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National Center on Secondary Education and Transition

Cultural and Linguistic Diversity:
Implications for Transition Personnel

PART II — CLD Youth with Disabilities in Transition


Defining and labeling ethnic/racial groups is often a controversial topic. Members of a group may reject the definitions and labels by outsiders and may also disagree among themselves about what they should be called. This Essential Tool uses U.S. Census Bureau ethnic/racial categories, because socioeconomic data collected by the federal government is almost always reported according to these categories. The categories are White (non-Hispanic), Hispanic, Black (non-Hispanic), Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaskan Native (the categories are listed in descending order of population size).

Of course, within each racial/ethnic category there are numerous distinct subgroups, each with a unique historical and cultural background. There are nearly 300 American Indian tribal groups; the Hispanic category includes people of different racial backgrounds (including Black and White) from regions spanning thousands of miles; and the Asian/Pacific Islander category combines persons with roots in the highly diverse regions of South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific Islands. As might be expected, one problem with ethnic/racial categories is that they can obscure important differences among subgroups. For example, on a variety of socioeconomic measures (e.g., education, income, health, etc.), Asians as a group tend to score above the U.S. national average while Pacific Islanders tend to score below the average. However, these differences become hidden when the two groups are combined in the reporting of data, and their strengths and needs can become obscured.

In addition to the great diversity among subgroups within the U.S. Census Bureau’s ethnic/racial categories, there are many variables among individuals within subgroups on a wide range of attributes, such as degree of identification with their traditional culture versus American mainstream culture and their facility with standard English—an estimated 18% of the U.S. population speak a language other than English at home (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003a). These considerations strongly support the idea that individualization is an essential ingredient for cultural competence. At the same time, however, the process of individualizing services and supports will be enhanced when transition personnel are aware of and understand the broader cultural context in which individual youth and their families live.

This part of the Essential Tool provides a broad statistical comparison of primary ethnic/racial groups, followed by descriptions of challenges that tend to be more serious for CLD youth. These challenges tend to be most significant for youth and families living in conditions of poverty and marginalization, whether they are of White or CLD heritage (Greene & Nefsky, 1999). CLD populations, however, tend to have much higher rates of poverty.

Statistical Comparisons of Ethnic/Racial Groups

Table 1 provides a statistical snapshot of U.S. ethnic/racial groups on a variety of population, disability, and education indicators. Two differences stand out between Whites and the CLD groups as a whole. One is that all of the CLD groups have median ages much lower than Whites. This means that larger percentages of CLD group members are of school age. In addition, projections of the U.S. population for 2020 and 2050 indicate that CLD groups are growing at a faster rate than Whites. These population trends have considerable significance for educators as the proportion of CLD students grows in classrooms across the country. As schools serve a growing number of CLD students, they will need to enhance their cultural competence in order to support positive outcomes for all their students.

Table 1. Comparisons by Race/Ethnicity on Selected Indicators

Proportion of Total U.S. Population Indicators
(Columns total approx. 100% across rows)




Pacific I.

Am. Indian/
Nat. Alaskan

% of U.S. population, 20001






% of U.S. population, projected for 20202






% of U.S. population, projected for 20502






% of students from 6-21 years old in special education, 2000-013






% of all postsecondary students, 20004






% of 4-year college students, 20004






% of 2-year college students, 20004






% of full-time postsecondary faculty, 19975






% of full-time postsecondary administrators, 19975






Within-Group Proportion Indicators
(Columns independent of each other)




Pacific I.

Am. Indian/
Nat. Alaskan

Median age in years, 20001






% below poverty level, 20014






% of students from 5-15 years old who have a disability, 20006






% of persons from 16-64 years old who have a disability, 20006






% of students 6 to 21 years old in special education, 2000-013






% of college students reporting disability, 1995-967






% obtaining high school diploma, 1999-20003






% dropping out of high school, 1999-20003






% of persons 18-24 years old (prime college age), 20001






% of high school completers ages 18-24 enrolled in college, 20018






% graduating from 4-year college within 6 years, 19985






Note. In comparing numbers, it should be remembered that different sources may use different definitions of ethnic/racial categories and different methods of determining membership in categories.
1 U.S. Census Bureau (2001b).
2 U.S. Census Bureau (2000).
3 U.S. Department of Education (2002).
4 Wirt et al. (2003).
5 Harvey (2001).
6 U.S. Census Bureau (2003b).
7 Horn and Berktold (1999).
8 Snyder and Hoffman (2003).

The second major difference between White and CLD groups is that CLD groups (with the exception of Asians/Pacific Islanders) have much higher rates of poverty than Whites. According to the 2000 census, about 9.9% of Whites and 10.2% of Asians/Pacific Islanders live below the poverty level, compared to 21.4% of Hispanics, 22.7% of Blacks, and 24.5% of American Indians/Alaskan Natives (Wirt et al., 2003). Poverty has a negative impact on a host of factors relevant to academic achievement (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002). Poverty also is associated with higher disability rates across all age groups due to such factors as limited availability or accessibility of health insurance and medical care, including prenatal care, greater exposure to environmental toxins, and higher likelihood of employment in physically dangerous jobs (Fujiara & Yamaki, 1999; Smart & Smart, 1997).

