Building Cultural Reciprocity With Families: Case Studies in Special Education. B. Harry, M. Kalyanpur, & M. Day. Baltimore: Brookes, 1999.
My initial thoughts, when I flipped through the pages of this book, were “This is a good book to skim.” However, I found myself engrossed in every facet of the eight case studies presented in this volume. Although the research goals provide a common element, each case is unique organizationally and has varied emphases that reflect the individual context of the family and needs of the child.
The case studies reported are the outcome of a 4-year research project referred to as the Longitudinal Family Study. It was one of several studies conducted at five universities under the auspices of the Consortium for Collaborative Research on Social Relationships of Children and Youth with Diverse Abilities. A grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education supported the research of the consortium.
Extant literature suggests the attention given issues of social/cultural awareness in family and special education research is occasioned, in part, by changing demographics reflective of a more heterogeneous society and federal legislation that highlights the need for family-centered approaches in meeting the needs of persons with disabilities. The ecological emphasis reflective of family-centered approaches encourages, as far as possible, full participation of persons with special needs in the mainstream of society. The goals of the research reported in this book are consonant with these issues. According to the authors, “An explicit charge of the consortium was to support the effective inclusion of children with moderate to severe disabilities into the mainstream of the social life experienced by their peers and families” (p. xii).
The charge for effective inclusion is reflected in the specific goals and activities of the Longitudinal Family Study reported in this volume. The authors' primary purpose is to introduce special education personnel to the process of collaborative interaction with families of children who have disabilities within a cultural context (p. 6). Noting that different cultural beliefs and practices have been frequent barriers to effective interaction, the authors present the process by which they offered support to families in meeting the social development needs of their children. The idea is to build bridges between the cultures of diverse families and the culture of schools that enhance communication. They recommend that professionals initiate a two-way process of information sharing that can lead to mutual understanding and cooperation that is reciprocal in its effect. The authors refer to this two-way sharing as a “posture of cultural reciprocity” (p. 7) that includes four steps: Step 1: Identifying the cultural values that are embedded in your interpretation of a student's difficulties or in the recommendation for service… Step 2: Finding out whether the family being served recognizes and values these assumptions and, if not, how their view differs from yours… Step 3: Acknowledge and give explicit respect to any cultural differences identified, and fully explain the cultural basis of your assumptions… Step 4: Through discussion and collaboration, set about determining the most effective way of adapting your professional interpretations or recommendations to the value system of this family.
Five participants in this project, referred to as the first cohort, were recruited through an elementary and secondary school. Selection was based on teacher recommendation. The teachers were asked to recommend students who were from diverse backgrounds, with moderate to severe disabilities, who could benefit from social interventions, and whose families they believed would be interested in participating. Three preschool participants, referred to as the second cohort, were recruited through The Arc (formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens). Service coordinators recommended families of diverse backgrounds they believed would participate. The focus for the second cohort was on the family's role in gaining access to inclusive environments as their child transitioned from Part C to Part B services of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The recruitment process resulted in eight participant families who represented various ethnic/language groups. For example, the study included White families originating from China and Palestine; Black families whose countries of origin included United States, Trinidad West Indies, and St. Lucia West Indies, and families whose first language was Spanish and identified themselves as Indio Spanish and African/Indio/Spanish. There were variations in the dimensions of age (range = 2 to 17) of the target child and family structure (single adoptive mother, two-parent nuclear families, and extended families). The descriptions suggest that the families were comfortably housed and the majority owned their homes, six of the eight families were described as residing in the suburbs. The presenting disability for the participants was Down syndrome or another type of mental retardation, with the exception of one who was identified as having cerebral palsy.
An “active research” approach was used in which the researcher became directly involved with the process of socialization by providing information, resources, and activities consonant, to every extent possible, with the families' stated needs and preferences. This approach went beyond mere frequencies and incidence. It involved continuous assessment of the needs of the family and the child within a variety of social settings that included the home, school, community, and work setting. It allowed for refining and changing intervention plans as needed.
The book is organized in two sections. In the first, the authors operationalize the goals of the research in defining culture and cultural reciprocity. In the second section they present the case studies that detail the interventions as well as the process of inclusion and social interactions of the family and target child in various settings. The authors define culture as a construct that reflects a “wide range of beliefs, practices, and attitudes that make up each individual” (p. 4). These multiple influences are pictured as macroculture (national culture and values) and microculture (smaller groups and personal influences that include ethnicity, age, gender, and religion). Macro- and microcultures overlap in their influence on an individual's identity and perspectives. Building on this premise the authors provide a framework consisting of the four steps in developing a posture of reciprocity outlined earlier in this review. This framework is intended as a heuristic tool by which professional special education personnel become keenly aware of the culture of self and how it affects their interaction with families.
The case studies presented in Section II detail the unique needs, values, and perspectives of each target child and their family. Following each case study is an exercise that applies the cultural reciprocity framework with questions designed to arouse personal awareness of one's own cultural values and to serve as a guide in broadening perspectives in understanding the culture of others. The clarity with which the framework is applied to the case studies, I feel, is what sets this volume apart. The intent is to provide insight that will increase meaningful interaction and, ultimately, reciprocity. Reciprocity here, it seems, refers to a constructive partnership in which both participants are intimately involved in achieving the goal. In this sense, empowerment is implicit in the process. For example, in the case of 16-year-old Maldon, the process afforded opportunities to use existing strengths and learn new skills. The professional was not the key actor but facilitated Maldon's access to community work opportunities in which he demonstrated his capabilities. Further, detailed descriptions of the process noted the parents' increased advocacy skills with school personnel regarding his functioning in inclusive settings.
Limitations related to case study and action research apply here in issues such as the impact of the presence of the researcher on the participant (p. 203) and difficulty in articulating a process to facilitate cultural reciprocity. The content of the processes described are infinite in their variation among different children, families, and settings. However, the vivid pictures of interactions in various environments, multiple sources of evidence explicating the process of socialization with descriptions in a triangulating fashion, and the benefits of a framework to guide the understanding of the cultural reciprocity process contributes to the value of this volume. Further, the collaboration among authors who themselves vary in ethnic background and cultural experiences enhances the volumes credibility. Practitioners, advocates, and parents will benefit from the operational links of individual experiences to contemporary issues of inclusion within a real-life context.