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Your UCP: National October 13, 2003
Health & Wellness

General Information

What is Multiculturalism and Cultural Diversity?

By Ted Pinnock, Esq.

This article reveals the human face of multiculturalism and cultural diversity. Mr. Pinnock, former ATFSCP Multicultural Specialist, weaves the story of his personal experiences as a person with a disability who is a member of a minority group into the important issues faced by minority groups.

I recall that most exciting afternoon when I held my newborn child in my arms, and she stared at me with piercing black eyes. As I looked down at her with much pride, joy, and love (and admittedly, with relief that she did not have cerebral palsy, as her Daddy does), it occurred to me that she looked Chinese. At another glance, she changed, and looked Indian, then African. Six years later, I was confronted by my child (now practically a lady by her account), when she posed the probing question, "What am I?" Due to my insatiable need to analyze, I researched my own and my wife's ancestry, and discovered my child was part Spanish, English, Native American, Asian, and African. Indeed, within her lies a quilt of many colors -- the "American Mosaic."

Due to my educational fortune, propelled by the Education of the Handicapped Act (now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) and my wife's rich, private school background, my child can now readily interpret the sounds, mannerisms, and symbols of mainstream society - or the mainstream patch of [her] quilt.

Health care providers, teachers, counselors, government employees, AT consultants, and the like will find my child "acceptable," because she will be able to receive, analyze, and respond in a way which is "normal" in mainstream society. My child's ancestors - now faded but still present on her quilt - may have responded in a different way. Not a better way, not a worse way - just a different way. Because their response differed from what is "typically" expected, they may have been responded to in a harsher, less inclusive, less welcoming manner.

In my view, multiculturalism is the study of how individuals from different ethnic, minority, or rural backgrounds receive, analyze, and respond to information that is presented to them. The principle of cultural diversity takes multiculturalism a step further, changing the mainstream approach so that the different ways of receiving, analyzing, and responding to information are all seen as being "culturally competent."

Managing diversity, which includes white men, means allowing all workers to achieve their potential. With the advent of computers, fax/modems, and online services, mainstream society has placed a new twist on communication. The old way of communicating - through written material, oral debate, and adversary argument, compromise and resolution - is no longer the standard. Cultural diversity proponents say this "Anglo" approach to communicating must be modified to communicate effectively with individuals from ethnic, minority, and rural backgrounds.

Cultural diversity is not new. Chinese silks were all the rage in Rome centuries ago, and Alexandria, Egypt - before the time of Christ - was the ideal of the modern universal city. Not even American diversity is new; many a small town has Chinese restaurants, Indian doctors, and Lebanese grocers - but now these cultures are crossing at the speed of light through the use of assistive technology. The blending of many cultures is something more than being mere cosmopolitan; it is a fundamental recoloring of the complexion of society. Cities like Paris or Hong Kong have always had a chic, international air, and have served as magnets for exiles, but now many, much smaller places are multinational, too.

I like to think of cultural diversity as a unique, tailored form of marketing, wherein the three P's of a marketing scheme -- People, Place, and Product -- are gathered and analyzed, and a concerted plan of action is developed and carried out. In the private sector, the four P's and ethnic marketing have been around for a while. Companies have learned to use the four P's with a cultural diversity bent to sell their goods.

For example, Coca-Cola and other major corporations advertise in the Hispanic print media. Television commercials, such as IKEA furniture stores, depict scenes of minority cultures using their products. Borrowing a leaf from the advertising and marketing world, in the assistive technology context I suggest that the three P's can be used to inform individuals from diverse backgrounds about the benefits of AT.

Knowledge of the norms, values, attitudes, and practices of the people who are the target of a culturally-diverse marketing program is crucial. Assistive technology, no matter how useful, will be rejected if it violates a people's mores and beliefs. For example, assume that a six-year-old first grader with cerebral palsy needs a wheelchair for mobility. A social worker suggests to her family that she needs a wheelchair, and the request is rejected. The mother, who is from China, believes that the child should not have a lot of freedom of movement because the child may be injured. The mother also believes that, if her child is injured, her family would blame her for not protecting the child. In this case, the social worker does not analyze the family beliefs, but finds ways of accommodating these beliefs while still ensuring that the child gets the wheelchair that she needs.

The professional must be aware of where people live, work, and play. Strategies for informing people about the benefits of AT may be radically different in rural areas, urban areas, the desert, on an island, or on a Native American reservation. Being aware of the places that people enter and use on a daily basis is very important to the effective distribution of information. For example, in some tribes, a communal meeting place might be a good dissemination point. In rural areas, the church, school, or grocery store may be the best place to get information to people.

AT is both a product and a service that must be sold - and a product/service about which people must be educated. In the world of marketing, this is called creating a demand. AT professionals must move away from a "medical" model and "create a demand." One way to do this is to help people from various backgrounds see how AT can help their family members to participate more fully in the unique cultural/social life of their communities. For example, a mobility device may enable an individual to participate in a potluck supper at the community center.

Cultural diversity requires unique marketing approaches that target a specific patch of the American quilt. Each approach must be individually tailored to empower individuals from ethnic, minority, or rural backgrounds to receive, analyze, and respond to AT information.

The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and no official endorsement by the U.S. Department of Education of the opinions expressed herein should be inferred.

ATFSCP, April 1996

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