Frontline Initiative Diversity

The DSP's Role in Developing a Culturally Competent Workplace

Organizational culture usually reflects the beliefs, priorities, and preferences of the founders and administrators. For many social service organizations as well as their funding systems and the surrounding regulations, the cultural foundation is primarily European American. Their structures, language, processes, hiring practices, foods, etc, are usually based on those that are perceived to be comfortable and “normal” by people with a European American background. Yet what is comfortable for some can be very uncomfortable for others. To effectively reach and serve a wide variety of consumer and employee needs, organizations need to enhance their cultural competency by welcoming and nurturing diversity.

In order to survive, most consumers of social services have developed some skills in negotiating the majority culture systems in the United States, regardless of their cultural backgrounds. However, they are more likely to learn, cooperate, and give trust if organizations are open to their needs and they feel understood and welcome. The same is true of employees from different backgrounds. While they may accommodate to survive, they’d have more to contribute if their cultures were truly respected and nurtured by organizations. 

Creating openness in an organization is a gradual process which unfolds as the sensitivity of its members increases. Strong commitment from leaders of the organization is needed for achieving this change, however, DSPs can take it upon themselves to begin a personal journey toward cultural competence that can improve their service quality and interpersonal work skills. To do so, DSPs need to start by reflecting on their own cultural beliefs and biases.

You may begin by asking yourself questions such as “What makes me feel welcome or unwelcome?”; “How do I decide to whom to speak?”; “Does this person have any special features (appearance, clothing, decorations in his/her work space) that influence my decision?”; and “If I had power, how would I change the organization to make it more welcoming to me?”

Now imagine that you are a consumer receiving supports from your organization. Do you feel you fit in? Consider the following. If you spoke a language other than the dominant one or used alternative communication systems, how comfortable would you be communicating with others? Are the furnishing and decorations comfortable for you? Is the food familiar? Can you get some of your favorite “comfort foods?” Are there verbal and nonverbal expressions that made you feel uncomfortable? Are there any mixed gender and/or race groups?

These are only a few of the things that make up the organizational “flavor” or “culture.” While you are thinking about these issues pay particular attention to the “4 isms” of cultural behavior: racism, heterosexism, sexism, and handicapism.

Racism can be defined as the belief that certain races, especially one’s own, are inherently superior to others’. Anytime an assumption is made about a person’s abilities, desires, or intentions based on ethnicity alone, racism is being expressed. Institutional racism is prejudice plus power. For example, are personal care products for European Americans readily available to consumers of residential services, but do personal care products for African-American consumers have to be purchased out of their individual budgets?

Heterosexism is the societal and institutional belief system that values heterosexuality as superior and/or more natural or normal than gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender sexual orientations. It also includes the presumption that mainstream society should only consist of heterosexually identified people. This can be illustrated in agency materials, such as applications which ask “Who is your spouse?” rather than a more inclusive word like partner.

Sexism can be defined as oppression based on gender, characterized in our society by systemic exclusion, presumptions, and practices that subjugate, disadvantage, and devalue one gender (typically women). An example may be when a female client complains about an ailment, she may be told to try resting for awhile, whereas a male client may be encouraged to go to the doctor.

Finally, handicapism promotes unequal and unjust treatment of people because of an apparent or assumed physical or mental disability. It assumes that people with disabilities are dependent regardless of their potential to live independent lives. People who exhibit handicapism often assume that a person with a handicap does not desire or deserve to be treated equally.

While you explore these various aspects about yourself and your organization, you may find that it may be helpful to keep a journal with your reflections and discoveries. Share your insights and your discoveries with administers, coworkers, and consumers. As a DSP, you are in the unique position of knowing in what ways your organization can support diversity on a daily basis. The journey of the organization toward cultural competence needs your input.

Information for this article was adopted from the training module Providing Cross-Cultural Support Services to Individuals with Disabilities and Their Families. Information on how to order this module is listed in the resource section on page.