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Collaboration with culturally and linguistically diverse families: ideal versus reality.

Family participation is one of the central tenets of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA). Implementation of this mandate is important to all families of children with disabilities. There are three main areas of concern, however, regarding the participation of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) families. First, children of African American, Latino, and Native American groups represent a disproportionately large percentage of certain disability categories and a disproportionately small percentage of gifted programs (Donovan & Cross, 2002; Ford, Grantham, & Whiting, 2008; U.S. Department of Education, 2007). An understanding of parents' views of and roles in the placement process should be an integral aspect of professional preparation and professional practice. Second, our nation's history of exclusion and marginalization of CLD groups continues to present the education system with the challenge of historically embedded prejudices that are reinforced when children from such groups have the further characterization of disability (Artiles, 2003; McHatton & Correa, 2005). Third, because the concept of disability is defined differently across cultures (Fadiman, 1997; Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999; Lo, 2005), the potential for cross-cultural miscommunication is extremely high when service providers' cultural frameworks differ from those of the families they serve.

The purposes of this review are three-fold: (a) to identify the key requirements for collaborative relationships between professionals and CLD families, (b) to examine the nature of actual collaboration with CLD families of children with disabilities, and (c) to provide recommendations regarding improving such collaboration.

A previous review of literature on professionals' interactions with CLD caregivers (Harry, 1992) provided a summary of studies in the period between the Education of all Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975 and IDEA in 1990. Because of the paucity of research on this topic during that era, that search strategy was broad based, including doctoral dissertations and commissioned, unpublished documents in the ERIC database. The current review builds on this earlier effort, and incorporates published studies and position statements from 1990 to 2006 identified through a combination of electronic database and hand searches. The ERIC and Psych Lit databases provided the main vehicles for electronic searches, supplemented by hand searches of the journals Exceptional Children, Topics in Early Childhood Education, The Journal of Special Education, and Mental Retardation. The search focused on views of collaboration between CLD families and service providers in special education, and included all age ranges and types of disability served under the IDEA.


The vision of ideal home-school interactions in education during the second half of the 20th century shifted from one of supporting the school administration to a wide range of types of participation (Epstein, 2001). Epstein outlined six roles, any or all of which should be available to caregivers: (a) parenting that supports children's participation in schooling, (b) parental communication with the school as needed, (c) volunteering at the school, (d) supervising and/or assisting in homework, (e) participating in school-based decision-making committees, and (f) serving as a liaison between school and community.

In special education, however, the vision is more intense. The governing principles of IDEA include requirements for the informed consent of caregivers, and recent reauthorizations (in 1997 and 2004) have made these demands even more stringent. Specifically, these reauthorizations include the requirement that school districts take all necessary steps to ensure that caregivers understand the proceedings of individualized education program (IEP) conferences (e.g., include an interpreter in the case of caregivers who are deaf or whose native language is other than English). IDEA also requires schools to provide adequate notice of meetings, attempt to schedule meetings at a mutually agreed on time and place, maintain accurate records of such attempts, and provide caregivers with copies of their children's IEPs.

As reflected in Part C of the law, conceptualizations of early intervention services have moved from provider-centered services to an ideal of family-centered services (Dunst, 2002). In this model, goals should be determined by families and in response to family needs, resources, and cultural norms (Turnbull & Turnbull, 2000). This principle has also been recommended for prereferral practices under Part B of the law (Argus-Calvo, Tafoya, & Grupp, 2005). In an even stronger statement pertaining to children with emotional disturbance, Osher and Osher (2002) called for a "paradigm shift" that differentiates between "family-focused and family-driven approaches" (p. 47), underlining a shift in power from professionals to caregivers. As a caveat to this view, Kalyanpur, Harry, and Skrtic (2000) emphasized that because many parents have neither the skills nor the time to engage in initiating advocacy, this responsibility should be assumed to be the appropriate purview of service providers.

Visions of home-school collaboration with families of children with disabilities have evolved within an emerging "adaptational context" (Ferguson, 2002, p. 127). Professionals gradually have come to understand that caregivers' reactions to disabilities represent resilience and adaptation rather than pathology, and that providing adequate external supports can make a tremendous difference in outcomes for family members with disabilities. As the subsequent section will show, this realization has generated several attempts to define, in operational terms, those characteristics that constitute effective collaboration between professionals and the families they serve.

Singer (2002) pointed to caregiver satisfaction as a key indicator of the effectiveness of home-school collaboration. In his review of studies on this topic, Singer concluded that caregiver satisfaction seemed to be generally higher than researchers' expectations. This apparently surprising conclusion has been explained by some researchers in terms of the relativity of satisfaction to one's prior expectations and to cultural variations in conceptualizations of the role of professional services (McNaughton, 1994; Meyers & Blacher, 1987). Findings on this topic are mixed for CLD families, however. For immigrant groups, previously limited access to schooling for children with disabilities, cultural assumptions regarding the high status of school authorities, and limited assumption of individual rights sometimes result in expectations that would be low by traditional mainstream American standards (Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999; Lynch & Hanson, 2004). On the other hand, expressions of satisfaction should not always be taken at face value; some studies point to the difficulty in knowing whether apparent caregiver satisfaction is really a function of deference to authority (Harry, 1992; Lai & Ishiyama, 2004). Moreover, other studies expose CLD families' expressions of dissatisfaction with services, such as translation at conferences (Lo, 2005; Park & Turnbull, 2001; Park, Turnbull, & Park, 2001). A study using in-depth focus groups with Japanese mothers in Japan (Kasahara & Turnbull, 2005) suggested rather high expectations for nonhierarchical, collaborative relationships with service providers. Meanwhile, for historically oppressed or marginalized CLD groups such as African Americans or Hispanic Americans, the notion of satisfaction is rather different: Scholars have long argued that caregiver expectations may be negatively affected by the history of exclusion from or marginalization in public schools, and by awareness of prejudice and discrimination (Artiles, 2003; Marion, 1979; Zionts, Zionts, Harrison, & Bellinger, 2003).


