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Understanding mental capacity
Understanding mental capacity

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1.2 Cultural issues

When assessing mental capacity, the cultural norms of the individual, their family and their community need to be taken into account. Some cultures have deeply held and culturally validated beliefs about the causes of developmental disabilities. This influences people’s expectations about autonomy for their family member and can affect their willingness to seek external help from the services available.

Activity 3 Communication and cultural issues

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Read Developmental Disability Across Cultures [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] on the Canadian Paediatrics website. This looks at cultural differences in attitudes towards developmental disabilities and ends with some practical tips for health practitioners.

Think about how your own cultural beliefs, values, and assumptions influence how you approach the subject of learning disability with someone from a different cultural background.


It would be hard to identify a cultural ‘norm’ in the UK against which other cultures can be compared. However, in some societies, people’s religious attitudes are affected by cultural as well as religious beliefs. Some cultural and ethnic groups believe that a developmental disability represents some kind of religious judgement on or personal punishment for parents. In such groups, secrecy and feelings of shame are likely to be more pronounced.

Some cultures also hold firm beliefs about the community’s collective responsibility for care and people may be less willing to use westernised or individualised services. These are based on presumptions of medial/organic causation and place a high value on rights and individual autonomy. 

These issues are complex. When working with someone with learning disabilities from a different culture, you need to be as reflective and objective as possible about your own values, pre-conceptions and cultural assumptions.

You will now look at aspects of decision making associated with learning disabilities.