Southwest Educational Development Laboratory

The socially constructed nature of race, culture, and disability

Concepts of race, ethnicity, and culture.

At the core of this literature review is a consideration not only of the differences among people, but of the ideas humans construct about those differences, the ways in which those who fit most easily into the dominant culture of U.S. society tend to value and devalue certain differences, and the impact of the dominant cultural perspective on minorities with disabilities. Such a consideration must begin with an understanding that the very definitions of terms like culture, race, and disability are grounded in a particular time, place, and perspective. Rather than mirrors that precisely reflect reality, definitions of these terms and ideas about them are imperfect human constructs (Kenyatta & Tai, 1997a,b.; Scheurich, 1993).

Defining culture.The term culture has been defined as "a learned system of meaning and behavior that is passed from one generation to the next" (Carter & Qureshi, 1995, p. 241), and as "all the customs, values, and traditions that are learned from one's environment" (Sue & Sue, 1990, cited in Sodowsky, Kwan, & Pannu, 1995, p. 132). According to Sodowsky et al. (1991, cited in Sodowsky, Kwan, & Pannu, 1995) in every culture there is a "set of people who have common and shared values; customs, habits, and rituals; systems of labeling, explanations, and evaluations; social rules of behavior; perceptions regarding human nature, natural phenomena, interpersonal relationships, time, and activity; symbols, art, and artifacts; and historical developments" (p. 132). Culture, then, acts as "a unifying influence. It combines the different aspects of life into a logical whole" (p. 132).

Cultures are constantly evolving in response to changes in the environment; as Venkatesh (1995, p. 30) notes, "no culture stands still." Moreover, because culture is a learned phenomenon, "individuals and groups can and do change their ethnic or cultural identities and interests through such processes as migration, conversion, and assimilation or through exposure to modifying influences" (Smedley, 1993, quoted in Carter & Qureshi, 1995, p. 241). In bicultural or multicultural contexts, such as are prevalent in the United States, the interaction between cultures often acts as a modifying factor. Life events, psychological characteristics, and other factors also can mediate cultural influences.

Harry (1992) argues that the most important thing to understand about culture is that "standards of social behavior are culturally derived." She also observes that "the closer one is to one's original culture, the harder it is to recognize the culturally specific, rather than universal, base of accepted norms for behavior" (p. 57).

Defining "race" and "ethnicity."The concepts of race, ethnicity, and culture are sometimes used to describe the same things. Wright et al. (1983, quoted in Harry, p. 5) attempt to distinguish among these terms: "Ethnic groups will be so defined if they share a common sociohistory, have a sense of identity of themselves as a group, and have common geographical, religious, racial, and cultural roots. The central core of each ethnic group, welding it together with the thread of belief, styles of being, and adapting, is culture… Race is, at this point, a dubious biological designation" (p. 13). Tatum (1997), in supporting this last point, notes that "race is a social construction. Despite myths to the contrary, biologists tell us that the only meaningful racial categorization is that of human" (p. 16).

A number of scholars in the fields of sociology and education discuss the particular function of the concept of race in the United States. Takaki (1993) points out that, in the U.S., race "has been a social construction that has historically set apart racial minorities from European immigrant groups" (quoted in Kenyatta & Tai, 1997a, p. vii). Harry (1992) observes that, in this country, "the use of the term minority essentially represents an attempt to categorize by race, not by culture. Yet the specifics of race are only important on one dimension: whether one is White or not" (p. 3). Analyzing the racial categories used by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and other institutions, she notes that:

the U.S. interpretation of White [is] as a pure, unmixed racial group, so that to be, for example, one-quarter Black is to be Black, while a person who is one-quarter White would also be Black. While Latin American and West Indian societies, which also share the history of slavery, have built into their view of race the fact of racial mixture, the U.S. interpretation reflects the enduring legacy of a much more oppressive form of the institution of slavery. (p. 47)

Harry analyzes "the political aspects of racial classification" (p. 5), observing that the OCR classifications mix geographic and racial features in ways that seem logically inconsistent but that support the conception of white as both racial and geographic (i.e., European):

The corollary "regardless of race" attached to the definition of Hispanic reflects the anomalous character of this group. The category Asian or Pacific Islander, for example, clearly includes a mixture of racial groups, yet the classification system does not specify "regardless of race" for this group, presumably because Whites are not likely to be among them… It is not required, then, to distinguish between the dramatically different racial characteristics of people from India and China… Nor does the category Black (not of Hispanic origin) reflect any more logic, since many Hispanics from Caribbean and Central American territories have origins in the Black racial groups of Africa (p. 6).

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), responding to concerns about racial classification, recently revised its standards for classifying federal data on race and ethnicity. The new standards set five categories for data on race, including (1) American Indian or Alaska Native, (2) Asian, (3) Black or African American, (4) Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and (5) White. A separate designation for data on ethnicity includes two categories: (1) Hispanic or Latino, and (2) not Hispanic or Latino. According to these standards, respondents are to be encouraged to select multiple racial categories where appropriate. In modifying the standards, OMB (1997) notes that:

The racial and ethnic categories set forth in the standards should not be interpreted as being primarily biological or genetic in reference. Race and ethnicity may be thought of in terms of social and cultural characteristics as well as ancestry (p. 58782).