Researchers have used a range of methods to elicit caregivers' own definitions of the characteristics of collaborative and helpful relationships with professionals. These efforts have yielded some clear directions but continue to face several challenges, specifically, a relatively narrow range of racial and socioeconomic diversity in the samples, low response rates to survey methods, and a limited age range of students.

The issue of age range is notable; the concern with home-school interactions in special education has been spearheaded by leading researchers in early intervention, who have tended to focus on the development of family-centered professional practice (Dunst, 2002). Dunst's comprehensive review of this work observed that early interventionists were perceived by families as being kinder and more responsive than were providers of services to older students, but noted that creating positive relationships was not the same as encouraging genuine caregiver participation. Dunst's review, however, did not mention the percentage of CLD families involved in the range of research on the topic.

Researchers continue to be challenged in accessing the views of CLD families, particularly when using survey methods. In a study of caregiver's views of collaboration, Dinnebeil, Hale, and Rule (1996) noted that their conclusions were limited by the fact that of 1,134 caregivers to whom questionnaires were sent, only 397 (35%) responded, of whom 76% were Caucasian. In a study of 147 caregivers, Summers, Hoffman, Marquis, Turnbull, Poston, and Nelson (2005) reported that, despite efforts to diversify the sample through organizations serving traditionally underserved communities, the response rate appeared to be between 15% and 18%, of whom approximately 19% represented four CLD groups.

Blue-Banning, Summers, Frankland, Nelson, and Beegle (2004) have provided the most detailed information on CLD families' definitions of collaboration. With a diverse sample and a more interactive process, this research involved 34 focus groups and 18 face-to-face interviews across 137 families. The sample included a range of age, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity: 41% African American, 17% Latino, 30% White, and 4% other. Six central characteristics of effective collaboration emerged: (a) communication that is positive, understandable, and respectful; (b) commitment to the child and family; (c) equal power in decision making and service implementation; (d) competence in implementing and achieving goals; (e) mutual trust; and (f) mutual respect. The researchers concluded that inculcating these principles should not require a great investment in new resources because "common sense and ordinary human decency are at the heart of positive partnerships between families and professionals serving children with disabilities" (p. 181).

Building on the characteristics identified by Blue-Banning et al. (2004), Summers, Hoffman, Marquis, Turnbull, Poston, and Nelson (2005) developed the Family-Professional Partnership Scale, a tool for assessing "parents' perceptions of the importance of, and their satisfaction with" (p. 65) partnerships across age and severity of disability. The authors concluded that the scale is useful for assessing caregiver satisfaction across a range of service types, ages, and disability levels. However, they observed two continuing limitations: the need for testing the tool on a more diverse group and the likely instability of the psychometric properties of "satisfaction," which they describe as a "relatively temporary state" (p. 77). In a follow-up study by Summers, Hoffman, Marquis, Turnbull and Poston (2005), the Family-Professional Partnership Scale yielded significant differences between caregivers' levels of satisfaction according to children's ages. However, despite efforts to recruit a diverse population and administering the survey through presentations at parent meetings, the authors once again found their sample limited by socioeconomic status and ethnicity. Citing Dillman (2000), the researchers offered the opinion that fewer CLD groups and respondents with low levels of formal education tend to volunteer for or complete paper-and-pencil surveys.

The continuing difficulty in accessing the views of CLD parents in survey research underscores the need for face-to-face, qualitative research methods (Arzubiaga, Artiles, King, & Harris-Murri, 2008). Blue- Banning et al. (2004) succeeded in reaching a broad range of families because of the use of carefully designed personalized contacts and interactions that included focus groups and individual interviews, conducted by community-based coordinators. The quality of data from such a study can be relied on because the design included responsive interviewing (Rubin & Rubin, 2005) in which the interviewer invited caregivers to clarify their points through examples, follow-up probes, and group debriefing.

Criteria for credibility in qualitative research continue to stimulate debate. In a review of research on the participation of African American caregivers, Davis, Brown, Bantz, and Manno (2005) called for an "operational definition" (p. 26) of caregiver involvement in the context of established criteria for trustworthiness in qualitative research. As explained by an established body of scholarship on qualitative methods (e.g., Guba & Lincoln, 2005), such criteria are an absolute requirement. Nevertheless, research such as that by Blue-Banning et al. (2004) outlined a convincing analysis of a multiplicity of complex cultural perspectives, without the restraining impact of researchers' preconceived "operational" definitions. Charmaz (2006), in challenging the deductive logic on which such definitions are based, argued that with such an approach, "the research is locked into the [researcher's] original concepts" (p. 17). Certainly, as Singer (2002) and Davis et al. recommended, combinations of methods provide the field with greater balance in research findings. For example, in a study by Cho, Singer, and Brenner (2003), a combination of qualitative interviewing and quantitative analysis demonstrated consistent findings that Korean mothers in their home country experienced more difficulties with social stigma than did their immigrant counterparts in the United States.


