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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 32, #7
May 2004

Journey to Thinking Multiculturally

Physically Different

By Jennifer Gorospe

Imagine being unable to use your legs to stand or to walk.  Imagine being unable to use your arms and hands to grab items or hug a friend.  Imagine being unable to use both.  Imagine having to rely on a wheelchair for mobility.  Imagine never having the opportunity to see the ocean, the mountains, or the sunset.  Imagine having the inability to listen to your favorite music or hear the voice of someone you love. These are just a few experiences that people who are physically different undergo on a daily basis.

Each morning, I do not have to plan my day in order to assure accessibility.  I have never needed to block an hour out of my day in order to use the restroom.  I do not need to plan ahead to ensure that the apartment complex where my friend resides is accessible.  These are simple tasks that I perform daily without having to anticipate inconvenience.  The setbacks I have witnessed have made me realize how much I take my physical well-being for granted. 

The Population of Physically Different

There are 49 million to 54 million Americans who are within this cultural group of individuals with physical disabilities (Sue & Sue, 2003). According to the United States Census Bureau (2000), the prevalence of disability ranges from 5.8% for children who are under the age of 16 to 41.9% for individuals who are 65 and over.  According to a national survey by the National Organization on Disability in 1998 (Sue & Sue, 2003):

Of adults with disabilities, only 29% have any type of employment, compared to 79% of general public.72% of people with disabilities wanted to work. Over 1/3 of adults with disabilities have incomes of $15,000 or less, compared to 12% of those without disabilities.Worse, 20% of adults with disabilities have not finished high school, compared to 9% of those without disabilities (p. 422-424).

Due to such statistics, Congress passed the American Disabilities Act in 1990. The American Disabilities Act defines disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual" (Sue & Sue, 2003, p. 425).

Throughout this article I use the term physically different to describe all individuals with physical disabilities. According to many of the people I came into contact with during my journey, the term physically different is considered culturally appropriate (accepted in this culture).

Physically Different: Visible but Silent Culture

There are many cultures that are identified in today's society.  Often people tend to view and equate culture with ethnicity; however, culture is defined as "the set of attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviors shared by a group of people communicated from one generation to the next via language or some other means of communication" (Matsumoto, 1994, p. 4 ).  Nevertheless, the majority of society has overlooked people with physical disabilities as a distinct culture.

I am included in the majority society.  My interactions with people with physical disabilities have been minimal. Before this class experience, I never thought about the hardships people who are physically different face.  It was not until a guest speaker, "Alex", visited our Multicultural Counseling class, that I began to recognize this group as a rich culture waiting to be unveiled. 

Alex, a second-year graduate student, brought up an amazing opportunity.  His story and his words were very inspiring.  I wanted to know more and I wanted to broaden my knowledge about a culture that I was unfamiliar with. As part of the journey, I researched the culture, interviewed individuals who are physically different, experienced cultural plunges, and served as a volunteer.  

Cultural Journey

Each experience within this culture has broadened my knowledge about this group. This experiential knowledge is more valuable than the information taught in books.  I grew professionally and personally as a result of this journey.

Cross-cultural interview. I interviewed Alex, a 28-year-old biracial male who has a spinal cord injury due to an automobile accident.  He now must rely on a wheelchair for mobility. Throughout the interview I was surprised to hear how the dynamics of his family changed after the accident. When the accident occurred, roles reversed.  His parents had to care for him.  In a sense, he had to "start all over again."  Starting over, for him, was embarrassing and humiliating. He spoke about having to be changed, bathed, fed, driven, and having to rely on others to care for him, when he once was capable of caring for himself. 

Alex's father "took it the hardest." His father felt at fault and felt guilty that there was nothing he could do to keep his son from suffering.  He blamed himself because he had allowed Alex to vacation in Mexico for spring break with friends.  The feelings of guilt follow him to this day. His mother, on the other hand, became the backbone of the family.  She became strong for her and her family.  Her optimism helped hold the family together.  His sister changed roles, which was difficult for her because she became the "older sister."

Alex further comments that health insurance, medications and architectural accommodations became expensive, which added an economic strain.  Alex, luckily, has been able to utilize his father's health insurance; therefore, the impact of financial burden has been decreased.  However, of the 29.5 million individuals with disabilities between the ages of 15 and 64, 18.4 million have private insurance; Medicaid covers 4.4 million; and 5.1 million are uninsured (Sue & Sue, 2003).

Today, Alex has a different perception of the world.  He sees the world as it is.  He has physical limitations, but that does not prevent him from pursuing his aspirations. He feels that the accident was an eye-opening experience and understands that he can not be angry at the world.  Like his mother, he is optimistic and wants to make differences in people's lives through his story.  His story has become an inspiration to me and many other people in his life.     