The poverty rate for students with disabilities has been estimated as 28% compared to 8% for those without disabilities (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001a). The National Academy of Sciences conducted a comprehensive analysis of the literature on special and gifted education placements (Donovan & Cross, 2002). The authors concluded that overrepresentation of some CLD groups in certain special education categories, and underrepresentation in gifted education programs, is primarily related to higher poverty rates. At the postsecondary level (college, community or technical college, or trade school), it appears that many barriers to education success for CLD persons with disabilities also are related more to the effects of poverty than to cultural or linguistic factors. For example, one study found lack of money to be the greatest “contextual barrier” faced by CLD families seeking access to postsecondary education for their children (Geenen, Powers, Vasquez, & Bersani, 2003). Another example of a poverty-related barrier is that residents of high poverty neighborhoods are the least likely to have computers and Internet access at home (Wilhelm, Carmen, & Reynolds, 2002).

Barriers to postsecondary education faced by many CLD youth with disabilities may limit their transition options. Their relatively low rates of attending postsecondary education programs are reflected in Table 2, which shows that the proportion of college students reporting a disability is considerably lower for each of the CLD groups (with the exception of American Indians/Alaskan Natives) compared to Whites. In addition, compared to their White counterparts, CLD college students with disabilities are more likely to abandon their studies or to take longer to complete a postsecondary program (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996).

Table 2. Percentage of 1995-96 Undergraduates Who Reported a Disability, by Race/Ethnicity*


% Reporting Disability

Disability Type







White, non-Hispanic
















Black, non-Hispanic








Asian/Pacific Islander








American Indian/
Native Alaskan








All students








*Percentages for “disability type” do not add up to 100% because some students reported multiple disabilities.
**(--) Sample size too small for a reliable estimate.
Adapted from Horn and Berktold (1999), Table 2, p. 8.

Strengths to Build On for Transition Success

There has been a paradigm shift in a range of social service fields, including special education, regarding the idea of building on strengths rather than focusing on deficits (Dunst, Trivette, & Deal, 1994; Osher, 1996). The core assumptions underlying strengths-based approaches include:

  • All youth have strengths;
  • The motivation of youth may be enhanced when others point out their strengths; and
  • Failure of a youth to acquire a skill does not mean a deficit but instead indicates that opportunities and appropriate instruction to obtain the skill have not been provided (Epstein & Sharma, 1998).

Positive behavioral supports are an example of a strengths-based approach for people with severe disorders whose behavior limits their successful functioning in integrated settings. This approach works best when functional assessment is used to identify and address factors surrounding the individual that contribute to the behavior problem. These factors could be how the education or service system works, how the classroom or other setting is organized, or a lack of specific skills on the part of service personnel. In addition, the individual’s strengths (e.g., special abilities, hobbies, preferences, personal relationships, etc.) are identified and used as the basis for promoting desired behaviors and replacing negative ones (Warger, 1999). Positive behavior supports have been found to produce better outcomes than trying to reduce negative behaviors by using aversive techniques such as seclusion and restraint (National Task Force on Behavior Management, 2001).

What strengths do CLD youth with disabilities commonly have that can be used to support transition success? One strength that tends to be prominent across all ethnic/racial groups is family affiliation. When the family is working well, its members support and look out for each other, and together they build up and share the benefits of what is called “social capital” (Harper, 2001). Social capital refers to aspects of the social environment that people can use to improve or sustain how they are doing in important life domains, such as health, education, employment, housing, and transportation. Social capital consists of such things as formal and informal social networks, group membership, trust, reciprocity, and civic engagement. Most of the social capital available to youth is usually what has been developed by their families by establishing relationships with various individuals, other families, and organizations in their community. The greater the level of social capital, the greater the capacity of youth and families to receive and share information, advice, financial support, emotional support, etc. Research indicates that people with higher levels of social capital are more likely to be “housed, healthy, hired, and happy” (Woolcock, 2001, p. 12).

Challenges Commonly Faced by CLD Youth with Disabilities in Transition

The remainder of this part of the Essential Tool describes a number of challenges that tend to be especially difficult for youth with disabilities who also come from CLD backgrounds. Transition personnel should be aware of these challenges so they are better able to recognize and address them. Some of the most common and significant challenges are briefly described below, along with suggestions for addressing them. These challenges are typically most significant for youth from low-income backgrounds of all ethnicities. In addressing these challenges, transition personnel are actually helping to increase the social capital of youth and their families and communities. The specific challenges described relate to social inclusion, self-determination, self-advocacy, academic achievement, high school completion, English proficiency, technology access, and financing postsecondary education. Table 3 provides a summary of the challenges. Additional resources available on the Internet are described at the end of the Essential Tool.

