BRIDGING THE CULTURAL GAPS

by Angela West

I always knew I wanted to work with families who had children with disabilities. While I was getting my master’s degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, I envisioned myself working at the state level. Once I started interviewing after graduation it was clear I’d fit better in a family organization. When Dana Yarbrough, Director of the Center for Family Involvement, approached me about being a cultural broker, I was hesitant. I had never heard of a position like this. But I quickly fell in love with the organization and our mission.

Even though I grew up in an Asian family, I spent my early days on the job learning about the different dynamics. There are more than forty subcultures within the Asian culture. They are all different and when we serve families, we have to cater to their specific needs and sensitivities. For example, in the Korean culture, parents often want to take the information that is presented in a meeting home to review with their extended family before making a decision. Whereas, in the Tibetan culture, most of decision-making occurs within the immediate family. It’s critical to be sensitive to these beliefs when supporting families.

As an Asian cultural broker, I have two roles. The first is to help families access information and supports available for people with disabilities. Having conversations about what is important to the families and the individual is the main component. It is very rewarding to help families dream about their future and lay out a path to reach their goals. There are so many resources available to the general public. But very few of them are translated into different languages. My job is to create an environment where families can utilize the resources without getting overwhelmed.

My other role is to educate professionals that work in the disability service field. Cultural sensitivity is a hot topic, but it goes much deeper when you encompass cultural competency. It is one thing to be aware of the different aspects of culture, but it is another to apply your knowledge into your everyday work. One of the things I talk about is the importance of having conversations with the families to ensure information is understood entirely. In some Asian cultures, it is disrespectful to question a professional. Having conversations will allow questions to arise naturally.

My work requires requires me to collect basic information about the child’s diagnosis in the family’s native language. I have had several families who are told by a doctor that their child has autism and are sent home to find resources independently. That is a huge task for any family; now imagine trying to find it in a different language. Sure it’s possible. It just takes A LOT of time. My goal is to open the line of resources and to connect them to people in the community.

A personal challenge I have tackled is how to use my weaknesses as strengths. Some people who arrange a meeting with me do not expect me to have a physical disability. Most of the time, I have a personal attendant with me to help people who are unfamiliar with my speech. Some think that my attendant is the one who is really the one providing the service. It is great to educate people and to show them that someone with a significant disability can have a rewarding career.

These challenges are part of what make my job so rewarding. I absolutely love seeing people learn about different resources that will help them reach their maximum potential. Some families come with a particular question in mind and they learn about so many other opportunities. As our country continues to diversify, we need people dedicated to helping others embrace the things that make us individuals. I am thankful that I can be a part of the initiative to celebrate differences and collaborate to make an impact on social change.

***ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela West earned a master’s degree in Rehabilitation Counseling from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her passion for disability advocacy stems from advocating for her own rights as a young woman with cerebral palsy.***

Angela West Author Pic

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