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Assumptions in Transition Planning: Are They Culturally Sensitive?

By David W. Leake, Rhonda S. Black, and Kelly Roberts

Transition policies and practices typically assume that youth with disabilities and their families value such individual-oriented outcomes as self-determination, self-reliance, and independent living. However, these values are not shared by all youth and families, especially among those who are culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD). In this article, we identify common assumptions that may hinder efforts to support CLD youth with disabilities and their families through the transition process and discuss how to make such efforts more culturally sensitive.

The major ethnic/racial categories of the U.S. Census Bureau include White, Hispanic, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaskan Native. Within each of these groups there are numerous subgroups, and among individuals within subgroups there is much variability in terms of identification with their traditional culture, facility with standard English, and so on. Despite this variability, it is possible to identify an area of contrast particularly relevant to the transition to adulthood, namely, the contrast between the individualistic orientation of mainstream U.S. culture and the collectivistic orientation of most non-Western cultures.

Individualism and Collectivism

Individualism is rooted in the view that people are discrete entities who, as they transition to adulthood, should move from dependence to independence and self-reliance. Collectivism is rooted in the contrasting view that people are woven into the fabric of groups (e.g. family, neighborhood, tribe), and as they transition to adulthood they should move from dependence to interdependence (Ewalt & Mokuau, 1995). Individualistic cultures tend to stress individual rights, pursuing personal interests, setting and achieving personal goals, and being true to one's own values and beliefs. Collectivistic cultures tend to stress obligations that go along with one's group roles, being an interdependent member of a group, working with others to achieve group success, and adhering to the group's traditional values (Yamauchi, 1998). In traditional Pacific Island cultures, for example, "The person is not an individual in our Western sense of the term. The person is instead a locus of shared biographies: personal histories of people's relationships with other people and with other things. The relationship defines the person, not vice-versa" (Lieber, 1990, p. 72). In short, from the individualistic perspective people create their relationships, while from the collectivistic perspective people are defined by their relationships.

The contrast between individualism and collectivism is reflected in the concept of self-determination. According to Wehman (1996), "Self-determination – control over one's life and choices – is the critical difference separating people with disabilities from those without disabilities." This view has become widely accepted in the social service and academic fields concerned with disabilities, resulting in growing commitment to promote self-determination. For the transition process, best practice is likely to include providing students with disabilities with the requisite attitudes and skills for self-determination, along with opportunities for practice. However, such efforts are almost always based on a concept of self-determination rooted in individualism, typically incorporating the ideas of personal control and freedom to choose, which require skills such as decision making, problem solving, goal setting, self-observation, self-evaluation, self-reinforcement, self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-advocacy, and so on. From the interdependent collectivist standpoint, however, the most highly valued skills are likely to be other-oriented rather than self-oriented, such as understanding one's roles in the group, perceiving and responding appropriately to the emotional status of others, and being able to work as part of a team. Such considerations lead Ewalt and Mokuau (1995) to point out that for most Western-trained social service professionals, "Rarely is contributing to the group's well-being considered integral to self-determination, and rarely is placing the group's well-being first seen as signifying maturity" (p. 170).

Listed below are some examples of individualistic values that commonly underlie transition policies and practices, along with possible alternative CLD values that may be encountered:

Achieving Cultural Sensitivity in Transition Services

Given the variability among CLD youth with disabilities and their families, there are no hard and fast rules for transition planning aside from one: the principle of individualization must be adhered to. Culturally sensitive strategies need to be used to help CLD students with disabilities and their families to express and develop their own transition goals and appropriate ways to achieve them. As Harry and her co-authors (1999) point out, it is not necessary to have a great deal of culturally specific information. Rather, they recommend "cultural reciprocity" in which professionals develop cultural self-awareness (meaning they recognize and understand the cultural underpinnings of their own views and practice) and take the lead in establishing a two-way process of cultural learning. The process of cultural reciprocity with a particular CLD youth and family involves the following steps:

