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AFBAmerican Foundation®
for the Blind

Expanding possibilities for people with vision loss

Cultural and Linguistic Competence in Serving Older Individuals with Vision Loss

by Elizabeth Sammons, an AFB VisionAware peer advisor.

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I recently had the opportunity to go to the American Foundation for the Blind Leadership Conference. There I attended a session on cultural and linguistic competence in serving older individuals with vision loss. The session was presented by Suzanne M. Bronheim, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development.

Important Points From the Presentation

Definition of Culture

Dr. Bronheim noted that culture is basically anything we learn as human beings and pass on to the next generation. It includes language, food, and relations with others. While we take our own culture for granted, we learn much about both ourselves and others when we deal with those from a dissimilar background, since they often do things differently. Such differences can arise from obvious things such as the country where we were raised, whether we are wealthy, poor or middle-class, or our racial background. But our outlook is also profoundly influenced by invisible and unspoken factors including our education, generation, and the small town, large city, or state where we were reared—or if we were raised in a variety of places combined.

Awareness that Differences Exist

The single most significant factor determining our approach to those of other cultures is being aware that differences exist. The less we presume on body language, physical or emotional distance, view of disability, perception of authority figures and other factors that affect our communication, the better chance we have of getting our points across by perceiving others’ reactions and responding accordingly. The more we work with colleagues or clients from different specific cultures, such as in a community with a high Hispanic population, or a program geared to those aged 55 and older, the more we are likely to connect with those with whom we associate. A reference to an old song from an elder’s youth, or a greeting in a different language that is the language a colleague or client uses at home creates smiles and good will from the beginning. Pursuing deeper knowledge of these cross-cultural differences as specific to cultures in our service areas allows us even greater competence.

Views of Disability

In the disability world, many non-western cultures view physical and mental health differences as something shameful. Sometimes they are taken as the result of a curse or a fate which we cannot override. It is important for us to acknowledge such views, while at the same time encouraging openness to looking at things a different way. This is where peer mentoring and cultural knowledge can really come into constructive action.

Example of the Concept of Independence

In the USA, we learn about July 4 and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in early childhood. The word "independence" has highly positive connotations. Many cultures do not relate to independence in this way, however. In cultures where it is the norm for multi-generational families to live together, even the word "independence" can summon images of isolation or loneliness of an elder, or even worse, the neglect of someone who is seen as a vital part of the household. In such cases, discussing the idea of regaining skills that have been overridden by vision loss, or having the liberty again to do things such as shopping or cooking that may no longer appear feasible, could replace the word "independence."

My Additions

Over the years, I have had a great deal of international experience. I have learned several languages and spent an exchange year in Switzerland. After that I became a guide in the U.S. Information Agency's ongoing citizens exchange exhibit to the then Soviet Union. I was also a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Hungary, a nonprofit manager of a news advocacy group in Central Asia, and a teacher, interpreter, marketer, and cross-disability advocate in Novosibirsk, Siberia. Thus, given my background of experience living and working in other countries as a person who is visually impaired, I would like to add some resources to the concepts that Dr. Bronheim brought out.

International and Cross-Cultural Disability Resources

A nationwide Spanish-language list of federal and nonprofit disability resources from the National Rehabilitation Information Center

Tips on working with interpreters, especially in a testing situation

Information for non-English speakers in healthcare-related situations

Resources for individuals with disabilities interested in basics of going abroad, or finding, funding and preparing for an international exchange

The MiNDbank from the World Health Organization is the only single point globally to access all comprehensive information related to national policies and practices in mental health, substance abuse, disability, general health, human rights and development. The online platform currently includes nearly 4,000 documents and resources for over 160 countries.

The Center for International Rehabilitation Research Information and Exchange (CIRRIE) has published Buddhism and Responses to Disability, Mental Disorders and Deafness in Asia. The bibliography includes citations for written works reflecting the Buddhist understanding of and response to physical disabilities such as blindness, deafness and mental disorders. This extensive bibliography identifies references to disability in Buddhism’s most ancient works as well as in modern literature.

Additional bibliographies are available, including disability perspectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Middle East and African countries, at the CIRRIE Annotated Bibliographies page.

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