The above phrase from the conclusion of the Blue-Banning et al. (2004) study of parents' views of the characteristics of professional collaboration must resonate with all who have entered the homes of families and found that honesty and respect are truly "at the heart of positive partnerships" (p. 181). In that study, extensive examples of parents' positive statements about effective professional characteristics supported the researchers' conclusions. Similarly, in a study of Puerto Rican families' views, Harry (1992) cited the words of Ana, a mother who initially had low expectations of Elizabeth, a Spanish-speaking American who had recently been hired as the school liaison for Puerto Rican families. Over the course of 2 years, because of Elizabeth's consistent demonstrations of respect and support, Ana's description of her changed from "una Americana" (said with a shrug) to "someone you can trust" (said with a smile).

Yet, a crucial caveat is warranted here. Certainly, with respect, trust can be earned, and "ordinary human decency" should dictate what respect looks like. Nevertheless, because our cultures and accustomed contexts provide us with lenses that predispose us to a particular view of reality, common sense may represent the unquestioned, taken-for-granted assumptions that Bowers (1984) described as being central to the process of enculturation. Bonilla-Silva (2006), in considering the insidious nature of racism, argued that "common sense" represents the interests of "the ruling ideology" and excludes "alternative frames, ideas and stories based on the experiences of subordinated races" (p. 10). Moreover, because deeply rooted beliefs influence our interpretation of all that we encounter, even efforts at "human decency" may be interpreted differently according to cultural and/or historical lenses.

In analyzing the concept of "normalization," Harry, Rueda and Kalyanpur (1999) observed that what is "normal" to one group may be an anathema to another. Moreover, assumptions about what is "normal" can result in distorted interpretations of the lives of those perceived as "other." For example, in a study by Harry, Klingner and Hart (2005) of the strengths of three African American families living in poverty, "common sense" assumptions about appropriate family structure resulted in school personnel's belief that, because only five of a mother's nine children lived with her, the others must have been "farmed out somewhere" (p. 107). The other four oldest children, in fact,: lived with their paternal grandparents in another state. Further, because this mother was known to have a history of drug abuse, school personnel also believed that her weight loss over a summer vacation indicated that she had resumed her drug use. The mother, it turned out, had been on a Slim-Fast diet. Further, because this family's home was in a very poor, urban neighborhood, "common sense" dictated that home visits were beyond the purview of school personnel. Yet, without such visits, this mother's personal organizational skills and nurturing approach to her children were invisible to school personnel, whose incorrect stereotypical interpretations continued unchecked.

A similar gap in understanding was poignantly illustrated by Lea (2006) in her ethnographic study of the views of six adolescent mothers (five Black and one White) of children with disabilities. Extensive interviews and observations with mothers and service providers revealed that assumptions of deficit mothering blinded the service providers to the mothers strengths. The resulting lack of trust was exemplified by one mother who stated that she did not inform her provider that she was getting private speech therapy for her son, because the provider saw her as "just another young Black girl who had a baby and not married ... I know she look down on me but I just play the game ... They don't know me. They don't know nothin' about me" (p. 272).

The challenge of being aware of the limitations of one's cultural lens was revealed in an interesting study by Sexton, Lobman, Constans, Snyder, and Ernest (1997). These researchers surveyed 170 early interventionists in a southern state regarding their perceptions of their own multicultural practices with African American families. The group comprised 67% White, 29% Black, and 4% Hispanic/Asian/other early intervention practitioners. Overall, all groups rated their own attitudes and interactions with African American families as being more sensitive to multicultural issues than were the administrative supports provided by their agencies. However, there was a significant difference between White and Black interventionists' self-ratings of their own interactions with African American families: The White interventionists' self-ratings were more positive than those of their African American colleagues. The researchers reflected on this apparent puzzle as follows: "Cultural empathy ... may enable these [African American] interventionists to appraise more realistically how accomplished they and their colleagues are in their multicultural practices with African American families" (p. 6). The researchers concluded that, without "vigorous" training of service providers in multicultural practices, we should not be surprised at the continued low involvement of families of color in early intervention programs. Sontag and Schact (1994) also noted the possibility of unacknowledged discriminatory practices in their survey of 536 families in the southwest receiving early intervention services. The findings revealed significantly less provision of and access to services among low-income and minority families. Sontag and Schact believed that service providers were "unconsciously or unknowingly" (p. 430) limiting the information they provided to such families.

