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Disability, stigma, and development: A Japanese case study. Misa Kayama & Wendy Haight School of Social Work University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “Disability” is a cultural concept. Conditions that impair physical and mental functioning are universal. Cultural variations:

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disability stigma and development a japanese case study

Disability, stigma, and development: A Japanese case study

Misa Kayama & Wendy Haight

School of Social Work

University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

disability is a cultural concept
“Disability” is a cultural concept
  • Conditions that impair physical and mental functioning are universal.
  • Cultural variations:
    • What conditions are to be considered “disabilities”
      • e.g., definitions of disabilities
    • How societies/people respond to such conditions
      • e.g., available services/accommodations
japanese category of developmental disabilities
Japanese category of “Developmental disabilities”
  • Caused by deficits in brain functioning
  • Not caused by environmental deprivation or mental retardation
  • Symptoms are present from early childhood
      • High functioning autism & Asperger’s syndrome
      • Specific learning disabilities
      • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD)
      • Disabilities involving language, etc.
  • Different from clinical diagnostic criteria in the U.S.
why study japan
Why study Japan?
  • Importance of Japanese cultural perspective
    • Group orientation
      • Holistic education
      • Education in peer groups
      • Minimize stigmatization of individuals with milder disabilities
    • Almost no research published in English on special education
  • New formal educational support began in 2007
    • Shift in perspectives on children who are “difficult” or “slow learners”
    • “Japanized” practices borrowed from other countries
a child with a developmental disability
A child with a developmental disability
  • Full member of a peer group, family, and community
  • Interpersonal challenges with peers
    • Ability to make friends
  • Challenges in learning certain academic skills
    • Reading
    • Writing
    • Reasoning
    • Math calculation, etc.
  • At risk of secondary disabilities
sociocultural model of disability
Sociocultural model of disability
  • Disability is “created” through the interactions of children with disabilities and others
    • Beliefs, norms, and expectations at school
    • Relationships with educators and their peers
    • Negative/positive reactions to children’s struggles
    • Meanings of “disabilities” change over time
  • Cultural beliefs are a tool to understand/describe children’s “world” at school
  • Outsider & insider perspectives
research questions
Research Questions
  • What are the socialization beliefs and practices of Japanese educators pertaining to children with developmental disabilities?
  • What are the perspectives of Japanese parents of children with developmental disabilities?
  • What are the understandings and experiences of Japanese children with developmental disabilities?
methods ethnography
  • Policy review
  • Greenleaf Elementary School
  • Case studies of 3 children with disabilities
    • Dai: 3rd grade, Yusuke: 5th grade, Kakeru: 2nd grade
  • Individual interviews
    • Children with disabilities, parents, and educators
  • Participant observations
    • General education classrooms
    • Challenge Room (special support room)
    • Rainbow Room (special education classroom)


a ttitudes beliefs about disability
Attitudes & beliefs about disability
  • Adults’ descriptions of children’s disabilities focused on the children’s social and educational functioning in peer groups rather than the neurological aspect of their disabilities.
  • “Being different” can be a source of stigma
    • “This is the society where you are called ‘stranger’ if you are a little different from others.”
dai s mother sensitivity to difference
Dai’s mother: Sensitivity to “difference”
  • Dai’s mother has accepted that Dai has a disability, but it took nearly a year until she accepted Dai’s special needs.
    • I didn’t think it was necessary to pull him out, because he’s been doing well “normally.”
    • A teacher’s observation:

It seems that she doesn’t like to talk to me on the 1st floor [hallway], I mean, she looks away, so may be she doesn’t like [other people to find] her talking with me [because they will] find out that her child is different from others

e ducators socialization practices
Educators’ socialization practices
  • Educators tried to avoid stigmatizing children
  • Support provided to children with disabilities is embedded in their social contexts
    • “Raise” other children: Acceptance and awareness
    • Involve peers in support for children with additional needs
    • Create supportive environment
    • Facilitate children’s voluntary learning
    • Help parents to accept their children’s special needs
1 st grade classroom teacher raising other children
1st grade classroom teacher: “Raising other children”
  • This teacher explained to children about their peer’s disability using a metaphor, a cup of tolerance.
    • Someone has a large cup, but there is someone who has a small cup. We can’t change the size of our cups easily. So, there is a person who wants to “tolerate” but can’t.
    • It was a child with ADHD …When the child melted down or got upset, other children said, his cup had overflowed.
dai home like environment
Dai: Home-like environment
  • Classroom teachers make an effort to create classrooms where children with disabilities are welcomed and able to participate by involving their peers.
  • Mrs. K explained to children that she wanted to make their classroom like their “home,” where children say, “Okaeri-nasai (Welcome back)”, and Dai says, “Tadaima (I’m back).”

3rd grade classroom

kakeru transition to the rainbow room
Kakeru: Transition to the Rainbow Room
  • He noticed that he had been working with “300”% of his ability/energy.
  • Special interests of bugs: Source of pride & motivation
  • A boy [entering classroom, and addressing children]: “I have a question to Kakeru. Can you teach me the name of the crab you found the other day?”
  • Kakerusaid the name immediately.

[After they left]

  • Ms. A [to Kakeru]: “You know very


yusuke the worlds of play and study
Yusuke: The worlds of play and study
  • World of play where he re-connected with peers
  • Play motivated him to cope with hardships
  • Yusuke was the first one who pretended to be a train driver. Since then, other children began to recognize the tricycle as a train.
  • When he was alone, he still was a train driver and drove around the room.

Yusuke’s “train”

yusuke s mother safe environment
Yusuke’s mother: Safe environment
  • Educators guide parents to accept their children’s disabilities and special needs.
    • I thought I didn’t have anything to talk with a psychologist about at first. They knew what to do. Mrs. S [a school nurse] told Mrs. J [a psychologist] to help me. It started like that, and then she called me and arranged that I was able to make an appointment, naturally.
    • Mrs. S and his classroom teacher [in his 4th grade], all of them made a route for me to go to see Mrs. J.

What we can learn from the

Japanese case

  • Stay close to children’s kokoro (hearts/minds)
    • Sensitivity to children’s emotional and intellectual readiness for change
  • Create a supportive social ecology
    • Use peer group membership as a tool to intervene and facilitate the development of all children
    • Guide parents to accept their children’s special needs voluntarily

Minimizing stigmatization

strengths and limitations
Strengths and limitations


  • Insider and outsider perspectives
  • Dual roles as a teaching assistant and a researcher
  • My wheelchair as a tool to initiate relationships


  • General sensitivity to differences
    • Limited variability of participants
    • Interviewing children and parents
for more information
For more information…

Japanese socialization and educational practices at elementary school

  • Kayama, M. & Haight, W. (2012). Cultural sensitivity in the delivery of disability services to children: A case study of Japanese education and socialization. Children and Youth Services Review, 34, 266-275.

Children’s experiences and perceptions of disabilities/special education

  • Kayama, M. & Haight, W. (in press). The experiences of Japanese elementary-school children living with “developmental disabilities”: Navigating peer relationships. Qualitative Social Work