Social Inclusion

What many students like best about high school is being with their friends and having an active social life. Students who are able to develop and maintain strong social networks in high school are likely to do so after high school as well, and thereby gain natural supports for achieving desired transition outcomes (Halpern, 1994; Sitlington, Clark, & Kolstoe, 2000). However, as most school personnel are well aware, many students with disabilities have trouble making and keeping friends, due to such factors as lacking social skills or being ignored by nondisabled peers (Forness & Kavale, 1996; Vaughn, Elbaum, & Schumm, 1996).

Students with disabilities who also come from CLD backgrounds may be at even greater risk of social isolation due to the “double whammy” of membership in two minority groups (Hollins, Downer, Farquarson, Oyepeju, & Kopper, 2002). Some CLD youth may face discrimination because they behave in ways that are natural and accepted in their home and community, but that are not considered acceptable at school (Cartledge & Loe, 2001). A related factor is that CLD youth, as well as White youth from low-income families, may also lack exposure to and experience in “mainstream” social situations, and therefore lack knowledge and confidence in such situations (Middleton, 1999). This challenge may be even greater for those who lack command of standard English, because they grew up speaking another language, or nonstandard English, at home (Salend & Salinas, 2003). In addition, some CLD youth develop an “oppositional” social identity and alienation from the American mainstream culture as the result of past experiences of discrimination (Ogbu, 1990) and tend to interact only with peers within their own CLD group, thus limiting their social network options (Clark, 1991).

Social isolation may have a negative effect on school engagement and academic performance and may also lead those who feel isolated to form “deviant” peer groups that encourage members to engage in oppositional, delinquent, and/or risky behaviors (Dodge et al., 2003). As a result, youth are more likely to drop out or be expelled, and therefore lose opportunities to gain the attitudes, skills, and knowledge needed for successful transition from high school (Walker, Colvin, & Ramsey, 1995).

Implications for Transition Personnel Regarding Social Inclusion

Many high school students with disabilities have solid social skills and active social lives. However, if youth with disabilities feel socially isolated in high school, then they are likely to also have difficulties establishing supportive social networks after high school, and therefore less likely to achieve positive outcomes in college, at work, or in the community (Halpern, 1994; Sitlington, Clark, & Kolstoe, 2000). In taking an individualized approach, transition personnel need to work with each youth and his or her family to understand the basic reasons for social isolation and to identify strengths and resources that can help achieve greater social inclusion (Black & Ornellas, 2001). Unfortunately, this is often a difficult problem for which there are no easy solutions.

Teaching social skills to youth is often recommended. A number of prepackaged programs are available, offering features such as role-playing activities or videotapes that model skills. However, when the results of a large number of studies on the effectiveness of social skills programs are combined and analyzed (an approach called meta-analysis), these programs seem to lead to small gains, if any, in social skills (Gresham, Sugai, & Horner, 2001; Quinn, Kavale, Mathur, Rutherford, & Forness, 1999). One possible reason for the lack of positive outcomes is that the specific skill deficits and learning strengths of students may not have been well matched to program content. In other words, the more that social skills training is individualized, the more likely it is to be effective. With regard to CLD youth, lack of cultural competence in instruction is another possible reason for ineffectiveness of social skills programs. Cartledge (1996) provides a good overview of how to enhance cultural competence in social skills instruction such as through a cooperative (group) learning approach, because it more closely matches how learning tends to occur in CLD communities.

One way to achieve individualization and provide intensive support is to use a paraprofessional (such as an educational aide or a skills trainer) to work one-on-one with the youth on specific skills and in real situations as often as possible. This can include paraprofessionals with similar cultural backgrounds to the students, who can provide special help in bridging two cultures. However, this option is expensive and likely to be available only for a limited number of youth with more severe disabilities (Mueller & Murphy, 2001). The use of mentors can be a cost-effective alternative approach that also supports individualization (Rhodes, Grossman, & Resch, 2000). Mentors may be peers, adult volunteers, or school staff. They are not likely to be specially trained in the area of social skills. Rather, they can support youth to gain social skills by establishing a relationship of mutual trust and respect, so that youth naturally want to imitate the attitudes and skills modeled by their mentors. In fact, mentors have great potential to support youth in addressing all the challenges discussed in the next sections (Stader & Gagnepain, 2000).

In addition to supporting youth to gain social and other skills, both paraprofessionals and mentors may play important friendship roles with youth who have disabilities and a limited social network. For some youth who are socially isolated, it may be very helpful to create a “circle of support” consisting of key persons in their lives, including peers, relatives, and personnel who provide services (Cotton et al., 1992). The circle of support approach is used primarily for youth with more significant disabilities, often with a focus on addressing emotional or behavioral challenges, such as depression and low self-esteem, that may both contribute to and are caused by social isolation (Rainforth, York, & Macdonald, 1997). Although a circle of support may initially be somewhat artificial as a social network, it may well develop into an authentic one as members get to know each other and collaboratively support a young person whom they all care about. Circles of support can be especially appropriate for CLD youth with disabilities, since natural supports and professional expertise on relevant cultural issues, and linguistic challenges can be identified and included. Ideally, circles of support or teams are established during high school and continue after a youth exits high school, helping to ensure a smooth transition (Gartin, Rumrill, & Serebreni, 1996).

