Cultural Competence


Cultural competence involves understanding and appropriately responding to the unique combination of cultural variables and the full range of dimensions of diversity that the professional and client/patient/family bring to interactions.

"Culture and cultural diversity can incorporate a variety of factors, including but not limited to age, disability, ethnicity, gender identity (encompasses gender expression), national origin (encompasses related aspects e.g., ancestry, culture, language, dialect, citizenship, and immigration status), race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and veteran status. Linguistic diversity can accompany cultural diversity." (ASHA, 2017)

The client/patient population reflects a wide array of differences and similarities across cultural variables. Professional competence requires that audiologists and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) practice in a manner that considers each client's/patient's/family's cultural and linguistic characteristics and unique values so that the most effective assessment and intervention services can be provided (ASHA, 2004, 2006).

Developing cultural competence is a dynamic and complex process requiring ongoing self-assessment and continuous expansion of one's cultural knowledge. It evolves over time, beginning with an understanding of one's own culture, continuing through interactions with individuals from various cultures, and extending through one's own lifelong learning.

Clinical approaches—such as interview style, assessment tools, and therapeutic techniques—that are appropriate for one individual may not be appropriate for another. It is important to recognize that the unique influence of an individual's cultural and linguistic background may change over time and according to circumstance (e.g., interactions in the workplace, with authority figures, within a social context), necessitating adjustments in clinical approaches.

Cultural competence in service delivery is increasingly important to

In addition, cultural competence can contribute to a competitive edge in the marketplace and decrease the likelihood of liability/malpractice claims.

Key Issues

Roles and Responsibilities

Professional competence requires that audiologists and SLPs practice in a manner that considers the impact of cultural variables as well as language exposure and acquisition on their clients/patients and their family. ASHA-certified practitioners have met rigorous academic and professional standards, including knowledge of cultural variables and how they may influence communication. See ASHA's Scopes of Practice in Audiology and Speech Language Pathology as well as Audiology Certification Standards and Speech-Language Pathology Certification Standards. Clinicians are responsible for providing competent services, including cultural responsiveness to clients/patients/families during all clinical interaction. Responsiveness to the cultural and linguistic differences that affect identification, assessment, treatment, and management includes the following:

Clinicians also have a responsibility to advocate on behalf of consumers, families, and communities at risk for or with communication disorders and differences, swallowing, and/or balance disorders. Advocacy specific to cultural competence includes the following:

Ethical Considerations

Cultural and linguistic competence is as important to the successful provision of services as are scientific, technical, and clinical knowledge and skills. The ASHA Code of Ethics (ASHA, 2016) contains the fundamentals of ethical conduct, which are described by Principles of Ethics and by Rules of Ethics. Rules of Ethics are specific statements of minimally acceptable as well as unacceptable professional conduct. The Code of Ethics speaks directly to the need for culturally and linguistically competent services and research, specifically:

Principles of Ethics and Rules of Ethics are not intended to serve as justification for the denial of services nor as the basis for discrimination in the delivery of professional services or the conduct of research and scholarly activities. Rather, "individuals shall enhance and refine their professional competence and expertise through engagement in lifelong learning applicable to their professional activities and skills" (Principle II, Rule D). Care should not vary in quality based on factors such as ethnicity, age, or socioeconomic status. Discrimination in any professional arena and against any individual, whether subtle or overt, ultimately dishonors the professions and harms all those within the practice.

Clinicians have an obligation to seek the information and expertise required to provide culturally competent services and are asked to carefully consider the basis for determining their need to refer and/or deny services. ASHA's Office of Multicultural Affairs can provide assistance and resources in making this determination and in identifying resources to continually enhance cultural competence. The Board of Ethics' Issues in Ethics Statement: Cultural and Linguistic Competence (ASHA, 2017) is designed to provide guidance to members, applicants, and certified individuals as they make these types of professional decisions.

If you are concerned about the appropriate interpretation and application of the Code of Ethics, ASHA's Ethics staff ( can provide further information and direction.

