Communication Disorders In Culturally And Linguistically Diverse Students

Diagnosis of Communication Disorders in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

In various forums throughout this site, we have discussed the danger of incorrectly labeling a student as have a learning disability or disorder. The social stigma and removal from a regular classroom setting may be extremely detrimental to the individual child; a large number of unnecessary special education referrals can drain the education system of funding and resources. This page will discuss some of the problems with communication disorder diagnosis, focusing specifically on the overrepresentation of cultural and linguistic minorities in those labeled has having a communication disorder.

A student can be diagnosed with a communication disorder if “[his or her communication skills] deviate sufficiently from the norms and expectations of the student’s speech community” (2). This vague definition immediately brings up a variety of questions about the nature of a communication disorder diagnosis. Who determines the norms and expectations of a speech community? How much is sufficient deviation from this norm? What happens if the evaluator and the student do not share knowledge of a similar speech community?
Based on this definition, it is already apparent how culturally and linguistically diverse students may be more likely to be labeled with a communication disorder. Their modes and manners of speaking often vary from the “norm” of Standard American English (the dialect of English used by newscasters and in educational settings).

We can see potential for subjectivity or incorrect diagnosis of culturally and linguistically diverse students through every step of the referral and diagnostic process. The first indicator for referral for most learning differences and disabilities is test scores. Several studies have found that “the limitations of speech and language tests in accurately discriminating typical and impaired language speakers of [Standard American English] are widely known” (2). Some studies have gone so far as to claim that none of these tests meets acceptable standards for differentiating between normal communication skills and a communication disorder (3). These tests pose even greater risks for students who speak non-standard English or who are English Language Learners (ELLs). The tests nearly always use Standard English, which means that the test itself is not written using the “norms and expectations of the student’s speech community” against which the student should be measured when determining whether his or her communication is disordered.

Once a referral has been made and the student is evaluated, there still exists great room for subjectivity on the part of the evaluator. The evaluator is responsible for gathering a large amount of data about the student’s communication skills in a variety of settings and the information is gleaned throughout both direct observation, reports from teachers and parents, and interviews with the student.

The evaluator then must analyze the data to “determine whether any apparent difficulties are due to a true communication disorder or to something else—such as a communication difference or a lack of prior exposure. However, in this process, it is extremely important that the evaluator be familiar with the norms and expectations of the student’s speech community; in cases in which the speech community of the evaluator and the student differ, this task can be extremely difficult and incorrect diagnoses may be made.

Clearly, the diagnosis of a communication disorder can be extremely helpful for some students if it allows them access to resources, services, and accommodations they need to be successful. However, as this page and the article upon which it is based indicate, we must also be extremely careful not to inaccurately label cultural and linguistic differences as communication disorders.

Crowley, C (2003). “Diagnosing Communication Disorders in Culturally and Languistically Diverse Students. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearninghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. Pp. 1-7.

This page was created by Terra White