Professional enculturation and the influence of school cultures may also taint one's lens in insidious ways. Mehan, Hartwick, and Meihls' (1986) classic 5-year ethnographic study of decision making in special education referral, assessment, and placement revealed the built-in hierarchies, social pressures, and logistical realities that determined decision outcomes. These researchers found that caregivers had a minimal role in decisions, and that team decisions typically represented "ratifications" of previous, often unofficial, agreements among team members--for example, when team members were already aware that there were only limited placements available. Harry and Klingner's (2006) 3-year ethnographic study of the placement process for Black (African American, Haitian, and other Caribbean ethnicities) and Hispanic students in a large urban school system produced similar findings, with the addition of pressures of statewide testing and ethnic and linguistic bias. Further, analysis of 240 audiotaped interviews with Black, White, and Hispanic school personnel revealed a widespread, explicit negativity toward Black families living in poverty. Stereotypical assumptions about drug abuse, promiscuity, and family dysfunctionality often replaced attempts to discover families' real situations, and influenced the decisions that were made about children's diagnosis and programs. Similarly, Knotek's (2003) microethnographic analysis of the discourse in 40 student conferences with African American families from predominantly low income backgrounds produced very similar findings, including that school personnel's impressions of parents' socioeconomic conditions, marital status, and educational level negatively affected children's diagnoses and anticipated prognoses.

An ideal vision of collaboration is dominant in special education and is typified by the findings of Blue-Banning et al. (2004), which specified six characteristics: positive communication, commitment to children and families, equity, competence, trust, and respect. However, including the views of CLD families in such assessments requires considerable face-to-face, personalized forms of research. Moreover, cross-cultural misunderstanding, assumptions of family deficit, and professionals' unawareness of their own biases Can serve as obstacles to implementing this vision with CLD families in special education.


Research focusing specifically on professional collaboration with CLD caregivers is now extensive. Viewing the entire span of this literature--from early studies soon after initial passage of the Education for all Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975, and those since the reauthorizations of IDEA--provides a view of the continuing issues that need to be addressed as well as the progress that has been made.


Within the first 15 years after the passage of EHA, several studies of the participation of CLD families highlighted issues that were to become central themes of subsequent research. As cited below, these key themes were

* The history of mistrust engendered by previous exclusion from public schooling.

* Professional insensitivity to the logistics of family participation among low-income groups.

* The limited provision of information on parental rights and responsibilities under EHA.

Studies of the obstacles faced by low-income African American parents in the IEP process set the stage for this body of research (Cassidy, 1988; Marion, 1979; Patton & Braithwaite, 1984). Marion stated that a history of mistrust between African American parents and desegregated school systems was exacerbated by caregivers' knowledge that their children were being placed in special education programs at disproportionately high rates. Caregivers emphasized school personnel's insensitivity to the need for logistical supports, such as appropriate scheduling of conferences, child care, and transportation, as well as the negative impact of professionals' assumptions that family differences represented deficits. Further, it was evident that parents were poorly informed about their rights under EHA. Studies by Sullivan (1980) and Tomlinson, Acker, Canter, and Lindborg (1977) evidenced the role of professionals in this disempowerment. Specifically, Sullivan found that professionals offered minimal or no explanations of the special education process, as they believed that parents living in poverty either did not care about, or would not understand the issues. Tomlinson et al., in a survey of 355 students referred for services in an urban school system, found that service providers contacted African American parents less than other groups and offered them a narrower range of services.

Studies of Latino, Asian, and Native American caregivers were also noted during this period. Bennett (1988), examining the placement process for Latino deaf students, found exclusionary practices very similar to those described with African American populations. Lynch and Stein (1987), comparing the perceptions and involvement of African American, Latino, and White parents in the special education process, found lower rates of participation and awareness of rights among the former two groups. Chaffs (1986) study of Asian American families and studies of Native American families by Connery (1987) and Sharp (1983) identified cultural conflicts based on differing interpretations of disabilities and of professional roles.


As awareness increased regarding cultural issues in communicating with parents of children in special education, the 1990s saw a spate of studies focusing on African American and Latino parents' perceptions, with a lesser number addressing the needs of Asian and Native American families. Overall, these studies underscored the patterns already identified and revealed: That despite the increasing emphasis on family involvement in the IDEA of 1990, professional interactions with CLD families in special education continued to fall far from the ideal. This literature identified four main themes: cross-cultural differences in understandings of the meaning of disability, deficit views of CLD families, cultural conflicts in the setting of transition goals, and differential understanding of caregivers' roles in the education system.

Cross-Cultural Communication and Cultural Views of Disability. Harry's (1992) ethnographic study of 12 Puerto Rican families' perspectives and participation revealed severe cultural mismatches in understandings of the meaning of the disability construct. Puerto Rican parents' definitions included much broader parameters of normalcy, resulting in shock and disbelief at the application of labels, such as "mentally retarded," "learning disabled," and "emotionally disturbed" for children who could speak both Spanish and English, could read and write (sometimes better than their parents), and were seen by their families as bien educado (well brought up/socialized). Communication gaps were equally severe, with one mother not knowing that her child had been moved to another school, and others having no understanding that their "meetings with the teacher" were actually conferences that produced an official document (the IEP). In a replication of the study, Harry, Allen, and McLaughlin (1995) spent 3 years investigating the participation of 24 African American caregivers of preschoolers designated as having high-incidence disabilities. The study found parental confusion about and disagreement with labels, similar to those of the Puerto Rican families in the earlier study. Just as a Puerto Rican mother had exclaimed that retardado refers to a person with severe impairments, so did an African American father, who explained that mental retardation meant, "when you really need some heavy personal attention ... But, I guess, in the schools they use that term for any little difference" (p. 370). The study also documented that a professional emphasis on compliance rather than communication undermined parents' efforts at advocacy and deterred parents' intentions to attend conferences. Over the course of 3 years, parental participation declined as a result of these deterrents.

