Frontline Initiative Communication

Supporting the Whole Person:
Communicating within Diversity


Maria Marino is a Cultural Diversity Specialist at Courage Center (a rehabilitation facility for people with physical disabilities and sensory impairments) in Golden Valley, Minnesota

There was a time in all cultures when wellness and the divine met. Healer-priests and priestesses were trained from infancy in the arts of healing in accordance to their cultural beliefs. Their treatment of illnesses was accepted by group members who shared the same beliefs and a common history.

We now live in a global village, where contact between divergent cultures is a daily occurrence. We are no longer surrounded by those who share our beliefs, values, and history. What we believe about wholeness and healing, like any cultural ideal, is not a universal truth, but is challenged and contrasted by people in our own communities.

For persons with disabilities who may need a high level of support from direct support professionals and health care professionals to meet daily needs, the issue of communicating within cultural diversity is critical. More and more frequently, professionals and consumers are likely to have different beliefs and different cultural backgrounds. How these differences are bridged has a great impact on the well-being of consumers and the satisfaction of those working in the direct-support field.

As an example, modern health care professionals usually focus on biological causes of illness and disability, a frame of reference in which the cultural competency of the professional is irrelevant and healing methods are supposedly universal. In other words, clients who have suffered a stroke, but who come from different cultural groups, would share not only the same diagnosis, but also the same treatment or service, and in theory, make the same progress. Extensive research has shown that, contrary to this belief, cultural competency on the part of health care providers enhances the compliance to and follow-up of treatment plans, as well as consumer satisfaction, and rehabilitation rates of people receiving care.

Service providers who understand the cultural issues of consumers and communicate this knowledge are more apt to establish a relationship of mutual respect and understanding that increases the overall wellness and satisfaction of both parties involved. It is only in the context of that relationship that an alliance is established between the supporter and consumer which enables both parties to actively achieve the wholeness of that individual.

A DSP can learn much about an individual’s culture simply by listening to him or her and acknowledging that those beliefs are an important component of a consumer’s life choices. To illustrate, when a person with a disability has a particular ailment, whether it is caused by bacteria or a mal de ojo (the evil eye) is unimportant if both the consumer (or their family members) and the DSP can agree on a therapeutic plan that includes both possibilities. Culturally competent professionals listen to the consumers’ perspectives and incorporate them into support plans. Culturally competent DSPs do not have to agree with everything the consumer believes, but it is important that they acknowledge the beliefs and the consumer’s personal desires.

Learning to communicate with cultural competency is a process.

The following steps are simply a starting point—

  • As with everything else in life, practice will make us more aware, more sensitive to cultural differences, and ultimately more effective professionals.
  • Listen respectfully to the individual’s story. Even if it seems irrelevant, they are telling it to you for a reason.
  • Respond in a non-judgmental way to the individual’s or group’s values. Discrediting their beliefs only discredits you in their eyes.
  • Know something about the culture of the individual and to what extent they identify with it. Read, ask questions, and acknowledge what you don’t know. Don’t assume that you understand and don’t make generalizations about the person because of their cultural background.
  • Consider issues of respect, deference, role, and authority, otherwise the relationship between the two parties may not flourish, and communication may break down.

In all areas of the person’s support, be open to views and beliefs that are different from your own. Whether these differences stem from cultural background, gender, age, income level, or any other individual life experience, they need to be acknowledged and supports need to be provided in a manner that takes these into account. Always take your lead from the person receiving supports. Above all, develop tolerance for ambiguity and a good sense of humor, mostly about yourself. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but be afraid not to learn from the individual.