Developmental Disabilities in Children Across Different Cultures

By Saeed Otufat-Shamsi on Aug 1, 2015

Originally published in the WFCF Newsletter, Vol. 9, No. 2, August 2015

The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities promotes the acceptance, integration and inclusion of people with disabilities into mainstream society. However, the integration of a disabled child is not the norm in many cultures.

Different cultures have different views of disability and treat children with developmental disabilities in different ways. For example:

  • Traditional Confucian beliefs, such as those held in China, value an accepted family hierarchy based on age, gender and generational status. Harmony in family and society is maintained by self-restraint and collectivism, with everyone acting in accordance with their hierarchical status. Maintaining ‘face’ means that “shameful” family affairs cannot be disclosed to outsiders. The family of a child with disabilities may be reluctant to seek supportive services.1
  • In some South Asian cultures, such as in parts of Pakistan, a girl is expected to be like her mother and a boy like his father. When this does not occur, it can be seen as a disturbance in the natural order. In traditional communities, a family may wonder whether their child with a disability has been taken over by a djinn (spirit) or they see him as a “changeling.” Parents may even feel isolated from the rest of their community because of the perceived stigma of having a child with developmental disabilities.2
  • Families from some cultures may worry that having a disabled child will affect the marriage prospects of other family members, especially daughters.2

Different cultures have different views of the causes of developmental disabilities. ‘Blame’ for a disability may be placed on the mother or both parents, or the child’s condition may be considered an “act of God.” Here are some examples:3

  • Traditional Confucian beliefs see the birth of a child with a developmental disability as a punishment for parental violations of traditional teachings, such as dishonesty or misconduct. The child’s disability may also be seen as punishment for ancestral wrongdoing. The wider community may feel that the parents are responsible and be less likely to provide the family with sympathy or support.
  • Individuals from South-East Asian cultures may believe that developmental disabilities are caused by “mistakes” made by parents or ancestors.
  • Indian cultures offer multiple causes for a disability, ranging from medicines or illness during pregnancy and consanguinity, to psychological trauma in the mother and lack of stimulation for the infant.
  • In other cultures, the will of God or Allah, karma, evil spirits, black magic or punishment for sins may be seen as causes of disability. Some cultures freely combine traditional beliefs with biological models such as disease degeneration and dysfunction. Mexican, Haitian, and Latin American cultures may see disability as the result of a mother (or family) being cursed.

WFCF’s goal is to reach out to as many rural communities as possible anywhere around the world regardless of ethnicity, background, belief, and culture in support of unfortunate orphaned children who are living with developmental disabilities. WFCF strongly promotes the acceptance, integration and inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream society and is inviting NGOs and Non-for-profit organizations that support the aforementioned communities to submit their project for funding to WFCF at help@world-forgotten-children.org.

References:

1. Ravindran N, Myers BJ. Cultural influences on perception of health, illness, and disability: A review and focus on autism; 2012.
2. Baker DL, Miller E, Dang MT, et al. Developing culturally responsive approaches with Southeast Asian American families experiencing developmental disabilities; Pediatrics 2010.
3. Summers SJ, Jones J. Cross-cultural working in community learning disabilities services: Clinical issues, dilemmas and tensions; 2004