A series of studies based on 250 Mexican and Puerto Rican mothers of children with disabilities provided multiple perspectives on issues related to discrimination and cross-cultural misunderstanding (Bailey, Skinner, Correa, et al., 1999; Bailey, Skinner, Rodriguez, Gut, & Correa, 1999; McHatton & Correa, 2005). Along with a study of Latina mothers by Zetlin, Padron, and Wilson (1996), these studies demonstrated the powerful cultural discontinuities between the perspectives of school personnel and families. In the study by Bailey, Skinner, Correa, et al. (1999) a survey of 200 families (couples) with children under age 6 who had developmental disabilities revealed that their greatest needs were in the area of information about services, the child's disability, and how to teach their children. With the exception that caregivers with higher levels of English proficiency reported higher levels of support, the wide variability in needs and supports reflected individual variation rather than any particular trend related to variables, such as gender or number of years in the country.

Fadiman's (1997) ethnographic study of beliefs about epilepsy and other medical conditions among the Hmong dramatically illustrated the difficulties of understanding cross-cultural issues by means of "common sense." This report of the intense conflicts between a young girl's family and the medical establishment highlights the need for collaborative professional approaches. Although the family's attribution of epilepsy to a spiritual condition would challenge the common sense of most Western professionals, the doctors' refusal to collaborate with the family around their beliefs resulted in the child receiving minimal help.

Deficit Views of Families. Discussions of the concept of family "risk" have produced a list of factors that typically include poverty, family structure, and mother's age and educational level (Sameroff, Seifer, Baldwin, & Baldwin, 1993). Although it is beyond dispute that poverty increases the probability of numerous other risk factors (Donovan & Cross, 2002; Scarborough et al., 2004), Harry and Klingner's (2006) ethnographic interviews with service providers revealed that thoughtless generalizations of such information were fueled by racial stereotypes embedded in the taken-for-granted belief systems of professionals of all ethnic groups.

Most distressing is the finding that these beliefs actually influenced the decisions made about children. In Knotek's (2003) study of school conferences, the most influential negative perceptions were of families' economic level, marital status, and educational level. The deficit view was exacerbated when school personnel knew family members' personal histories because the parents themselves had been in the school system. This information tended to be introduced early in the problem identification phase of child study conferences and influenced the outcomes of deliberations about placements and services. Language introduced by high status team members set the terms of the discourse, such as use of the term "lightbulb" as a metaphor for a child's intrinsic cognitive competence, and then took precedence over a lower status team member's suggestion that home routines, such as bedtime, might be related to the child's variable performance. In contrast, Knotek found that students from higher SES families were more likely to be viewed positively and from multiple perspectives. Similarly, in Harry and Klingner's (2006) study, interview and observation data revealed that a psychologist's preconceived and untested assumptions about family dysfunction were major contributors to the determination of emotional disturbance (ED) for Kanita, an African American second grader whose mother was incarcerated but who lived in a strong, extended African American family unit headed by her paternal grandmother. In a different school, Robert, an African American second grader who displayed troubling behavior, was placed on half-day school placement. His mother, who was single, unemployed, and had two children younger than Robert, was required to pick him up from school at 11:00 every morning. This arrangement lasted for 5 months, during which time Robert's behavior deteriorated to such a point that his diagnosis of ED had become a foregone conclusion.

In contrast to the prevailing stereotype of low involvement, Harry et al. (1995) found that, of 24 African American mothers involved in a 3-year study of parental participation, the 6 who were single and living alone were noted to be particularly proactive and assertive, despite discouraging actions by service providers such as scheduling conferences at the last minute without consideration of mothers' availability. Kalyanpur and Rao (1991) and Rao (2000) also noted the potential of such mothers for effective advocacy. Kalyanpur and Rao's study of the experiences of single African American mothers in an outreach program focused on the disempowering effects of practitioners' deficit views of the mother's childrearing strategies. Similar issues of labeling, negative judgment, and disrespect of families were the central themes of Rao's qualitative case study of the disillusionment and exclusion of a single African American mother.

The theme of deficit views of families is at the center of many CLD families' call for respect. Zionts and colleagues (2003), through interviews with the caregivers of 24 African American children with moderate to severe emotional or cognitive disabilities, found that over half the group did not feel respected by service providers. Parents felt that professionals' negative judgments were based on disrespect (both of families' culture and children's disabilities) and that their satisfaction with their children's services was "inextricably tied to issues of respect and levels of comfort (or relationship quality) between parents, teachers and children" (p. 50). Similar concerns were expressed in McHatton and Correa's (2005) examination of perceptions of stigma and discrimination among Mexican and Puerto Rican mothers. These mothers experienced much discrimination that they interpreted as being based on culture and on disability, in both community and professional contexts.