Developing Cultural Competence

Developing cultural competence is an ongoing process. It involves self-awareness and cultural humility, and it may require audiologists and SLPs to recognize what they do not know about the languages and cultures of the individuals, families, and communities they serve. As a result, they may seek out culture-specific knowledge and experience in these areas. The culturally competent clinician has the ability to

Developing cultural competence includes

The continuum of cultural competence (Cross, Bazron, Dennis, & Isaacs, 1989) includes the following stages:

Cultural Destructiveness —in which "attitudes, policies, and practices that are destructive to cultures and consequently to the individuals within the culture" (p. 29) are exhibited.

Cultural Incapacity —in which individuals and agencies do not seek to be "culturally destructive, but lack the capacity to help . . ." (p. 30).

Cultural Blindness —in which "the system and its agencies provide services with the expressed philosophy of being unbiased . . . and function with the belief that color or culture make no difference and that all people are the same" (p. 30).

Cultural Pre-Competence —in which there is awareness and an attempt to "improve some aspect of services to a specific population" (p. 31) and clinicians are aware of perceptions, values, and other elements of their own culture and of cultures different from their own.

Cultural Competency —a stage of "acceptance and respect for difference, continuing self-assessment regarding culture, careful attention to the dynamics of difference, continuous expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, and a variety of adaptations to service models" (p. 31). At this stage, clinicians are able to effectively use their cultural knowledge during interviewing, assessment, and treatment.

Cultural Proficiency —in which agencies hold "culture in high esteem . . . and seek to add to the knowledge base of culturally competent practice by conducting research, developing new therapeutic approaches based on culture, and publishing and disseminating the results of demonstration projects" (p. 31). In this stage, clinicians champion cultural competence in practice by training others in cultural competence, recruiting personnel from diverse cultures, and conducting research that adds to the knowledge base.

Self-assessment may reveal where a clinician is along the continuum of cultural competence. See ASHA's Cultural Competence Assessment tool. Specific steps in the development of cultural competence are identified based on a clinician's location along the cultural competence continuum, the essential characteristics of the culturally competent clinician, and a reflection on individual needs. These steps are as follows:

Cultural Dimensions

Whereas human nature is inherited, culture is learned; however, individuals within all cultures vary based on differences, preferences, values, and experiences. Hofstede (2011) identifies cultural dimensions that are globally applicable and are reflected in all aspects of life, including

Hofstede (2011) identifies the following as the broadest and most encompassing dimensions of cultural variability:

See Examples of Cultural Dimensions.

Additional dimensions include the following:

Cultural dimensions occur along a continuum, and an individual may demonstrate behavior that falls anywhere along the spectrum. A wide variety of factors may influence how cultural dimensions are manifested by each individual, including

Implications of Cultural Dimensions

Cultural dimensions influence verbal and nonverbal behaviors in communicative interactions. They affect how individuals convey trust or distrust and what they interpret as friendly, unfriendly, interested, or bored behaviors. For example, friendliness is conveyed by

Failure to recognize these variations in interactions can result in crucial miscommunications.

The impact of cultural dimensions should be considered within the environment and within clinical interactions. An audiologist or SLP whose cultural beliefs are consistent with independence and active experimentation may face conflicts with families whose cultural beliefs support dependence and compliance if there is a lack of awareness of these cultural differences (Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999).

Professionals educated in U.S. schools typically value a low power distance and attempt to treat students, clients/patients, and families as equals, encouraging them to participate in the development of therapeutic goals and objectives. Persons from high power distance cultures may question the competence of a professional who attempts to include them in the development of the interventions (Hwa-Froelich & Westby, 2003). Research suggests that when clients/patients view themselves as similar to their health care providers in terms of cultural and linguistic background, the health care provider–patient relationship is strengthened. Patient-centered communication is one factor noted to affect perceived personal similarity (Street, O'Malley, Cooper, & Haidet, 2008).

Cultural Competence Versus Stereotyping

Cultural competence requires audiologists and SLPs to consider how values and norms are uniquely shaped. Even when individuals share similar cultural backgrounds, their values are shaped by their own experiences and interpretations of these experiences. Stereotyping uses preconceptions of a particular population and may result in inappropriate clinical judgments and decisions for a given client/patient and the client's/patient's family.

For example, cultural competence in dysphagia services includes the identification of the individual's personal food history and preferences. Stereotyping in dysphagia services could lead to recommendations based solely on the food preferences most often associated with the individual's cultural background.