By taking a stance of cultural reciprocity, professionals are well on the way to establishing effective collaborative relationships with CLD youth and families. However, some cultural differences may represent barriers to such relationships that may require skill, time, and patience to address (Boone, 1992). For example, family members may be reluctant to participate in discussions, and if they do participate they may be unwilling to be forthright with strangers as the result of cultural and personal proclivities and/or unpleasant experiences with professionals in the past. The belief that families should take care of their own is also common in many CLD families, so accepting assistance from outside agencies may be viewed as evading family responsibilities (Boone, 1992). In addition, generational differences are sometimes aggravated in CLD families as youth strive for acculturation to mainstream (individualistic) culture while their elders focus on maintaining collectivistic cultural traditions (although in some families the youth may be the ones more committed to traditional ways). Professionals who come across situations of family conflict may face delicate decisions about how hard to push for individualistic values versus honoring family desires that emerge from collectivistic values, which professionals may sometimes view as limiting and inequitable for youth with disabilities.

In addition to culturally sensitive individualization, professionals would do well to focus on developing and sustaining natural supports when working with CLD youth and their families. The term natural supports (also called informal supports) refers to people and resources in the community who are outside the professional service system but have the capacity to effectively provide supports. They may be friends, relatives, neighbors, clergy, or service organizations. Potential major advantages of natural supports are that people providing them may share and deeply understand the cultural values of those being supported, may have already established trusting relationships, and may continue providing supports long after professionals leave the scene. Natural supports are sometimes the only way for professionals to effectively work with people who otherwise avoid dealing with professional service systems. An example of a natural support for a CLD youth with disabilities wanting to transition to college would be to recruit and train a mentor from the same CLD group who has achieved college success and already knows the youth. Taken to a higher level, a circle of support consisting of key persons in the youth's life would be created to provide formal and natural supports beginning in high school and extending into the college years.


Because transition systems are typically rooted in individualistic cultural assumptions, they often fall short in accommodating collectivistic values and behaviors. In order to effectively support the transition of CLD youth with disabilities, professionals need to be aware of the contrasts between individualism and collectivism and of the cultural basis of their own values and practice. They also need to master and use strategies for developing collaborative interpersonal relationships with CLD youth and families; eliciting youth and family views of their own values, dreams, strengths, and needs; and individualizing transition planning, services, and supports.



Boone, R. S. (1992). Involving culturally diverse parents in transition planning. Career Development for Exceptional Individuals, 15(2), 205-221.

Ewalt, P. L., & Mokuau, N. (1995). Self-determination from a Pacific perspective. Social Work, 40(2), 168-175.

Harry, B., Kalyanpur, M., & Day, M. (1999). Building cultural reciprocity with families. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Lieber, M. D. (1990). Lamarckian definitions of identity on Kapingamarangi and Pohnpei. In J. Linnekin & I. Poyer (Eds.), Cultural identity and ethnicity in the Pacific (pp. 1-15). Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Wehman, P. (1996). Life beyond the classroom: Transition strategies for young people with disabilities (2nd ed). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Yamauchi, L.A. (1998). Individualism, collectivism, and cultural compatibility: Implications for counselors and teachers. Journal of Humanistic Education and Development, 36(4), 189-198.

David W. Leake is Director of Research and Evaluation with the Center on Disability Studies, University of Hawai'i at Manoa, Honolulu. He may be reached at 808/247-4737 or Rhonda S. Black is Associate Professor of Special Education with the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, and may be reached at 808/956-2367 or Kelly Roberts is a Project Coordinator with the Center on Disability Studies, and may be reached at 808/956-3799 or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Johnson, D.R., Lehr, C.A., Bremer, C.D. & Hasazi, S. (Eds.). (2004). Impact: Feature Issue on Achieving Secondary Education and Transition Results for Students with Disabilities, 16(3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


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