Darling and Gallagher's (2004) survey of needs and supports among 120 (60 African American and 60 European American) caregivers of young children with disabilities emphasized the importance of attending to the individual circumstances of families, as opposed to assuming that all members of an ethnic group needed the same services. In noting responses both by ethnicity and by rural or urban location, the researchers found that urban African American caregivers noted greater needs in the area of personal and family growth than the other groups. However, on the dimension of family supports, the opposite was true: The researchers found significant differences by rural/urban status but not by ethnicity. Most notable was the fact that urban parents reported receiving less overall support than their rural counterparts. Coming almost 12 years after a similar survey by Sontag and Schact (1994), the continuation of this pattern of differential access to services is of great concern.

The legacy of racism and negative stereotypes pervades education at all levels. At the opposite end of the cognitive ability spectrum, we would expect that the hope of the future lies in children determined to have particular gifts and talents. Yet, one study on the views of African American parents of children in gifted programs (Huff, Houskamp, Watkins, Stanton, & Tavegia, 2005) displayed the same theme of deficit thinking that marks the attitudes of professionals towards families of children with disabilities. The researchers, through interviews with 12 families whose socioeconomic status ranged from low to upper-middle income, found consistent themes of inadequate identification and services for their children, and racist barriers that limited their children's success. Despite proactive and assertive involvement in their children's education, these families found advocacy to be an uphill battle and, in the words of one mother, felt that "the teachers' expectations are that they [the children] are kind of stupid ... even when they're working with gifted clusters ... the teachers' expectations for the most part, I think ... is that they're not going to do well" (p. 219).

As Darling and Gallagher's (2004) differentiation of unique family needs indicated, an emphasis on cross-cultural mismatches is not intended to encourage a stereotypical view of diversity. General statements about traditional beliefs and practices of a group may be true in the big picture, but may be modified according to generational, socioeconomic, or geographical status. In a review of studies on the involvement of African American families, Davis et al. (2005) expressed the concern that a focus on low-income families may obscure or ignore important intragroup differences and may perpetuate a vision of low parental involvement. It is, indeed, important to broaden the sample base of CLD families. In a 5-year action research study of 8 families' visions of their children's social lives (Harry, Kalyanpur, & Day, 1999), the parents of four African American children, who were all middle-income professionals, were strong advocates for their children. One mother's advocacy for inclusion for her preschooler with Down syndrome was so powerful that her daughter became the first child in their county to receive on-site intervention services upon her transition from Part C to Part B of IDEA. However, it is crucial to note that several studies of low-income CLD families revealed that, although such caregivers were less skilled in engaging in advocacy, their high levels of involvement dearly contradicted professionals' beliefs about such families' low involvement (Harry et al., 1995; Harry, Kalyanpur, et al., 1999; Harry et al., 2005).

Cross-Cultural Conflicts in Setting Goals for Transition. The IEP is the centerpiece of IDEA's vision of individualization. However, setting goals for individuals does not occur in a social or cultural vacuum. Although goals for various transitional points are likely to vary across cultures throughout the lifespan, the two most obvious points of conflict tend to be in early childhood and young adulthood. For infants and young children, commonly cited issues revolve around developmental timetables for weaning from breast or bottle, independent feeding and exploration, and toileting (Lynch & Hanson, 2004). In young adulthood, the press for decision making becomes more urgent. Because mandated special education services stop at age 21, well-meaning professionals are anxious to set effective transition plans for their young adult clients (Blacher, 2001; Kraemer & Blacher, 2001).

Studies of Latina mothers' views of transition planning for their young adult children with moderate to severe disabilities reveal the continuing need for professionals in special education to recognize that their vision of transition to adulthood represents assumptions shared by the dominant society, rather than universal values (Rueda, Monzo, Shapiro, Gomez, & Blacher, 2005; Shapiro, Monzo, Rueda, Gomez, & Blacher, 2004). Rueda et al. referred to such conflicts as representing contrasting "cultural models" (p. 403), which may challenge some of the most deeply embedded values in American society, namely, independence, autonomy, economic productivity, and assimilation into the larger society. In this study of 16 Latina mothers of young adults with developmental disabilities, the researchers warned that, although cultural models must be taken into account in developing transition plans, it is equally important not to assume that group membership will dictate cultural practices. Their findings, nevertheless, revealed a strong pattern of shared vision by these mothers, which contrasted with the aforementioned values that underpin the field's vision of transition services. The researchers stated, "the overarching theme that emerged from the data was mothers' view of transition as home-centered, sheltered adaptation as opposed to a model emphasizing independent productivity" (p. 406). Conflicting expectations were related to professionals' assumptions (a) that school-leaving rather than marriage was a natural transition period, (b) that independence was assumed to take precedence over family interdependence, and (c) that service providers did not recognize mothers' right to make final decisions about their adult children's lives--which included the responsibility to protect their vulnerable children from a dangerous outside world.

Similar themes were found with a Dominican and a Salvadorean family in Harry, Kalyanpur, and Day's (1999) action research. Rosa, the Salvadorean mother of a young woman with cerebral palsy, was pleased at the researchers' efforts to engage 21-year-old Silvia in travel training, but when the researchers proposed actually testing Silvia's independent travel skills, her mother refused and made it clear that she saw this activity as a diversion rather than a real goal for Silvia. The Dominican parents, Felix and Felicita, were delighted with the opportunity for their son Rafael, who had Down syndrome, to participate in a YMCA summer camp--but only if he were accompanied by his brother.