In addition to the individual and small group strategies described previously, school-wide strategies have also been developed to promote social inclusion. This is accomplished by establishing a climate of acceptance and respect for diversity, ideally beginning in elementary school when students are less likely to have already developed discriminatory attitudes (Keith & Fink, 2004). School-wide positive behavioral support (PBS) programs (also called effective behavioral support [EBS] programs) focus on defining acceptable behaviors and creating a school and classroom climate that promotes those behaviors. PBS/EBS programs were originally developed to replace aversive techniques for controlling severe behaviors of people with disabilities or mental illness. This is an approach that produces better outcomes than relying mainly on discipline (e.g., detentions, suspensions, expulsions, etc.) for unacceptable behaviors (Lewis & Sugai, 1999). These programs typically emphasize mutual respect and acceptance of diversity through a team approach involving school staff at all levels (Todd, Horner, Sugai, & Sprague, 1999). In addition to school-wide use, the approach can be used effectively by school personnel in single classrooms (Lewis & Sugai, 1999).


The field of special education has increasingly focused on self-determination over the past decade or so. Self-determination has been defined as “that condition in which personal behavior emanates from a person’s own wishes, choices, and decisions” (Freedberg, 1989, p. 33). According to Wehman (1996), the practice of self-determination is a critical difference between people without disabilities, who generally have self-determination skills and opportunities, and people with disabilities, who often lack them.

Research indicates that youth with disabilities who have good self-determination skills achieve better postschool outcomes than those who lack such skills (Wehmeyer, Agran, & Hughes, 1998). One important reason for promoting self-determination is that youth who actively participate in setting their own goals and planning their own services are likely to be more motivated to strive for those goals and be more engaged in those services (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Two things are needed for self-determination. The individual has to have the capacity (in the form of appropriate attitudes, skills, and knowledge) to behave in a self-determined manner, and the social environment has to provide the opportunity to make real choices without interference from others (Mithaug, 1996). Opportunity is a property of the social environment, and without it people with disabilities are unlikely to develop the capacity (Moloney, Whitney-Thomas, & Dreilinger, 2000). Some CLD youth with disabilities may grow up with few opportunities for self-determination, especially if they are from low-income backgrounds that limit available choices, or if individual choice and self-expression are not culturally valued in their families or communities.

Skills needed for self-determination include evaluating one’s own abilities and limitations, setting goals, identifying options, accepting responsibility, communicating preferences and needs, and monitoring and evaluating progress (Field, Martin, Miller, Ward, & Wehmeyer, 1998). Numerous programs and curricula have been developed to provide youth with disabilities with these and related skills, and some have been shown by research to be effective in enhancing self-determination (Karvonen, Test, Wood, Browder, & Algozzine, 2004; Kohler, 1998). One recommended practice is to have students with disabilities actively participate in developing their own IEPs/ITPs, preferably running the planning meetings (Bremer, Kachgal, & Schoeller, 2003).

However, virtually all available self-determination programs and curricula are based on American mainstream values that may be at odds with the values of CLD cultures. Self-determination programs and curricula may therefore have to be adapted if they are to be relevant and effective for many CLD youth. This issue will be discussed further in Part III, where the concept of self-determination is used to illustrate some of the key differences often found between “individualistic” American mainstream culture and CLD cultures that are “collectivistic” in orientation.

An example of this contrast is provided by the American mainstream value of independent living, which holds that people should become self-sufficient and establish their own households when they reach adulthood. Based on this perspective, transition personnel might well believe that the best course for a young adult with developmental disabilities is to move from the family home to supported living and, eventually, independent living. In many CLD cultures, however, independent living is not seen as a milestone of adulthood, and young adults may be expected to continue living at home and contributing to the well-being of the extended family. If that is the case, then independent living may not be an appropriate transition goal.

Implications for Transition Personnel Regarding Self-Determination

The importance of self-determination to transition success means that transition personnel should make sure that needs in this area are identified and addressed for each and every youth on an individualized basis that takes into account the cultural values of the youth and family. However, personnel should be aware that efforts to promote American-style self-determination may “incite controversy among families from cultures that hold opposing beliefs and values for their offspring” (Sands & Wehmeyer, 1996, p. 337). In addition, personnel may find there is ongoing conflict within some CLD families as youth adopt American mainstream values while their elders focus on maintaining cultural traditions. Personnel who come across situations of family conflict may face delicate decisions about whether to push for self-determination and related values or to honor family desires that may limit personal choice and self-determination. Some recommended approaches for dealing with such issues will be presented in Part IV.