"Will Chair Plunge"

Alex afforded me the opportunity to be "physically different for a day" in order to live and see the world from his perspective-I took the "Will Chair Plunge."  In one day, I immersed myself in a culture that knows no cultural or racial bounds.  For a few hours I became dependent on a wheelchair for mobility and interacted with the public as a physically different person. I was afraid of the perceptions, attitudes and reactions from other individuals. The concept of "plunging" into an unknown culture made me aware of my own hidden biases and my attitudes towards this culture. I had to push my comfort level in order to begin my cultural journey. 

Alex demonstrated the proper way to sit and maneuver in a wheelchair.  He then gave me the opportunity to participate in a few of his daily chores.  While making his bed I found myself frustrated with the situation because of the amount of time it took me to finish.  Not only was it frustrating learning how to maneuver the wheelchair, but it was painful falling backwards.  I struggled to get up without using my legs; however, frustrated, I stood up to get back into the wheelchair.  I then realized that this was the reality for Alex and other individuals like him. 

To challenge to me further, we went to the mall.  Unexpectedly, my discomfort and nervousness heightened.  The thought of being seen in public in a wheelchair and conveying the impression that I was helpless made me feel embarrassed. As soon as I arrived, I felt that everyone noticed my condition. At times, I would smile and attempt to make eye contact with certain people who walked past me. Most people looked the other direction as if it would save them from feeling my pain or hardship.  It became difficult reading people.  I began to feel self-conscious, shy and ashamed because I could not tell whether or not people were curious, surprised or sympathetic. It became even more difficult to keep my head up and to continue smiling.    

As the day progressed, I began to forget at times that I was in a wheelchair.  I only realized my "handicap" when I had to open doors for myself, maneuver myself up an elevated ramp, use the elevator because I could not utilize the escalator, or when Alex was present.  I became aware of the surroundings and began to strategically assess certain routes that would allow me to use less energy.

Volunteer experienceAfter the "will chair" plunge, I volunteered for the YMCA as a participant during practice for "wheelchair soccer."  The concept of the game is similar to American soccer; however, there were a few modifications made to the game.  I believed that in order for me to grow, it was necessary to push my comfort zone to the next level.  Knowing that I would not have a cultural mediator by my side, my discomfort again heightened.  I would be participating and interacting in a wheelchair soccer game with unfamiliar individuals who had physical limitations.

 The players who participated that afternoon at the YMCA had disabilities that ranged from mild to severe cerebral palsy.  Individuals who were diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy were able to utilize their legs at various points in the activity; however, to exert less energy, according to some of the individuals during practice, a wheelchair can be utilized for mobility.  On the other hand, there were others who had severe cerebral palsy who rely on motorized wheelchairs for mobility. 

I was naïve to assume that people who relied on motorized wheelchairs were limited to participation in any sport activities.  However, these individuals changed my perceptions.  They reminded me that first and foremost, they are individuals.  They are individuals with the disability and not disabled individuals.   This experience has not only increased my comfort level around people with physical disabilities, but has opened my eyes to an amazing and courageous culture.

Reflection. When I first began this journey, I was not aware of my assumptions or attitudes toward this group; however, my immersion into this culture has made me realize my cultural biases.  Before this experience, I used certain terms that have a negative connotation, such as "suffering from" or "handicapped" or "physically disabled." These terms encourage subjecting people who are physically different to negative stereotypes.

 My journey to thinking multiculturally has left me with an unbelievable experience.  It has made me aware of my actions and my biases. This journey is an ongoing venture. As a school psychologist, I must be constantly conscious of my actions if I am to become an advocate for any cultural group.  This journey has been inspiring. I have met exceptional individuals who have given me the gift of knowledge that could never be learned from books alone. 

Tips for School Psychologists

The importance of family. The family plays an important role in individuals who are physically different.  The family is an integral part of the rehabilitation process.  Not only do they help the rehabilitation process with their knowledge about the individual, their cooperation is needed because, like the individual, the family must cope with the challenges that are ahead of them. Family members may experience feelings such as distress, guilt, self-punishment, or anger.  They may also feel responsible for the condition, which may cause a negative impact on both the family member and individual.

Recommended actions:   

  • Improve school climate for individuals with disabilities by educating students and school professionals about the disability.
  • Improve accessibility.
  • Ask before you assume inadequacy-be genuine and respectful. Treat students with physical differences as individual first, who just happen to have a disability (rather than defining who they are by their disability).
  • Be aware that there may be accommodations that need to be considered when working with a student in the instructional or testing environment.
  • Be familiar with the resources that are available within the school and community, not only for the individual, but for family and social support system.


Matsumoto, D. (1994). Cultural influences on research methods and statistics. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Sue, D.W., & Sue, D. (2003). Counseling Asian Americans. Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (4th ed. (pp.327-339). New York: John Wiley.

U.S. Census Bureau (2000). Disability status: 2000 - Census 2000 brief.  Retrieved December 3, 2003, from www.census.gov

© 2004, National Association of School Psychologists. Jennifer Gorospe is a first-year school psychology graduate student at San Diego State University. The author acknowledges Ron Denne, Jr. for his contribution to this article. 

This article was solicited by series editor Tonika Duren Green, PhD, as one of the assigned papers in her course on Multicultural Counseling at San Diego State.