Most pertinent to this discussion is the impact of deeply embedded cultural models on communication. Essentially, the Latina mothers in Rueda et al.'s study (2005) expressed mistrust of service providers, who they believed deliberately failed to provide the mothers with access to information that would empower them. The researchers concluded that "the lack of a shared model [with service providers] appeared to lead to confusion, misunderstanding, and isolation" (p. 412). In the case of the 5-year action research by Harry, Kalyanpur, et al. (1999), the researchers, who prided themselves on cultural sensitivity, were surprised to discover that their own assumptions about independence as a goal had blinded them to Rosa's real view of the travel training effort. Harry (1996) offered extensive reflections on the impact of various aspects of researcher identity in that study, such as increased comfort level because of shared gender with the mothers, the researcher's personal history as a mother of a child with a disability, and intrapersonal conflicts engendered by the researcher's "inclusionist" stance.

An additional point regarding CLD families and transition planning is the potential for professionals' underestimation of parents' actual participation. In a study comparing service providers' and CLD parents' views of participation, Geenen, Powers, and Lopez-Vasquez (2001) reported significantly less caregiver involvement than did the families themselves. First, the researchers acknowledged that this could reflect bias in parents' self-reports. Nevertheless, they also proposed the possibility that professionals' definitions of "involvement" were based on school-based transition planning, not taking into account that this may represent "only one arena in which parents seek support and begin preparing for their child's transition" (p. 271). If professionals' interactions with parents are limited only to school-based activities, their lack of awareness of community and other cultural contexts will limit their understanding of families' cultural models and practices.

Culturally Based Views of Caregivers' Roles. Conflicts regarding parental empowerment are often exacerbated by CLD parents' traditions of deference to authority and their expectations that professionals' expertise should trump caregivers' knowledge. Although this issue has long been noted among Latino families (Harry, 1992; Lynch & Hanson, 2004), studies of mothers of Chinese (Lai & Ishiyama, 2004) and Korean (Cho et al., 2003) origins point to this pattern as one of the key issues in acculturation for such groups. In these studies, the tradition of deference was reinforced by caregivers' appreciation of services that had not been available in their home countries. The impact of deferential behavior to authorities has also been noted among American-born minorities, as in examples of African American caregivers in studies by Harry and Klingner (2006) and Harry et al. (1995).


Closing the gap between ideal and reality in collaborating with CLD families requires intensive efforts at professional preparation. Further, limitations inherent in the research point to the need for a range of methodologies that can be effective in reaching and including CLD families.


A combination of research methodologies is essential in gaining an authentic understanding of families' perspectives. We often do not know why CLD caregivers have not responded to research invitations; it seems reasonable to assume that issues would include logistical challenges, level of education and English language literacy, and issues of mistrust and misunderstanding that occur in the provision of services. Further, although rating scales and surveys provide a broad view of respondents' perspectives, they do not provide the reasons or the processes by which the respondents came to these views. Educational programs must prepare academicians who understand the value of qualitative methods and the skills to seek the reasons behind numbers.


Both inservice and preservice personnel preparation programs must be revised to place cross-cultural education at the highest priority. Essential aspects of such preparation should include (a) coursework in multicultural histories and issues, (b) personal values clarification regarding diversity, (c) critical perspectives on the assumptions and processes by which CLD children are placed in special education, (d) preparation and practice in the actual communication processes needed in cross-cultural situations, and (e) internships or practicum placements in diverse racial and socioeconomic settings.

Coursework on Multicultural Issues. The histories of oppressed or excluded groups have often been omitted or distorted by school curricula (Spring, 2007). In my experience in leading doctoral seminars on diversity, even mature students express shock at discovering the histories of minority groups within our country. Despite their shock and, in many cases, an initial tendency to resist the information, these students eventually express appreciation at being exposed to this information, and begin to understand the reasons for the continuing mistrust evident in the interactions of some traditionally underserved groups of parents.

Personal Values Clarification. Becoming aware of others' histories and cultures allows professionals to begin to become aware of their own preconceptions and prejudices. For example, in collaborating with families, common sources of misunderstanding include unawareness of racial privilege (McIntosh, 1989), as well as assumptions about the value of science over spirituality in treating disabilities; the importance of the individual over the group; and culturally different attributions of disability (Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999; Lynch & Hanson, 2004) or giftedness (Ford et al., 2008).

Critical Perspectives on the Assumptions and Practices of Special Education. As Skrtic (1995) observed, professional preparation in special education has not reflected a critical perspective; students are seldom encouraged to examine their own and the field's assumptions about disabilities and about professional expertise. Skrtic pointed to the impact of bureaucratic structures and hierarchies on decision making in special education. Understanding these issues is essential to professionals' efforts to engage in unbiased and rational practice. The following are but a few of the questions that need to be addressed:

* To what extent is the emphasis on individuality in special education law (IDEA) a reflection of American cultural values?

* How might this and other values come into conflict with those of diverse families?

* To what extent do the disability categories recognized by the law represent verifiable conditions, and to what extent are they social constructions?

* How do socially constructed notions of disability vary across cultures?

* How has the history of racial segregation in the United States interacted with the development of special education?

