Disability and cultural difference

Disability and cultural difference

A Muslim Womam reads to her two children in the library.


Disability is a socially constructed concept. People from different cultural backgrounds may have a different understanding or concept of disability from Western cultures. Here are some things to be aware of when you are offering service to someone who may be from a non-Western cultural background.

Indigenous/ethnic communities

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to Indigenous culture. There are many cultural groups, and beliefs can vary between groups. However, two broad assumptions can be made about Indigenous communities and disability.

One is that in many Indigenous cultures, there is little to no concept of disability as it is known in Western culture. Many Indigenous groups believe that the family are responsible forĀ care of a family member, regardless of ability, and may not engage with service providers who specialise in disability.

The other is, in some ethic groups, congenital disabilities may be viewed shamefully, as being caused by some wrong action of one or both parents before the person is born, or as punishment for something one or both of the parents did in a past life (as in some Australian Indigenous communities and in some African communities). Conversely, other ethnic groups may view the person with a disability as a gift from god (as in some Asian communities).

Remember, it is usually not essential to name or discuss a person’s disability in order to assist them. Asking what they want or need, and asking how they would like you to help is often sufficient and the most appropriate approach.

Asian cultures

Some people from Asian cultures may smile and agree with the person they are speaking with, even if this does not reflect their true feelings or thoughts. This is done to ‘save face’ and show respect to the person they are speaking with.

Do not assume someone agreeing with you or saying yes means they have understood what you have said, or that they really agree with you. Seek other ways of asking or giving directions to ascertain that the person has understood, such as rephrasing your question, or asking them to repeat back to you.

Middle Eastern culturesĀ 

In some traditional Middle Eastern cultures, all communication with the family is conducted via the head of the family, usually the husband/father. In a situation in which a man is escorting his wife or child who has a disability, it may be more appropriate to speak to the husband/father rather than the wife or child about their needs. This advice is counter to the general recommendation that you should speak with the individual first and family/carers second as appropriate. Visit our Carers and Families page for more information.

As always, it is best to ask the people involved what they prefer and to whom you should direct your communication.


Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet

Action on Disability Within Ethnic Communities