On the other hand, transition personnel should certainly not stop promoting self-determination because of worries about such outcomes. Only a small proportion of families are likely to react negatively. Rather, personnel serving CLD youth should strive to use culturally sensitive ways to impart attitudes, skills and knowledge that support self-determination. As will be discussed in Part III, it is possible to expand the concept of self-determination beyond the usual focus on the individual to address how the youth can also meet obligations to the family and community.

Unfortunately there are very few self-determination curricula designed to be culturally sensitive. One option is to adapt existing curricula. An excellent resource in this regard is provided by the Self-Determination Synthesis Project, which has collected information on numerous self-determination programs and curricula available in the United States. The Project identified about 50 interventions shown by data-based research to be effective in imparting specific self-determination skills. For each intervention the project staff then developed a “starter lesson plan” of several pages describing lesson objectives, setting and materials, lesson content, teaching procedures, and evaluation methods. These lesson plans can be downloaded free on the Internet at http://www.uncc.edu/sdsp/sd_lesson_plans.asp, where the specific skills taught by each lesson plan are also listed.


Self-advocacy is the ability to recognize and express one’s strengths and needs and to seek out and obtain services and supports needed to achieve one’s goals (Battle, Dickens-Wright, & Murphy, 1998). Self-advocacy is often considered to be a self-determination skill, but is worth considering as a valid topic because of the shift in responsibility that occurs when youth with disabilities exit the public school system (Stodden & Dowrick, 2001). Students with disabilities served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 automatically have their needs assessed, and services and supports are planned and provided for them. However, when people with disabilities graduate from high school with a regular diploma or age out, IDEA no longer applies, and they must take the initiative themselves in order to benefit from the rights and protections of Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. If adults with disabilities need accommodations or supports at work or in college, then they must inform the appropriate officials of their disabilities, provide documentation, and propose reasonable options for accommodations (Cullen, Shaw, & McGuire, 1996).

Effective self-advocacy requires assertiveness and problem-solving skills. For youth with disabilities, additional knowledge and understanding is also required, including self-awareness of disability, self-acceptance of disability, and knowledge of rights and resources (Deschaps, 2001; Hicks-Coolick & Kurtz, 1997). A variety of programs and curricula have been developed specifically to foster self-advocacy skills (Roessler, Brown, & Rumrill, 1998). However, culturally related factors may increase the challenge of achieving effective “mainstream-style” self-advocacy for some CLD youth with disabilities. For example, being assertive is considered negative in many CLD cultures, especially if done by people who are young or low in the social hierarchy. Other common CLD values at odds with the ideal of self-advocacy include not disclosing personal challenges and not asking strangers for help–and when the decision to seek help is made, it is typically done by friends or relatives rather than on one’s own (Hampton, 2000).

Implications for Transition Personnel Regarding Self-Advocacy

Implications regarding self-advocacy are much the same as the implications presented above for self-determination. For example, a CLD youth may increase conflict within the family if he/she self-advocates in a way that is too confrontational according to traditional values. Self-advocacy training therefore needs to include a focus on how to interact appropriately in different settings. As for self-determination, there are few culturally sensitive curricula for teaching self-advocacy skills. The Self-Determination Synthesis Project is a good resource, since a number of the starter lesson plans at its Web site (http://www.uncc.edu/sdsp/sd_lesson_plans.asp) address self-advocacy skills. One of the listed interventions is unique because it was developed specifically for low-income CLD high school students (Balcazar, Fawcett, & Seekins, 1990; Taylor-Ritzler et al., 2001).

Academic Achievement and High School Completion

Making good academic progress and completing high school are important for transition success, because those outcomes open doors to employment and postsecondary education. However, students with disabilities drop out of high school at substantially higher rates than their peers without disabilities. Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians/Alaskan Natives have the highest dropout rates among students with disabilities, with the highest rates being among those with limited English proficiency (Hauser, Simmons, & Pager, 2000). Unfortunately, schools often contribute to dropout through practices that make certain students feel unwelcome, especially those with emotional or behavioral challenges (Orfield, Losen, Wald, & Swanson, 2004). Being suspended or expelled is one of the top three school-related reasons for dropping out (DeRidder, 1991). Moreover, suspension is a moderate to strong predictor of dropping out—more than 30% of sophomores who drop out have been suspended (Skiba & Peterson, 1999). Although schools may thereby rid themselves of what are considered “problem” youth, the result is that these youth often end up failing to gain the attitudes and skills they need to be productive, contributing members of their communities and are more likely to engage in antisocial activities (Civil Rights Project, 2000).

In addition to the issue of completing high school, the issue of the quality of the education provided is also very important. For youth with disabilities who do complete high school, their chances for transition success are further strengthened if they have been included in general curriculum classes and if they have been supported to meet high academic standards (President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education, 2002). IDEA stresses the need to substantially increase the participation and progress of students with disabilities within the general education curriculum, which in turn makes it more possible for them to qualify for a diploma rather than a certificate of completion. Having a diploma is necessary to qualify for a wide range of employment and postsecondary education opportunities.

