The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

A Comparative Study of U.S. and Japanese Educators' Beliefs about Disability and Special Education Services

Saturday, January 19, 2013
Grande Ballroom A, B, and C (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Misa Kayama, MSW, PhD, Postdoctoral Associate, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Background/Purpose: This study focuses on U.S. and Japanese educators’ beliefs about “milder” disabilities and support they provide for elementary school-aged children.  Children’s disabilities are of universal concern to educators and school social workers.  Yet, cultures vary in beliefs about “disability” and appropriate educational responses.  In many respects, children with milder disabilities, such as learning disabilities, ADHD, and Asperger’s Syndrome, appear to be typically functioning children, which causes interpretive difficulties for others.  Their struggles can be misinterpreted as laziness, disobedience or disrespect (McNulty, 2003).  Japanese public schools implemented new formal special education services for children with milder disabilities in 2007.  In contrast, U.S. children with milder disabilities have been receiving special education services since 1975, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Comparative research provides unique vantage points on the beliefs and practices of various cultural groups.  Research questions addressed by this study are: How do U.S. and Japanese educators understand children’s milder disabilities?  How do cultural and historical contexts impact the responses to children’s disabilities in the U.S. and Japan?

Methods: This study is part of a larger comparative ethnographic study informed by a developmental-cultural framework (Shweder, et al., 2006).  Fifteen Japanese educators and nineteen U.S. educators working with children with disabilities were selected purposively.  They participated in 30-40 minute, audio-recorded, semi-structured individual interviews focusing on elementary school-aged children with milder disabilities and their experiences in special education. 

All data were collected and analyzed in the original language, Japanese or English.  Interviews were transcribed verbatim.  Using analytic induction techniques (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), the meanings of participants’ experiences and beliefs were interpreted through repeated readings of the transcribed interviews and field notes by a researcher who is fluent in Japanese and English.  By contrasting U.S. and Japanese cases, universal issues and culturally unique practices in each culture were identified (Quinn, 2005).  The credibility of findings and Japanese-English translation was enhanced by member check and peer debriefing.  

Results: Minimizing stigma associated with disabilities was a common concern for U.S. and Japanese educators.  U.S. educators described a variety of programs for children and discussed the benefits of receiving services, which can minimize stigma.  U.S. educators also emphasized the importance of trusting relationships with children and their parents.  Japanese educators described parents who were concerned about other people’s “eyes.” In a culture where individuals understand “self” in relationships with others, providing individualized support can stigmatize the children as “different.”  Educators created a supportive environment in their classrooms in which children receiving special support were accepted by peers, for example, by involving peers in solving problems and building relationships with parents. 

Conclusions/Implications: Regardless of differences in systems and policies, U.S. and Japanese educators can learn from each other to strengthen their own practices.  U.S. educators can learn from Japanese practices that locate children’s problems within the relationships in which their problems arise.  The variety of programs for U.S. children can be a resource for Japanese educators in providing support that meets needs of individual children.  Further research on children’s and parents’ experiences is necessary.