orientation versus individual orientation, etc.). In addition,
some CLD students lack a high level of English proficiency, although they can
meet high academic standards with appropriate supports. (It is notable in Table
1 that among Hispanic students with disabilities, 16.3% report having a “speech
impairment” compared to fewer than 2% for non-Hispanic Whites or Blacks,
presumably due to the high proportion of Hispanic students for whom English
is a second language).
How to address this challenge:
When barriers to serving individual CLD students with disabilities arise,
an approach that often proves effective is known as “cultural brokering,”
in which an individual familiar with both cultures negotiates a middle ground
acceptable to all. In addition, technical assistance or training should be available
to help improve cultural competency for the main CLD groups on a campus. Increasing
the proportion of faculty and other personnel of CLD backgrounds also serves
to enhance the cultural competency of postsecondary institutions.
Fasy grew up in a small island country in the Pacific Ocean. He became paralyzed
as a teenager when he fell from a cliff and suffered a serious spinal injury.
Unable to walk, he began to use a wheelchair. Neither the schools nor other
government services provided much in special services for people like Fasy.
However, with his determination and academic capabilities, he earned entry to
the University of Hawaii at Manoa. A number of support services were available
to him there, although there was a delay in accessing some of them. Due to the
seriousness of his disability, Fasy required assistance to get around campus
and take care of his basic needs, but extensive aide services were not available.
Fortunately, in keeping with the family orientation of his Pacific Island culture,
some of his family members were able to come to Hawaii specifically to support
him to reach his postsecondary education goals. During much of his academic
career, one or two of his brothers were always at his side, and when they were
not available, other family members assisted him. With the support of his family,
Fasy earned his bachelor’s degree and then two master’s degrees,
one in history and the other in Pacific Islands Studies, although the challenges
presented by his disability as well as cultural and language differences resulted
in his taking several extra years to complete his studies. However, his own
efforts, the supports provided by his family, and supports provided by the university,
were successful, and now, in his late 30s, he is the director of one of the
four campuses of his country’s national university.
This case study illustrates how a cultural strength (individuals giving priority
to the success of the family as a whole) can be built upon to support a CLD
student with disabilities to achieve postsecondary educational success. Certainly,
many non-CLD parents make special efforts to support their children with disabilities.
What clearly comes through in this case, however, is the ready and coordinated
participation of the entire family. This “collectivist” orientation
contrasts with the “individualistic” orientation of mainstream American
society, and should be taken into account when addressing the support needs
of persons with disabilities from collectivist cultural backgrounds.
In summary, CLD students with disabilities face multiple barriers to obtaining
postsecondary degrees. Postsecondary faculty and staff can have a significant
influence in the success of these students by gaining awareness of supports
they need, such as social inclusion, natural supports, self-advocacy, cultural
competency, role models, and mentors. In some cases, elements of the student’s
culture can provide some of the support needed in order to succeed in postsecondary
Center for Research on Education,
Diversity, and Excellence (CREDE)
CLD Transition Success Research
Institute for Urban and Minority
National Center for the Study
of Postsecondary Educational Supports
Blackorby, J., & Wagner, M. (1996). Longitudinal postschool outcomes of
youth with disabilities: Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition
Study. Exceptional Children, 62, 399-413.
Carey, J. C., Boscardin, M. L., & Fontes, L. (1994). Improving the multicultural
effectiveness of your school. In P. Pedersen & J. C. Carey (Eds.), Multicultural
counseling in schools: A practical handbook (pp. 239-249). Boston: Allyn
Cotton, P., Goodall, S., Bauer, J., Klein, J., Covert, S., & Nisbet, J.
(1992). Moving from school to adulthood: The role of circles of support
in the transition process. Durham, NH: The Institute on Disability, University
of New Hampshire.
Fine, M., & Asch, A. (1988). Disability beyond stigma: Social interaction,
discrimination, and activism. Journal of Social Issues, 44, 3-21.
Greene, G., & Nefsky, P. (1999). Transition for culturally and linguistically
diverse youth with disabilities: Closing the gaps. Multiple Voices for Ethnically
Diverse Exceptional Learners, 3(1), 15-24.
Roessler, R. T., Brown, P. L., & Rumrill, P. D. (1998, Fall). Self advocacy
training: Preparing students with disabilities to request classroom accommodations.
Journal on Postsecondary Education and Disability, (13)3.
Authors David Leake and Margarita Cholymay are with the Center on Disability
Studies (a University Center of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities) at
the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
^ Top of Page ^
There are no copyright restrictions on this document. However, please cite and credit the source when copying all or part of this material.
This report was supported in whole or in part by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, (Cooperative Agreement No. H326J000005). The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, and no official endorsement by the Department should be inferred.
This publication is available in an alternate format upon request. To request an alternate format or additional copies, contact NCSET at 612.624.2097.