Preparation and Practice in Cross-Cultural Communication. Although respectful interactions are the basic underpinning of all effective communication with families, professionals are often unaware of how their communication styles may serve as barriers to rather than facilitators of collaborative partnerships. Scholars have developed various approaches to this issue.

Lynch and Hanson (2004) proposed the term "cross cultural competence," which they defined as "the ability to think, feel, and act in ways that acknowledge, respect, and build upon ethnic, sociocultural, and linguistic diversity" (p. 50). Whereas Barrera and Corso (2002) focused on the role of "skilled dialogue" (p. 103) in such competence, Boyd and Correa (2005) outlined a framework for "family and culture-centered planning" with African American families. Harry, Kalyanpur, and Day (1999) recommended a reciprocal process, moving from practitioner self-awareness to a mutual exchange of parents' and service providers' cultural explanations, towards a collaborative determination of goals. Sanchez (1999) called for practitioners to step outside of their "comfort zone," to consider formal schooling as only one significant source of education, and to place their work within the context of the distribution of power in the society. The need for prejudice reduction, seeking bilingual and cultural information, providing logistical supports for parents' participation, and developing parent training programs have also been identified by Boyd and Correa; Gillis-Olion, Olion, and Holmes (1986); Obiakor, Algozzine, and Ford (1993); Rogers-Atkinson, Ochoa, and Delgado (2003); Thorp (1997); and Zhang and Bennett (2003).

Recommendations for cultural competence have also been directed toward specific disability groups. With regard to families of children with ED, Cartledge, Kea, and Simmons-Reed (2002) emphasized the importance of understanding cultural norms related to social behavior, as well as culturally variable family values, help-seeking behaviors, and communication styles. Parette, Huer, and Wyatt (2002), in discussing cultural competence in working with families of young African American children with communication disorders, emphasized that assessment of such children's need for augmentative and alternative communication systems must be conducted within the child's context and culture. At the other end of the special education spectrum are less often expressed concerns about professional interactions with parents of gifted children. According to Ford (2004), the underrepresentation of African American children in gifted programs presents a challenge for parents who are concerned that this special placement may alienate children from their social groups.

Internships or Placements in Diverse Cultural and Socioeconomic Settings. Practical learning in real-life settings is essential to overcoming the kinds of barriers identified in this review. It is not enough for professionals to learn about "others" from books and discussions. Most importantly, the fact that professionals are typically in a position of power in relation to the families they serve is a built-in barrier to learning from those families. Consequently, field placements for preservice teachers should be a central part of their training, with an emphasis on participating as learners, not as tourists or experts, in diverse settings to which they are unaccustomed. Course work should include situations where students have to interview and participate with families in their own contexts and in the posture of learners, not teachers (Harry, Torguson, Guerrero, & Katkavitch, 1993; Johnson, 2007).


The vision of collaborative home-school practices is well established in the literature, yet the link to practice eludes us. Challenges to established hierarchies and deficit oriented views of families could include efforts to reverse the process of professional-caregiver service, as in a report by Gallagher, Rhodes, and Darling (2004) on the effectiveness of a program in which parents were trained as educators in early intervention programs in Georgia.

Perhaps most important in our pursuit of effective collaboration is to look at the big picture and broaden the focus of our attention to schools as communities and to the communities of schools. As Epstein (2001) stated, schools must create intentional designs for collaboration. A collection of reports from the Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence (Cooper & Gandara, 2001) documents the efforts of seven projects to build on community-based organizations and community funds of knowledge rather than "seeing diversity as a liability or deficit from the mainstream" (p. 1). Buysse, Wesley, and Skinner (1999) have also reported effective community development models in early intervention. Similarly, a qualitative study by Morris (1999) of one all-Black school showed how the school "creates and sustains strong communal bonds with African American families from a low-income community" (p. 584). The report detailed how school personnel and a committed principal built community bonds over time, resulting in a school that served the function of a "stabilizing institution" (p. 600) in the community.


Three decades of literature on the involvement of CLD families in the special education process underscores the continuing challenge of collaboration across perceived barriers of race, culture, language, and social class. The vision of a collaborative partnership between caregivers and professionals has been detailed in the law and has been promoted and studied by researchers and practitioners. Caregivers who have participated in such studies have made it clear that their vision is one of respect and support. Yet attainment of these goals remains elusive for many CLD families.

This is not to say that the literature shows no positive practices, or that there may not be CLD families who have benefited from the extensive and continuing work of leading scholars whose work is dedicated to improving school-home relationships. Certainly, early interventionists' thrust toward family-centered practice has brought the field a long way from the early days of "expert"-oriented services. Nevertheless, themes of cultural misunderstanding and mistrust, deficit views of CLD families, and conflicting beliefs about appropriate goals for individuals with disabilities stride forcefully through the data. These themes indicate the continuing need for intense efforts to prepare researchers and education professionals for the tremendous diversity that is America.

Manuscript received July 2007; accepted October 2007.


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University of Miami

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Beth Harry, School of Education, University of Miami, 222 Merrick Building, 5202 University Drive, Coral Gables, FL 33124 (e-mail:

BETH HARRY (CEC FL Federation), Professor, Department of Teaching and Learning, University of Miami, Florida.
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Date:Mar 22, 2008
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