Difference Versus Disorder

Clinical competence requires clinicians to distinguish a communication difference from a communication disorder. A clinically competent clinician will gain sufficient knowledge of a client's/patient's/family's cultural and linguistic background to avoid assuming that a communication pattern(s) constitutes a disorder when the pattern(s) may in fact be the result of cultural and linguistic variation.

When distinguishing between communication differences and communication disorders, audiologists and SLPs should engage in the following best practices:

Dynamic Assessment and Response to Intervention

Early intervening services are used to determine which children have intrinsic learning problems that cannot be attributed to lack of experience with the tasks. Response to Intervention and Dynamic Assessment are both early intervening processes that help to decrease unnecessary referral to special education for children who can benefit from modified instructional techniques. These approaches may also differentiate an underlying disability from a difference because they are highly focused on intended outcomes, individual needs, and data resulting from reliable screening measures (Hosp, n.d.).

Cultural Competence in Clinical Service Delivery

Clinically competent service providers recognize and address the cultural and linguistic variables that affect service delivery while individualizing assessment and treatment strategies. This individualization ensures that the audiologist or SLP does not overgeneralize regarding a person's cultural or linguistic background. When providing services, audiologists and SLPs consider

The National Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) Standards in Health and Health Care (Office of Minority Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.) provide a framework for all health care organizations to best serve the nation's increasingly diverse communities.

Clinical Topics Practice Portal pages include additional information regarding the impact of culture as it relates to specific clinical topics.

The Assessment Process

When conducting assessments, audiologists and SLPs consider the client's/patient's level of acculturation and assimilation within the mainstream culture. In addition, practitioners must determine how familiar and comfortable the individual is with social, interpersonal, academic, and testing practices, as familiarity with testing procedures may influence performance during the assessment process. An evaluation may have to be completed over multiple sessions if there is a need to assess a client/patient in more than one language, collaborate with an interpreter, utilize alternate assessment formats, and find and/or establish norms for a given client/patient population. See ASHA's Practice Portal pages on Bilingual Service Delivery and Collaborating With Interpreters, Transliterators, and Translators for more information.

Gathering a Case History

Case histories should include information about the individual's communication characteristics as they compare to others from the same community. Whenever possible, case histories should be collected using open-ended questions rather than asking respondents to select from options that may not be appropriate for them. Clinicians should not create assumptions about individuals or families based on general cultural, ethnic, or racial information and should use the case history process to gather specific knowledge of the views of clients/patients and their families.

Ethnographic interviewing encourages the interviewee to provide information that they feel is relevant, rather than respond to clinician-presented questions. This style of interviewing can provide insight into the client's/patient's/family's perceptions, views, desires, and expectations. Strategies for ethnographic interviewing include

Assessment Tools

Under most conditions, the use of standardized tests alone is not a comprehensive approach to determine whether an individual has a communication disorder. Test scores are invalid for a client/patient who is not reflected in the normative group for the test's standardization sample, even if the test is administered as instructed. In these cases, the tests cannot be used to determine the presence or absence of a communication disorder. However, these tests can provide valuable descriptive information about a client's/patient's abilities and limitations in the language of the test (i.e., a test given in English will assess a child's ability in English).

No test can be completely culture free. Most formal testing is unfamiliar to individuals who have not had exposure to the mainstream educational context and to the culture of testing that includes both nonverbal and verbal components. Nonverbal aspects of the testing culture include

Verbal aspects of the testing culture include

Accommodations and Modifications

An accommodation of an assessment process, for the purpose of this page, refers to an adjustment or change to the environment or mode of client/patient response in order to (a) facilitate access and interaction and (b) remove barriers to participation without changing what the test measures. A modification, for the purpose of this page, refers to a change in material, content, or acceptable response. Accommodations and modifications may be necessary to gain useful information about the client's/patient's abilities and limitations. However, some changes may invalidate the standardized score. Selected examples of accommodations and modifications include

It is important to note that there can never be one-to-one translation for test items. Languages vary across a wide range, including order of acquisition of vocabulary, morphology, and syntactic structures. Well-developed standardized tests are difficult to find for individuals who use a language other than or in addition to spoken English. See ASHA's Practice Portal page on Bilingual Service Delivery for more information.

It is the responsibility of the clinician to document all accommodations and modifications made during the assessment process in any and all reporting.

