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Information Brief

Addressing the Needs of Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education
David Leake, Ph.D., M.P.H. & Margarita Cholymay
April 2002



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 (Greene & Nefsky, 1999). 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. 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 due to their simultaneous membership in two minority groups (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. The importance of this issue is underlined by (a) economic trends that make it increasingly critical to have a postsecondary education in order to compete in the job market and meet the nation’s need for a well-educated workforce, and (b) demographic trends that are projected to increase the proportion of CLD students in our nation’s schools from about one-third to almost one-half by 2040.

Table 1.  Percentage of 1995-96 Undergraduates Who Reported a Disability, by Race-ethnicity.







Percentage of students reporting a disability

Disability Type

Visual impair-ment

Hearing impair-ment or deaf

Speech impair-ment

Orthopedic impair-ment

Learning disability

Other disability or impair-ment

White, non-Hispanic








Black, non-Hispanic
















Asian/Pacific Islander








American Indian/ Alaskan Native








All Students








-- sample size too small for a reliable estimate.

NOTE:  Percentages will not sum to 100 because some students reported multiple disabilities.

SOURCE:  US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1995-96 National Postsecondary Aid Study (NPSAS:96), Undergraduate Data Analysis System.

The following challenges tend to be especially great for those students with disabilities who also come from CLD backgrounds.

Social Inclusion and Natural Supports
Most postsecondary students know few if any other people when they first arrive on campus, yet most of them naturally develop their own social support networks with peers, faculty members, and others. Some CLD students, however, have a harder time and may develop a sense of social isolation due to a “basic mismatch” or a lack of “goodness of fit” between their home and community culture and the educational culture commonly found in postsecondary settings. 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 the most important key to maintaining academic progress and graduating.

How to Address This Challenge
Postsecondary disability support programs should include a social component to promote inclusion in “normal” activities and events involving non-disabled 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 members, faculty members, etc.). An example of this approach is provided by the START (Solutions Through Advocacy and Resource Teams) Project at San Francisco State University, demonstrating how a problem-solving team model can build supportive peer mentor relationships that can help fill gaps in the lives of students with disabilities. Circles of support or teams are especially appropriate for CLD students with disabilities, since expertise on relevant cultural and linguistic challenges can be sought out and included. 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), covering students through grade 12, schools are responsible for identifying students with disabilities and creating individualized education plans (IEPs) for them. 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 making personal problems public and/or asking for help, lack of experience and confidence in dealing with persons perceived to be of higher status, and other CLD-related factors.

How to Address This Challenge
In order to be effective self-advocates in postsecondary settings, CLD students with disabilities should be supported to gain self-advocacy skills earlier in their school careers. A number of self-advocacy programs and curricula have been developed and demonstrated. For example, Roessler, Brown, and Rumrill (1998) describe a training program targeting 17 specific self-advocacy behaviors, and the Can I Make It? Project of the University of Illinois Transition Research Institute ( features a 20-hour curriculum during which each student creates a “self-advocacy portfolio”.

Role Models and Mentors
Persons with disabilities, especially those of CLD backgrounds, continue to be poorly represented among both postsecondary faculty and graduates, thus depriving CLD students with disabilities of role models and mentors for postsecondary success.

How to Address This Challenge
Postsecondary institutions need to continue and expand efforts to increase the proportion of faculty members 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 to adapt to the postsecondary environment and enhance their social support networks. Compared to lectures or readings, it is often more effective for students to hear and observe how others with disabilities and/or of CLD backgrounds have addressed real-life challenges to achieve success in actual postsecondary settings.

Cultural Competency
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 (for example, conformity versus personal expression, respect for authority versus personal initiative, group orientation versus individual orientation, and so on). 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 effectively 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 and/or training should be available to help improve cultural competency for the main CLD groups on a campus. Increasing the proportion of faculty members and other personnel of CLD backgrounds also serves to enhance the cultural competency of postsecondary institutions.

Case Study
Fasy grew up in a small island country in the Pacific Ocean and 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 the way of special services for people like Fasy. However, with his high level of determination and intelligence, he earned entry to the University of Hawaii at Manoa. A number of support services were available to him there, although it took some time to access some of them. Due to the seriousness of his disability, Fasy required assistance to get around campus and take care of his basic survival needs, but such 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 were able to fill in. Fasy’s quality of life got a boost after several years when he was finally able to obtain an electric wheelchair, although he still required a companion to help with daily living needs. With the support of his family, Fasy was able to earn 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 made him take several extra years to complete his studies. However, his own efforts and the supports provided by his family and the university have paid off, and now, in his late 30s, he is the director of one of the four campuses of his own 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 education success (becoming, indeed, one of his country’s more highly educated individuals). 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, in line with what has been called the “collectivist” orientation of their society. The 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.

Blackorby, J., & Wagner, M.(1996). Longitudinal postschool outcomes of youth with disabilities: Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study. Exceptional Children, 62, 399-413.
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). Self-advocacy training: Preparing students with disabilities to request classroom accommodations. Journal on Postsecondary Education and Disability, 13(3) (available at
Yelin, E., & Katz, P. (1994). Labor force trends of persons with and without disabilities. Monthly Labor Review, 11(7), 36-42.

Web Resources
Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence (CREDE)
CLD Transition Success Research Project
Institute for Urban and Minority Education
National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Education Supports

Suggested Reading
Ewalt, P.L., & Mokuau, N. (1995). Self-determination from a Pacific perspective. Social Work, 40(2):168-175.
Sharpe, M., & Johnson, D. (2001). A 20/20 analysis of postsecondary support characteristics.
Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 16(3/4), 169-177.
Stodden, R.A., Stodden, N.J., Kim-Rupnow, W.S., Thai, N.D., & Galloway, L.M. (in press). Providing effective support services for culturally and linguistically diverse persons with disabilities: Challenges and recommendations. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation.
Walker, S., Turner, L.A., Haile-Michael, M., Vincent, A., & Miles, M.D. (Eds.) (1995). Disability and diversity: New leadership for a new era. Washington, DC: President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities; Harvard University Research and Training Center.


David Leake, PhD, MPH 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.

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