The Cross-Cultural Assessment of Disability

Summer WebbBy Summer Webb, English Instructor at the International English Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.


Cross-culturally, the acknowledgement of and support for students with disabilities varies widely. Munyi (2012) views “societal perceptions and treatments of persons with disabilities within cross-cultural settings as a kaleidoscope of varying hues that reflect tolerance, hatred, love, fear, awe, reverence, and revulsion.” The philosophical and cultural underpinnings of a society dictate the level of testing for and support of students with disabilities. An example of this difference of societal philosophy can be observed in the contrast between Scandinavian countries and the African countries of Kenya and Zimbabwe. Culturally speaking, Scandinavian countries hold a strong sense of social responsibility toward all community members including those with disabilities; in contrast, traditional Kenyan and Zimbabwean cultures hold disability as a curse affecting the entire family.

The consequence of this varied cultural perception of disability is that when language learners from other countries enter the United States to learn English, the level of acknowledgement of and support for their disabilities that they have had varies greatly. Students with unidentified disabilities often come from cultural context where disability is stigmatized. Often those with subtle disabilities have developed coping mechanisms to compensate for this lack of support, but they may still struggle whether it be physically, cognitively, or socially. For other learners, however, their learning disability is subtle enough that it does not surface until they are learning a second language, often because the learners’ coping mechanisms in their first language do not translate in the second language.

A native Spanish-speaking student with for example a reading disability may have a reading disability surface in English when there is no longer the sound-symbol correspondence found in English that there is in Spanish (Schwarz and Terril 2000).

For the adult learners who come to the United States with an unidentified learning disability to learn English, whether it is for the purposes of higher education, employment, or asylum, they face prospects that are both promising and challenging. On the one hand, the United States Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits against discrimination and offers equal opportunities for all. On the other hand, however, those with disabilities still face immense obstacles.

International students, for example, are eligible for the same disability testing and services as domestic students. However, in order for these students to receive the help needed, a few obstacles must be overcome.


Students coming from a background in which disability is heavily stigmatized must recognize that there could be the need for testing, acknowledge that need, find the appropriate resources and take the step to seek help. Unlike students entering the public school setting who are tested and provided accommodations and support, international students must seek out this help on their own initiative.

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For international students, other possible factors outside of a disability could be contributing to a student’s struggle and should be ruled out before seeking disability testing. Schwarz and Terril (2000) suggest these factors could include a student’s prior educational background that favored one type of learner over another or might lead to mismatch between a teacher’s expectations and a student’s performance. Their struggles could also be caused by personal problems such as prior trauma, familial pressures, or culture shock. A final factor could be interference from the students’ native language.


A final obstacle that international students must overcome is the issue of test bias. Assuming a student overcomes cultural stigma and decides to seek help and factors, a students’ needs and struggles then must be assessed. However, the problem is that the majority of psychological, behavioral, and mental assessments used to test for disabilities are American-normed assessments meaning the tests are culturally and linguistically biased against minority students and can lead to skewed data results (Reynolds and Suzuki, 2012).

Simply offering students an assessment directly translated into his or her language also proves problematic due to three potential types of cultural bias defined by van de Vijver and Tanzer (2004) as “construct bias, method bias, and item bias.” Construct bias refers to constructs, or content, which do not translate cross-culturally. For example, the definition of intelligence or understanding of family responsibility might differ based on cultural norms or expectations. Method bias refers to bias in the unfamiliar methods used to administer the assessments, a lack of student familiarity with assessment instrument characteristics, or the potential for miscommunication between the interviewer and interviewee. Finally, item bias refers to actual test items or questions on the assessment that do not translate cross-culturally.

Before an international student is assessed for disability or simply offered a translation of a test, potential cultural bias should be considered. Some widely-used disability assessments are offered and normed for different languages, so research should be conducted as to the best assessments available for students of a particular language background.

Before an international student is assessed for disability or simply offered a translation of a test, potential cultural bias should be considered. Some widely-used disability assessments are offered and normed for different languages, so research should be conducted as to the best assessments available for students of a particular language background.

In light of cultural stigma, testing bias, and other factors, what actually should be done to help international students struggling to succeed in an American university context who may have a suspected disability?

  1. Students should be encouraged to seek help. Advisors, professors, and counselors working with students should not attempt to diagnose a disability, but rather should kindly acknowledge the struggle of students and point them to services on campus designed to help them.
  2. When talking with struggling students, those same advisors, professors, and counselors should avoid sweeping generalizations about a disability and consider what other factors such as prior trauma, culture shock, or anxiety might be contributing to a student s’ struggle.
  3. If a student is tested for a disability, culturally normed assessments should be utilized where available and multiple forms of data should be collected to offer the best possible support for students.
  4. Instructors should be encouraged to tailor their classes to best support students of diverse learning needs by offering a highly organized and structured classroom, teaching to various learning styles, making use of visuals, assessing students through a variety of assessment methods, and following principles of universal design in their syllabus and course design (Schwarz and Terril, 2000).

Thus, the next time a student is really struggling to learn or interact or seems really disengaged, teachers should take a step back from the classroom and ask the question of what else could really be going on. Does the student have a learning disability? Or could there be something else going on which is hindering this students growth and learning?

Consider your own students or former students. Do any faces, names, or stories of struggling students come to mind? What could be at the root of their struggles and challenges?


Munyi, C.W. (2012). “Past and present perceptions toward disability: a historical perspective.” Disabilities Studies Quarterly 32(2).

Renoylds, C.R. & Suzuki, L.A. (2012). “Bias in psychological assessment.” In Weiner, I.B., Graham, J.R, & Naglieri, J (Eds.), Handbook of psychology, volume 10, assessment psychology (82-113). Hoboken, NJ:Wiley.

Schwarz, R. & Terril, L. (2000). “ESL instruction for learning disabled adults.” CAELA

Van de Vijver, F. & Tanzer, N.K. (2004). “Bias and equivalence in cross-cultural assessment: an overview.” Revue Européenne de Psychologie Appliquée. 54 (119–135). 


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