Implications for Transition Personnel Regarding Academic Achievement

Transition personnel are probably keenly aware of the dropout problem for youth with disabilities. Perhaps they have been trying to address the individual challenges faced by each of their students who may be at risk of dropping out. While supporting individual students is important, progress in increasing graduation rates is likely to depend on broader efforts at the school and system levels.

Two areas of need are particularly relevant for CLD youth with disabilities. One area is that of expectations. Youth with disabilities are often not expected to do well academically or to gain the attitudes, skills, and knowledge needed to attend college or obtain quality employment (Thurlow, 2002). Expectations for CLD youth with disabilities are sometimes even lower, due to stereotypes about their CLD group (Bakken & Aloia, 1999; Cartledge, 2002). However, according to the IDEA, many years of research and experience have shown that outcomes for students with disabilities are enhanced by holding high expectations and supporting them to access the general education curriculum in the regular classroom. Ideally, youth with disabilities are exposed from an early age to a climate of high expectations that spans school, home, and community settings, with peers, school staff, parents, and community members all expressing expectations that all youth will master the general curriculum to the best of their abilities and complete high school. If such a climate does not yet exist, transition personnel can work with other school staff and family members to make sure high expectations are reflected in IEPs and ITPs and frequently conveyed to youth.

Another area critical to improving high school completion rates is the cultural competence of instructional and related-services personnel. Cultural competence has been defined as a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, in an agency, or among professionals and enable effective services and supports in cross-cultural situations (Cross, Bazron, Dennis, & Isaacs, 1989). Lack of cultural competence in instruction and related services is widely considered to be an important reason for the generally poorer overall academic and transition outcomes of CLD youth with disabilities (Nguyen, Coutinho, & Oswald, 2000). Many CLD youth drop out because they experience a mismatch between their culture and that of the school (Franklin & Soto, 2002). Instructional methods may not match their learning preferences, the curriculum may seem irrelevant to their lives, or their behavior may be misinterpreted (Banks, 1996; Ladson-Billings, 1995). Part IV will offer approaches and tools for enhancing cultural competence in the transition planning process.

In response to the growing diversity of America’s population, cultural competence is being promoted in all service-providing fields (e.g., education, health, social services, sales, etc.). The following key points about cultural competence in health care are also very relevant for educational and transition services. Think of “education” or “transition” in place of “health” and “health care” in the following passage:

Although issues of “cultural competence” or “cultural and linguistic appropriateness” in health care often are framed as “minority” issues, they are, in fact, human issues affecting all people. Everyone has a culture and a cultural background that shapes one’s views about health and illness. Similarly, everyone has a language and language needs. However, because some cultural and linguistic needs are met while others are not, the issue becomes yet another of disparity in addressing the health needs of certain groups—most often racial and ethnic minorities. This disparity directly affects the ability to access high-quality health services (COSMOS Corporation, 2003, pp. iii-iv).

English Proficiency

An important component of cultural competence is being able to effectively communicate with and support people with limited English proficiency. The proportion of the U.S. population speaking English as a second language is growing. According to census data, the number of 5- to 24-year-olds who speak a language other than English at home more than doubled between 1979 and 1999, from 8% to 17%, and the percentage reported to speak English with difficulty increased from 3% to 8%, primarily as the result of increasing immigration of Hispanic peoples (Wirt et al., 2003). Spanish is most frequently spoken by 5- to 24-year-olds who speak a language other than English at home (72%) and by those who speak English with difficulty (78%). It is notable in Table 2 that among Hispanic postsecondary students with disabilities, 16.3% report having a “speech impairment” compared to fewer than 2% for Whites or Blacks, which may be related to the high proportion of Hispanic students for whom English is a second language. There are also many CLD students who may have difficulty with standard English because they grew up speaking a nonstandard form of English, such as Ebonics in urban Black neighborhoods (Baugh, 2000) or Pidgin in Hawaii (Sato, 1985). The category of students with disabilities who tend to face the most difficult challenges in mastering English are students who are deaf or have hearing impairments. These challenges are likely to be even greater for such students whose family members have limited English proficiency (Schirmer, 1994; Kuder, 2003).

Implications for Transition Personnel Regarding English Proficiency

Supporting English proficiency is likely to be a priority for some youth because a good command of English is generally essential for transition success in the United States. Transition personnel should ensure that the English language needs of all students are addressed. This may be difficult in schools that lack services and supports in this area, but transition personnel may be able to address this issue within IEPs by justifying the use of outside resources, such as hiring a tutor. If improving spoken English skills is a priority, then natural supports (peer or adult volunteer tutors or mentors) may be an option, by involving youth in real-life or simulated situations where appropriate English can be modeled and practiced (Allen, DiBona, & Chavez-Reilly, 1998). This approach may be especially helpful for youth who lack the confidence or opportunities to practice standard English in real-life settings.

