Multicultural Alliance on Disability training stresses value of cultural competence

Hispanic Family

Helping agency staff to better understand and address cultural and linguistic barriers that arise in our increasingly diverse communities was the focus of training led by staff of the VKC UCEDD Multicultural Outreach Program part of Tennessee Disability Pathfinder.

Tracy and Alex at the podium

Tracy Beard and Alexander Santana, staff of Tennessee Disability Pathfinder’s Multicultural Outreach presenting at Goodwill Industries

In early November, the staff of Tennessee Disability Pathfinder’s Multicultural Outreach Program, in partnership with the Multicultural Alliance on Disability, was proud to present to a packed room–and rapt audience via webinar—training on cultural competence and effective practices for serving diverse populations, an issue as timely now as it ever has been.

The training, housed at the beautiful new facilities of Goodwill Industries of Middle Tennessee, featured presentations from Tawara D. Goode, director of The National Center for Cultural Competence at Georgetown University, as well as local agencies like First Steps Nashville, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and Tennessee Disability Pathfinder staff.

The focus was to help agencies and individuals to better understand and address cultural and linguistic barriers that arise in our increasingly diverse communities.

Keynote Address

Goode kicked off the presentation via webcam from her office in Washington DC.  She defined in detail the five elements of cultural competence, which include:

  • Acknowledging cultural differences
  • Understanding your own culture
  • Engaging in self-assessment
  • Acquiring cultural knowledge and skills
  • Viewing behavior in a cultural context

She stressed self-assessment as the most crucial, emphasizing the importance of organizations doing self-assessments to identify which areas of their programs need tweaking.

“A primary goal of cultural competence organizational assessment is CHANGE!”  said Goode.

Goode made it clear that there may be hurdles to overcome in striving for complete understanding.  One hurdle can be getting fellow staff members to buy-in and to address disparities once they have been identified.

Having a team working towards the same goal of being more aware of differing backgrounds and values will only make an agency stronger, Goode said. This type of understanding is actually more universal than we may initially believe.

Goode said, “Cultural competence is not just for people of color but for anyone who walks through the door. We are all cultural beings across racial or ethnic backgrounds.”

Panel Discussion

The audience heard from a panel of representatives from mid-state organizations that are making strides in addressing the needs of multicultural communities.

Rosario Langlois, outreach director for First Steps Nashville ,a program that helped 581 families last year with developmental therapy and outreach services, showed the steps her staff has taken to stay culturally competent. She gave several examples of how a family’s culture might affect things like language used or daily routine, and to be observant and respectful of that when figuring out how a child could reach developmental milestones effectively. She explained the importance of being open to adaptation when working within those barriers.

Amy Corbin, exceptional early education childhood lead with Metro Nashville Public Schools, picked up developmentally where Langlois left off, showing how area schools are responding to and accommodating the influx of international students. Corbin touched on many common issues that she has faced that many may overlook. For example, many parents may not even realize what their child’s dominant language is due to exposure from different sources. It is important to come at children’s education and evaluation from all angles and to try various languages and strategies to best connect on an individual-to-individual basis.

Perspective of VKC UCEDD Multicultural Outreach Program

The training closed with a presentation by Pathfinder’s Alexander Santana, Multicultural Outreach coordinator. In the last fiscal year, 15% of Pathfinder’s cases involved immigrants and refugees from 33 nations.

Santana has created some strategies for reaching out and helping people within their community. By having staff members who speak Spanish and Arabic fluently, Pathfinder is attempting to slowly remove barriers encountered by new residents seeking services.

“Language is the main barrier,” Santana said, “but there are others such as lack of education and knowledge about disability services and how the disability system functions in their new country. Stigma may be another issue providers could encounter.”

Taking a more hands-on role with these families is crucial. One successful example is the ongoing work Santana and Cecilia Melo-Romie do weekly with The Hispanic Family Foundation to provide in-depth assistance to families in a location convenient to them. Other examples include technical assistance, translation services, and support groups.

Santana, who coordinated this event, thinks that training is important to show there is always room for improvement in the area of cultural competence.

“Different communities of immigrants have made Tennessee their home,” said Santana. “Therefore, there is a need to streamline services in a culturally competent manner to address the unique needs of these communities.  The Multicultural Alliance on Disability aims to build collaboration among disability service agencies and other community organizations in order to find strategies to meet this need.”

To learn more about Tennessee Disability Pathfinder, call (615) 322-8529 or visit

For information about the Multicultural Alliance on Disability and to view video from the presentation, visit this link or contact Multicultural Outreach Program coordinator Alexander Santana at (615) 875-5083 or

Kimberly Jones is social media outreach coordinator of Tennessee Disability Pathfinder, a program of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, with funding from the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities, the Tennessee Department of Health, and the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.


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