Adapting to disabilities as model for other forms of culture shock

By: Dr. Jessie Voigts, The Wandering Educators

The following post contains excerpts from Dr. Voigt’s doctoral dissertation on Using Intercultural Models for Adapting to Acquired Disabilities.

Acquiring a disability is a life-changing experience, similar to a sojourn abroad or other deeply intercultural experiences. Upon entering a new culture, you’re entering a world with different values, communication styles, behaviors, beliefs, and ways of being in the world. The same can be said of a person with a newly acquired disability – all of a sudden, that individual now exists in a totally different world than previously inhabited, and is trying to adapt and make meaning of a new situation, life, culture – without many tools at her disposal.

Persons with disabilities, especially acquired disabilities, can thus be said to be intercultural beings with the ability to cope with and adapt to different cultural situations, such as the abled and dis-abled worlds. I believe that persons with disabilities already have or are learning coping strategies to solve differences and face obstacles in their environments. Persons with acquired disabilities have already shown themselves to be reflective learners and have strategic means for intercultural adjustment as a direct result of learning and adjusting to their new, disabled self. This can be thought of as being similar to the study abroad re-entry process in that you are returning to your home culture (that of the abled culture) as a changed (disabled) person.

I believe that cross-cultural adjustment models and theory can be highly useful in helping persons with acquired disabilities adjust to their new culture and selves. Having a framework to process these great sea changes in one’s life is an extraordinary tool that can change the human face of disability adjustment and rehabilitation. By thinking of adjusting to life with a disability as that of adjusting to a new culture (in which one will have stages of development and adjustment), the whole process becomes easier to mentally manage.

I have several acquired disabilities, all of which had a tremendous impact on me. When one acquires a disability, or ventures on a new cultural experience, it is human to try to make meaning of the uncertainties of that new experience (Frankl, 1963). As a person with two different types of disabilities, I was always trying to figure out HOW to live in this new, disabled world. All my intercultural knowledge was hard-won, just as intercultural knowledge is gained minute by minute in a new milieu. This new milieu of a completely changed (and to me, undependable) body was shocking to me.

For people with acquired disabilities, the traditional model for adapting to life with a disability has been Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model has helped thousands of people, but lacks the intercultural component of adjusting to a new culture, which is what I believe a person with an acquired disability needs to do.

When I first found the three major adjustment models used in intercultural education – Paige’s Intensity Factors, Kelley and Meyers’ Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory, and Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS), I was stunned that here were tools – real tools – that I could use to make sense of my disability experiences. These tools helped me validate my experiences, helped me to track my progress toward intercultural sensitivity in adjusting to my disabilities, and helped me to cope with the intercultural shock I was experiencing with my disabilities.

The Bennett Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) describes the alternative ways that individuals experience cultural difference and locates them on a developmental continuum. Difference could be thought of as difference between people, or difference between worldviews. When faced with cultural difference, one’s frames of reference and related meanings constantly require learning from one’s surroundings and companions, and adjusting accordingly. A cultural growth model, such as Bennett’s, then identifies and describes the strategies and stages of dealing with difference.

I had experienced several long-term sojourns abroad, which contributed to my understanding of the process and validity of these intercultural adjustment and development models, as well as to my ability to use that understanding to apply it to my own life. Being able to place my disability experiences in the framework of cross-cultural adjustment was an incredibly empowering and critical adjustment experience for me. I could clearly see the progress through the model, from denial of difference (clearly seen in my refusing to see myself as disabled), to defense against difference (shying away from disability culture, trying to ‘pass’ as abled), to minimization (if I have a disability, I am still the same as everyone else), then crossing into ethnorelativism – acceptance of difference (I have a disability and that is ok), to adaptation of difference (understanding both a disabled and abled world view), to finally integration of difference (in which I understood that I was both living in the abled culture as well as being disabled, and seeking out other disabled people that were able to be cultural marginals as well).

This framing can also expand how people think of culture as both interpersonal and intrapersonal, as well as impact how the newly disabled and their caregivers can think of disability as an intercultural experience.

I have long thought that acquiring a disability is the same as entering a new culture, the culture of disability. You will never be able to go back to the abled culture since you are now changed and in a new culture. Coping at any age to an acquired disability requires a mental toughness that is a learned skill. Thinking about it in terms of intercultural development can definitely facilitate understanding of your new world.

When I think about using models for intercultural adjustment for people with acquired disabilities, I am very excited. The implications of this are extraordinary. Giving people with acquired disabilities tools to adjust, interculturally, is a gift beyond price.

Dr. Voigts is publisher of the educational travel site – The Wandering Educators. An international community of traveling educators, is a resource for discovering extraordinary travel destinations, fascinating people, and global artists and photographers… and is the largest source of travel guide reviews on the internet.

Enter your name and email to get new posts by email!

“Best of the Blogs” -
“Top Study Abroad Blogs” -
“Blog of the Week” -
“Top 10 Study Abroad Blogs You Should Be Reading” - The Study Abroad Blog
"The Best Meaningful Travel Articles of 2016"
  • We use cookies to personalize content and ads, to provide social media features and to analyze our traffic. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners who may combine it with other information that you have provided. Please check out our privacy policy.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


  1. susana benenati says

    Como usuaria de silla de ruedas, educadora, arquitecta y psicologa social, me interesa profundizar en el método intercultural.
    Si pudieramos armar un trabajo social en mi pais ARGENTINA; sería muy bueno.

    • Jeramy Johnson says

      Hola Susana, gracias por tu comentario! Estamos de acuerdo en que este es un tema importante, y desde luego tratar de promover programas de acceso a nuestros estudiantes.

  2. Very good write-up. I certainly appreciate this website.
    Stick with it!


  1. […] Adapting to disabilities as indication for alternative forms of enlightenment startle … […]

Speak Your Mind



[fts_pinterest pinterest_name=apiabroad type=boards_list]


Sep 25, 2021 @ 15:47
With research and planning, you can find a study abroad program that fits your budget. We believe in being up-front with what’s included and avoiding hidden fees.

#apiabroad #ispyapi @apiabroad @shsustudyabroad
APIabroad photo
Sep 24, 2021 @ 16:40
Photo contest!
APIabroad photo
API Abroad @APIabroad
Calling all API alumni! We know you have some amazing photos from your time abroad with API and guess what?! You now have the chance to win up to $500 cash for showing them off in our 2021 API PHOTO CONTEST!

Click the link to enter!
Sep 21, 2021 @ 12:12
API will be on campuses across the country in the coming days and we would love to talk to you! Come say hi at one of the fairs listed below, and grab some free swag. You can also enter to win a $1,000 flight voucher!

Check out the fairs this week!
APIabroad photo
Sep 20, 2021 @ 17:45
Calling all API alumni! We know you have some amazing photos from your time abroad with API and guess what?! You now have the chance to win up to $500 cash for showing them off in our 2021 API PHOTO CONTEST!

Click the link to enter!
APIabroad photo
The API Abroad Blog