Technology Access

Access to assistive technology and information technology is often critical to the academic and transition success of youth with disabilities. Assistive technology (AT) refers to equipment or systems that increase, maintain, or improve functional capabilities of people with disabilities (Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and 1998, as amended). Examples include wheelchairs, telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD), voice devices that “speak” when words are typed or keys touched, software and hardware that make computers accessible to people with sensory impairments, and accessible instructional software (on CDs or other media) (Hasselbring & Glaser, 2000). A variety of AT devices and systems help students with learning disabilities and other learning challenges access information and learning opportunities, such as spelling and grammar checkers, screen readers, writing organization software, and speech input. The Internet and other technologies can also be used to link youth with disabilities to mentors, role models, and peers with whom they would otherwise be unable to communicate, located in their own community, nationally, and even internationally (Burgstahler, 1997; Burgstahler & Cronheim, 2001).

Concerning information technology, the digital divide is an issue for many CLD students with disabilities. The digital divide refers to the great contrast between relatively high rates of computer ownership and use among higher income people compared to lower income people. Overall, computers and computer-based information and services are less available to people who are of CLD heritage, have disabilities, are of low socioeconomic status, or live in rural areas (Kaye, 2000; National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1999). Youth with more than one of these characteristics are especially likely to need support to gain the high level of computer access required for success in today’s educational settings. It has been estimated that among people with disabilities, 38% of Asian/Pacific Islanders, 27% of Whites, 19% of Hispanics, and 11% of Blacks have computers in their homes (Kaye, 2000). In addition, many CLD youth with disabilities might attend poorly funded high schools that either do not provide extensive access to and training in the use of computers or do not have access to assistive technologies (Darling-Hammond, 2001).

The digital divide also extends to Internet access; only 25% of America’s poorest households are online, compared with 80% of households earning more than $75,000 per year (Dickard, Honey, & Wilhelm, 2003). In our increasingly digital world, people without computer and Internet skills may be technologically illiterate (International ICT Literacy Panel, 2002). Without access to the Internet, CLD youth with disabilities may be isolated from potential social supports and economic opportunities (Wilhelm, Carmen, & Reynolds, 2002). Internet access is increasingly required to perform research for school assignments and participate in course activities online, and it also expands opportunities for social interaction and skills development through e-mail, online chat, and interactive games. Distance-learning courses delivered via the Internet also provide a viable option for youth whose disabilities make it difficult to travel to campus for classes (Burgstahler, 2003).

Implications for Transition Personnel Regarding Technology Access

During IEP development, the technology access issues of students with disabilities should be identified and addressed so they can progress academically and complete high school. However, AT and computer needs of youth with disabilities might change after they leave high school. Transition planning should therefore include in-depth examination of the technology-related needs that are likely to arise in different transition settings, whether at work, postsecondary education, or in community living. For example, a youth headed for college might need a motorized wheelchair in order to independently move around campus or a computer and appropriate software to be able to work efficiently in his or her dorm room. In this example, the transition team should explore options with the youth and family for obtaining items of substantial expense. For some youth this might include entering the vocational rehabilitation system or contacting organizations that support people with disabilities to access technology (see descriptions of additional Internet resources at the end of this Essential Tool). In general, transition personnel should ensure that youth and their families have the capacity and/or the support of knowledgeable individuals to meet technology access needs after high school.

Financing Postsecondary Education

Financial barriers often cause low-income youth, both with and without disabilities, to decide not to attend postsecondary education programs or to drop out of or interrupt their programs if they do attend (Choy, 2000). CLD youth with disabilities are more likely than their White peers to come from low-income backgrounds and therefore face financial barriers to postsecondary education programs. In addition, the postsecondary education options of CLD youth with disabilities from middle-class backgrounds may also be limited by financial barriers. Numerous federal, state, and private programs offer grants, loans, scholarships, tuition waivers, and work-study assistance specifically for students from low-income backgrounds, and in some cases to students with disabilities, however, youth and their families are often unaware of these opportunities and therefore fail to take advantage of them (Horn, Chen, & Chapman, 2003).

Implications for Transition Personnel Regarding Financing Postsecondary Education

It is possible for almost any youth in America to obtain a postsecondary education, although some may require substantial support to address difficult barriers. Transition personnel should make sure that youth and families know that there are usually a number of different sources of support to address financial barriers, including vocational rehabilitation programs, culturally-oriented scholarship programs, and others. Some relevant resources available on the Internet are provided at the end of this Essential Tool. This section summarizes supports that may be available through the Social Security Administration, because many families and personnel are not aware that these federal benefits can be used to finance postsecondary education.

The Social Security Administration provides Supplementary Security Income (SSI) to people with disabilities who meet income and resource eligibility criteria and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) to those unable to work because of disabilities. During 1999-2000, approximately 8% of all college students with disabilities received either SSI or SSDI funds (Berry & Jones, 2001). However, many eligible youth with disabilities do not take advantage of these programs, in part because transition personnel often lack expertise to provide information as well as guidance in dealing with complex application procedures (Johnson, 2002).

