Disability, Culture and Service Engagement among Chinese, Somali and Tamil Communities in Toronto

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Link: http://atwork.settlement.org/downloads/atwork/Disability_Cultural_Understandings_Final_Report_2004.pdf
Org: The Roeher Institute, York University
Date: 2004

This report examines the needs and experiences of Chinese, Tamil, and Somali communities in Toronto vis-à-vis intellectual disability.

Report Summary

What is New or Significant in this Report?

The report strongly suggests that mainstream service agencies need to connect with and meet the needs of ethnic minority communities, requiring new forms of dialogue and partnership, the building of mutual trust, and interactive learning of how best to explore, frame and communicate the place and value of people with intellectual disabilities and their families.

There is an opportunity, outlined in the report's recommendations, for agencies serving these communities to forge a stronger relationship with Community Living Toronto, and other mainstream disability service agencies, for the purposes of referral, community support and collaborative work.

The authors acknowledge strengths of their approach and research, but also certain limitations, mainly centred on low response rates to their surveys and inroads into some of the groups being studied. While this suggests that additional research should be done to ensure deeper access to and analysis of these communities, the authors determined that "regardless of ethnicity, individuals with disabilities and their families are likely to share the experience of exclusion" and that the "research points to the need for these communities - which have enormous strengths and capacity for inclusion and mutual support - to develop more supportive approaches to people with intellectual disabilities and their families."

Download this report in multiple languages].


The report includes:

  1. excerpts from the literature review performed for the project,
  2. discussion and analysis of surveys examining the beliefs, practices and experiences of parents of children with disabilities from ethnic minority communities,
  3. discussion and analysis of the proceedings of focus groups and interviews with individuals who either self-identified as belonging to an ethnic minority group or who provide services to members of such groups, and
  4. recommendations and 'next steps' for action.

The project addressed two major questions:

  1. How do cultural understandings about disability within one’s own community affect the life experiences of persons with disabilities, both within their communities and when accessing needed supports and services?
  2. How might the lack of understanding about cultural beliefs and attitudes about disability impede the outreach of social service workers in the provision of needed supports and services for successful settlement and the full citizenship of persons with disabilities from ethnic minority communities?

The objectives of the project were to:

  • Gain an understanding of the specific attitudes toward and beliefs about intellectual disability in Tamil, Chinese, and Somali communities;
  • Document the experiences of these communities in relation to social service agencies in the Toronto area;
  • Understand how these two factors – (1) attitudes and beliefs, and (2) interactions with service providers - affect the lives of ethno-racial people with intellectual disabilities and their families;
  • Suggest actions that will aid Community Living Toronto and other service providers to more effectively engage with ethnic minority communities in Toronto.

Many divergent beliefs about intellectual disability and mental health issues persist in the various ethnic communities that make up the population of the GTA. Persons who manifest the signs of having an intellectual disability or mental health problem are subject to a wide range of social attitudes based in an equally wide range of what Western science would call misperceptions and false beliefs.

Such beliefs include the idea that intellectual/mental issues are a punishment from or test by God; that they are the result of inhabitation by spirits; that they are caused when a pregnant woman sees or comes into contact with a person with a disability; or that they are caused by poor breeding.

These beliefs bring attention to the different ways different cultures think about intellectual disability and mental health issues. At the same time, "every society has excluded people with disabilities from full participation in every key avenue of community and societal life. Canada has an equally poor record in the treatment of people with disabilities, particularly related to institutionalization, exclusion from access to most social and recreational facilities, [and] denial of basic human rights," for example the right to marry, to have children, and to own property (The Roeher Institute, 2003, 11).

Ethno-cultural communities experience a range of needs and problems that exacerbate the exclusion of people who are often defined by their differences. These needs and problems may include lack of facility in the English and/or French languages; lack of education and training in viable professions; lack of information about social service agencies, administration styles, and supports; shortage of contacts in the new country/region/city; and - particularly for refugee populations - post-traumatic stress issues stemming from violence, separation from family, and quick exit from the country of origin.

While not all new Canadians experience these problems, it is likely that many individuals and families in need of specialized supports may face many of them. Research participants suggested a number of ways that mainstream Canadian service agencies could make inroads into their communities. These suggestions deal mainly with information provision, education, and building of trust.

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