Considerations for Audiologic Assessment

Some audiologists may rely on physiological measures in an attempt to circumvent the influence of language factors on assessment outcomes. However, all components of the audiologic evaluation, including speech audiometry testing, should be completed. It is important to note that


Treatment should be initiated with an understanding of the environmental and language context of the client/patient and the client's/patient's family, and every effort should be made to minimize or remove physical, cultural, linguistic, and institutional barriers to intervention. Culturally relevant stimuli and experiences are to be included in intervention programs as appropriate. During intervention, audiologists and SLPs consider the nature of family and caregiver involvement. Selected considerations that may influence client/patient/family expectations of the clinician and therapeutic process include

Factors considered when selecting appropriate audiologic intervention include the impact of cultural influence on the


Culturally divergent views of disorder anddisability are considered when providing counseling because cultural variations affect client/patient/caregiver beliefs about the causes of a disorder as well as how the person with a disorder should be treated. Cultural views may also influence the goals of the client/patient as well as the caregiver's goals for the person with the disorder.

Each family unit has a system in which each member affects all other members (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Relationships are built and maintained through communication and may be significantly impacted by a communication disorder. When counseling individuals and families, it is important to recognize the unique relationships of a family system, including how a family member's disorder affects relationships among the members as well as the functioning of the family system.

Cultural dimensions that influence counseling include

Some cultures may have remedies or practices that mainstream professionals do not understand or embrace and that they may view as harmful. Professionals must discern whether cultural beliefs and practices are truly cultural variations or are actually harmful to the client/patient. Culturally sensitive counseling can provide information as well as alternative safe treatments (Westby, 2007).

In addition, religious or spiritual beliefs and practices may take precedence before educational or medical recommendations can be considered or accepted. If these beliefs or practices are misunderstood or unknown to professionals, they may interfere with or undermine educational and medical interventions (Fadiman, 1998; Shannon & Tatum, 2002.

State and Federal Legislation

A number of state and federal regulations have implications for the culturally competent provision of audiology and speech-language pathology services. Differences in state regulations are reflected in a number of requirements. See ASHA's State-by-State page.

Implications for practice relate, for example, to implementation of standardized procedures, access to and participation in services, language proficiency, mandated accommodations to facilitate participation by individuals with disabilities, access to federal funding, availability of interpreters, classroom inclusion, disproportionate representation by race and ethnicity of children with disabilities, reducing health care disparities, and privacy.

Federal Legislation

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA )

2006 IDEA regulations made significant steps toward addressing problems with inappropriate identification and disproportionate representations by race and ethnicity of children with disabilities. A provision was added requiring states to review ethnicity data in addition to race data to determine the presence of disproportionality. Disproportionality refers to the overrepresentation or underrepresentation of a particular demographic group in a special education program relative to the number in the overall student population (National Education Association, 2007). In the event that significant disproportionality is determined, not only will the state be required to review and revise policies, procedures, and practices, but the local education agency (LEA) will be required to reserve the maximum amount of funds under §613(f) of the statute to provide early intervening services to children in the LEA, "particularly, but not exclusively" to those in groups that were significantly overidentified. These regulations clearly define steps that states must take to address the problem of disproportionality in special education. See IDEA Part B Issue Brief: Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA)

Title II of HIPAA, known as the Administrative Simplification (AS) provisions, requires the establishment of national standards for electronic health care transactions and national identifiers for providers, health insurance plans, and employers. This act gives individuals ages 12–18 the right to privacy. The provider must have a signed disclosure from the affected person before giving out any information on provided health care to anyone else, including the patient's parents. The AS provisions also address the security and privacy of health data. So that individuals can understand their rights, materials are to be provided in a manner that is culturally and linguistically accessible.

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

FERPA (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education. FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children's education records. These rights transfer to the student when he/she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level. So that individuals can understand their rights, materials are to be provided in a manner that is culturally and linguistically accessible. See FERPA Regulations [PDF].

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in any federally funded program on the basis of race, color, or national origin. This includes any public or private facility, such as a hospital, clinic, nursing home, public school, university, or Head Start program that receives federal financial assistance, such as grants, training, use of equipment, and other assistance. According to the Office of Civil Rights, all providers who work for any agency funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are required to provide language access services to patients who do not speak English.

Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974

The Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 states, "All children enrolled in public schools are entitled to equal educational opportunity without regard to race, color, sex, or national origin."

Executive Order 13166

Executive Order 13166 requires federal agencies to examine the services they provide, identify any need for services to those with limited English proficiency (LEP), and develop and implement a system to provide those services so LEP persons can have meaningful access to them. See guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services [PDF] applicable to health care providers who receive federal funds (e.g., via Medicare, Medicaid, State Children's Health Insurance Program).

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA (2009) is intended to protect—and guarantee access to and participation in society for—persons with disabilities. The statute is specifically directed at employment, public accommodations, public services (i.e., services delivered by state and local governments), transportation, and telecommunication. To be protected by the ADA, one must have a disability, which is defined by the ADA as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; have a history or record of such an impairment; or be perceived by others as having such an impairment.

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA)

The ACA addresses the expansion of health care coverage to populations that may not have been served in the past, explicitly linking health literacy to patient protection and then offering funds/grants for programs to increase cultural competence. The ACA (2010) has specific language regarding patient–provider communication, including provisions to communicate health and health care information clearly, promote prevention, ensure equity and cultural competence, and deliver high-quality care.


ASHA Resources

Other Resources

This list of resources is not exhaustive and the inclusion of any specific resource does not imply endorsement from ASHA.


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2004). Preferred practice patterns for the profession of speech-language pathology . Available from

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2006). Preferred practice patterns for the profession of audiology . Available from

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2016). Code of ethics . Available from

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2017). Issues in ethics: Cultural and linguistic competence. Available from

Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-336, § 2, 104 Stat. 328 (1991).

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Civil Rights Act of 1964, § 6, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d et seq (1964).

Cross, T., Bazron, B., Dennis, K., & Isaacs, M. (1989). Towards a culturally competent system of care, Volume I. Washington, DC: CAASP Technical Assistance Center, Georgetown University Child Development Center.

DeJarnette, G., Rivers, K. O., & Hyter, Y. D. (2015). Ways of examining speech acts in young African American children: Considering inside-out and outside-in approaches. Topics in Language Disorders , 35 (1), 61–75.

Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, 20 U.S.C. § 1701 et seq (1974).

Exec. Order No. 13166, 3 C.F.R. (2000).

Fadiman, A. (1998). The spirit catches you and you fall down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures . New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, 20 U.S.C. § 1232g et seq (1974).

Fuller, K. (2002). Eradicating essentialism from cultural competency education. Academic Medicine, 77, 198–201.

Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-191, 110 Stat. 1938 (1996).

Hofstede, G. (2011). Dimensionalizing cultures: The Hofstede model in context. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2 (1). Retrieved from

Hosp, J. (n.d.). Response to intervention and the disproportionate representation of culturally and linguistically diverse students in special education . Retrieved from

Hwa-Froelich, D., & Westby, C. (2003). Frameworks of education: Perspectives of Southeast Asian parents and Head Start staff. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 34 , 299–319.

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 (2004).

Kalyanpur, M., & Harry, B. (1999). Culture in special education: Building reciprocal family-professional relationships . Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Kohnert, K. (2008). Language disorders in bilingual children and adults . San Diego, CA: Plural.

National Education Association. (2007). Truth in labeling: Disproportionality in special education . Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Office of Minority Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d). The national culturally and linguistically appropriate services standards in health and health care . Retrieved from

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, 42 U.S.C. § 18001 (2010).

Riquelme, L. (2013). Cultural competence for everyone: A shift in perspectives . Perspectives on Gerontology, 18 (2), 42–49.

Shannon, S. E., & Tatum, P. (2002). Spirituality and end-of-life care. Missouri Medicine , 99 (10), 571–576.

Street, R. L. Jr., O'Malley, K. J., Cooper, L. A., & Haidet, P. (2008). Understanding concordance in patient-physician relationships: Personal and ethnic dimensions of shared identity. The Annals of Family Medicine, 6 (3), 198–205. Retrieved from

Westby, C. (2007). Child maltreatment: A global issue. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 38, 140–148. Retrieved from

Westby, C., Burda, A., & Mehta, Z. (2003, April 29). Asking the right questions in the right ways: Strategies for ethnographic interviewing. The ASHA Leader . Retrieved from