Since SSI and SSDI benefits are modest, many student recipients may need to work to afford postsecondary education. However, an area of particular concern and confusion for many recipients of SSI and SSDI is whether these benefits might be reduced or ended if they work (Brooke, 2002). A number of Social Security programs exist to encourage beneficiaries to enter the work force, including Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWE), Plan for Achieving Self-Support (PASS), Special Payments for People Who Work, Continued Medicaid Eligibility, Study Abroad Provision, Student Earned Income Provision (for students up to age 22), Blind Work Expense, and Trial Work Period Policy (TWP) (Golden & Jones, 2002; Jensen, Silverstein, & Folkemer, 2002). Unfortunately, many beneficiaries do not know about the various work incentives, which are highly underutilized as a result (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1999).

The Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act of 1999 also offers options to people with disabilities to overcome various employment barriers (Silverstein, 2002). Many SSI and SSDI recipients, for example, are eligible for services and financial support from vocational rehabilitation agencies to attend postsecondary education programs. In 1998, about 17% of vocational rehabilitation cases that were closed successfully had been supported to attend colleges or universities and about 15% to attend business or vocational/technical training institutions (Gilmore, Bose, & Hart, 2001).


The challenges reviewed in this section that commonly impact CLD youth with disabilities in transition are summarized in Table 3 along with some of the possible responses of transition personnel. While it may be possible to address these challenges on an individual basis, solutions for most of them really require action and change at the broader school or system level. Transition personnel can contribute by advocating for change and also encouraging youth and families to communicate their opinions and needs to the appropriate decision-makers.

Table 3. Challenges that Often Impact CLD Youth with Disabilities and Possible Solutions


What Transition Personnel Can Do

CLD youth with disabilities may not be well included in the social life of the school.

  • Provide individualized social skills training.
  • Link youth with peer or adult mentors to support social skill development.
  • Advocate establishment of school-wide climate of acceptance.
  • For youth with more severe disabilities, create “circles of support.”
  • Involve family and community.

CLD youth with disabilities may lack attitudes, skills, and knowledge for self-determination and self-advocacy.

  • Support youth to meaningfully participate in, and preferably lead, their IEP/ITP planning meetings.
  • Conduct training using culturally sensitive self-determination and/or self-advocacy curricula and include family and community in the training.
  • Link youth with peer or adult mentors to model attitudes and skills.

CLD youth with disabilities may be at risk for poor academic achievement or dropping out.

  • Convey high expectations to youth.
  • Link youth with mentors to encourage commitment to academic excellence.
  • Advocate for increased cultural competence of instruction.
  • Seek the input of cultural experts.
  • Advocate for disciplinary approaches that do not encourage youth to drop out.

CLD youth with disabilities may have poor English proficiency.

  • Access school or community English tutoring programs.
  • Link youth with mentors to practice English.

CLD youth with disabilities may lack access to assistive and/or information technologies.

  • Identify technology needs of youth for different transition settings.
  • Support youth/families to identify and access needed technology resources.

CLD youth with disabilities may lack financial resources for postsecondary education.

  • Support youth/families to identify and apply for sources of financial aid.
  • Support youth/families to identify and apply for Social Security Administration programs.

Table of Contents

Part I – Essential Tool Overview
Key Questions
Intended Audience
How This Essential Tool Is Organized
Ensuring Practices Presented Are Evidence-Based

Part II – CLD Youth with Disabilities in Transition
Statistical Comparisons of Ethnic/Racial Groups
Strengths to Build On for Transition Success
Challenges Commonly Faced by CLD Youth with Disabilities in Transition

Part III – Continuum of “Individualistic” and “Collectivistic” Values
Alternative Views of People as Independent or Interdependent
Contrasts Between Individualistic and Collectivistic Values
Implications for Transition Personnel: The Example of Self-Determination
Youth and Family Involvement in the Transition Planning Process

Part IV – The Culturally Sensitive Individualization of Services and Supports
Cultural Reciprocity
Person-Centered Planning


Other Resources Available on the Internet
Assistive Technology
Career Development and Employment
Cultural Competence
Dropout Prevention
Financial Supports
Limited English Proficiency
Person-Centered Planning
Positive Behavioral Supports
Postsecondary Education
Self-Determination and Self-Advocacy
Social Inclusion
Strengths-Based Assessment

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Citation: Leake, D., & Black, R. (2005). Essential tools: Cultural and linguistic diversity: Implications for transition personnel. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition.

Permission is granted to duplicate this publication in its entirety or portions thereof. Upon request, this publication will be made available in alternate formats. To request an alternate format, please contact: Institute on Community Integration Publications Office, 2025 East River Parkway, Minneapolis, MN 55414, (612) 624-4512, icipub@umn.edu.

This document was published by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET). NCSET is supported through a cooperative agreement #H326J000005 with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education Programs, and no official endorsement should be inferred. The University of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition are equal opportunity employers and educators.