Before We Can Have Universal Access, We Need Universal Understanding

A young teacher I know was shocked when she read her end-of-the-year evaluations. A group of students she’d thought disliked her class intensely – they never, ever looked her in the eye and wouldn’t volunteer any answers or participate in classroom discussions – all gave her top marks.

She told her mentor, “I thought they hated me!” Her mentor, who’d been working in the very diverse school system for much longer, explained that what she’d been taking as signs of animosity were actually ways people from that particular Southeast Asian country demonstrated respect and admiration. Cultural differences really matter.

Cultural understanding is important in education, and it’s absolutely critical in health care. has just published a great blog article on this topic, including the following points:

Language is more than words. Different cultures express themselves in different ways using body language, gestures, and facial expressions as well. When this intersects with mobility challenges or muscle control issues, the loss of the ability to communicate effectively can be very real and very frustrating.

We must try to anticipate and meet needs in advance. Here in New England, we know that winter happens. That’s why we sell wheelchair ramps that can stand up to heavy snow and ice without difficulty. In much the same way, knowing that people from different cultures may desire different types of support, resources and entertainment make it easier to broaden our mind and consider a wider range of possibilities when offering services.

It’s always okay to get help. You may not speak Chinese, Spanish, or Arabic – but lots of people do. Interpreter services are available. People will almost always prefer to be able to speak to you through an interpreter rather than not at all. The fact you’re willing to make the effort to ease understanding will go a long way toward building bonds.