Several scholars note the increasing tendency to substitute ethnicity for race. Kenyatta & Tai (1997a) conclude, "Some researchers and educators use ethnicity interchangeably with race because, we believe, they are still uncomfortable with race, racism, and its role in education" (p. vii). Margaret Andersen, a panelist in a forum on education and ethnicity, also questions this exchange of terms:

The caution I would put forth… is that in abandoning the concept of race, there is a serious tendency to abandon discussions of power, domination, and group conflict… I cannot help but notice in works on ethnicity how quickly the discussion there turns to matters of culture and identity, not at all to questions of economic exploitation, political power, and powerlessness. (Kenyatta & Tai, (1997b) p. 177)

The term race provides a good example of the difficulties in determining appropriate terminology to apply in describing particular groups. Some authors note that the word lacks meaning in terms of the physical or biological differences implied in its common usage, while others argue for the term's political and sociological importance. Perhaps the critical point is the necessity to recognize and make explicit the purposes and assumptions that are bundled into the use — or avoidance — of such words.

Disability as a socially constructed concept. Disability, like race, ethnicity, and culture, is a term whose definitions are culturally derived, even though its meaning in the U.S. has been given what Harry (1992, p. 113) calls "transcendent status." Luft (1995) observes that "disability categories are primarily defined according to middle-class developmental norms" (p. 3). The significance of such norms, she notes, "is in their impact on the procedures used by social institutions in providing services — procedures that tend to be predicated on the clients or recipients behaving according to cultural expectations and standards" (p. 9). Harry concurs; in discussing the concept of disability inherent in the Education for All Handicapped Children and other federal law, she states:

Professionals interpret the model [of disability] inherent in the law as actually transcending culture. They come to believe that the definitions of disability deriving from the technological culture of the United States in fact represent universal truths. (p. 237)

Harry concludes that one reason for the assumed universality of ideas about disability contained in U.S. law, policy, and procedures is "its base in the highly esteemed science of medicine." This same esteem leads to the assumption that experts "hold the keys to truths regarding the conditions and needs" of children with disabilities (p. 113) — an assumption that often devalues the perceptions and understandings of the individual, family, and community.

Harry, Luft, and other scholars are not attempting to argue that disabilities do not exist, or even that all responsibility for individual limitations rests with the external environment. However, they do observe that the conditions included in the term disability vary in different contexts, and that diagnosis of specific conditions is often subjective and culturally derived, as are judgments about the severity, impact, and appropriate response to those conditions. As Smart and Smart (1997) conclude, "Disability is not caused by disease and injury alone, but is also related to the way in which institutions define and diagnose disability" (p. 12). The following examples illustrate their point:

  • Smart and Smart (1997) note that "there is no uniform definition of disability since government agencies define disability differently… Further clouding the picture, some health demographers do not define disability as completely as do rehabilitation demographers," excluding for example, conditions such as alcohol abuse and learning disabilities (p. 10). The authors also cite a 1993 study which found that "in Alaska, only 3% of all special education students were classified as retarded, yet, in Alabama, 23% were considered retarded" (p. 12).
  • "The arbitrary nature of the term mental retardation was dramatically demonstrated by the American Association on Mental Deficiency (AAMD), in its radical revision of the definition from an IQ cutoff point of 85 to a mere 70. Overnight, the population of mentally retarded persons was cut by 13 percent" (Harry, 1992, p. 144).
  • "Between the years 1978 to 1990 the category of Learning Disabilities grew dramatically, Emotional Disturbance increased slightly, and numbers of children with Speech and Language Impairments, Hearing Impairments, and Mental Retardation gradually decreased" (Luft, 1995, p. 11).
  • Shacht (1997), reporting case history information collected by the American Indian Rehabilitation Research and Training Center regarding American Indian consumers from five states, could not account for the following differences: "The distribution of Reported Disabilities varied in unexpected ways [among the 121 cases]: arthritis and rheumatism, and Alzheimer's disease were reported mainly from South Dakota; learning disabilities and emotional/mental disorders were reported mainly from California; various orthopedic disorders and diabetes mellitus [were] reported mainly from Texas; and paraplegia was reported mainly in Arizona" (p. 10).

The ways in which individuals, families and cultures perceive and accommodate disabilities also vary significantly. For example, in their study of young Latino men with disabilities, Santiago, Villarruel, and Leahy (1996) report that "only 37 percent of the 124 respondents in this investigation viewed themselves as having a severe disabling condition. Yet, when the information from the MRS screener was reviewed, 56 percent of these persons were considered to have a severe disabling condition" (p. 16). Schensul (1992), in a study of Alzheimer's disease among elderly Puerto Ricans in the U.S., notes that "elderly Puerto Ricans are aware of the symptoms of cognitive loss and behavioral change [associated with Alzheimer's disease] but tend to view them as normal" (p. 26). And Locust (1988, cited in Harry, 1992, p. 81) "points out that the prevalence of a congenital hip deformity observed among the Navajo is not considered disabling, while surgery to correct it may create a disability because it tends to make riding a horse uncomfortable."


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