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This thesis examines the issue of parent participation and cultural diversity in the Australian special education context. Previous research in the U.S. had suggested that the low participation by parents of culturally diverse backgrounds was due to cultural barriers that hindered their partnership with professionals. In reviewing and critiquing this previous research, it became clear that the key concepts of collaboration, disability and culture required reconceptualisation. The theoretical tools deployed in this reconceptualisation are drawn from sociocultural theory and ethnomethodology.
Seventeen parents of Chinese and Vietnamese backgrounds and 20 professionals were interviewed regarding the provision of special education for children attending either a special school or special education unit. Follow-up interviews were carried out to probe specific issues related to the salience of culture in parent-professional communication, their understanding of disability, and barriers to parent participation. In addition, the communication books that were passed between parents and professionals on a regular basis were obtained for 7 of the children. These books provide a unique insight into the way parents and professionals accomplished the category of Child-with-a-disability during their entries regarding the mundane practicalities of school and home.
In suspending judgment about parent-professional collaboration, this thesis adopts the multiple foci of sociocultural analysis to gain a critical understanding of parent-professional relationships through time and across personal, interpersonal, community and institutional settings. Within this framework, this thesis found that parents and professionals prefer and enact a 'communicating' type of parent participation. Their preferences seemed to depend on a range of circumstances such as their work commitments, financial resources, language resources and changing educational goals for the child. The approach taken in the thesis also affords the specification of diverse models of collaboration
(e.g. obliging/directing, influencing/complying, respectful distancing, coordinating, collaborating), each of which may be regarded as worthwhile and acceptable in specific local circumstances. This study found that overall the parent-professional relationship was a trust-given one in which participants unproblematically regarded the professionals as experts. The professionals' reports revealed them to be doing accounting work - creating a moral view of the good parent and good professional.
The emphasis on context in both sociocultural and ethnomethodological approaches reframes parental and professional discourse about disability as being context-driven. In employing Membership Categorisation Analysis (MCA) to examine parents' and professionals' descriptions of the child in the communication book and the research interviews, positive as well as negative attributes of the child were obtained. Interpreting the findings in terms of the context of home and school reveals how negative attributes of the child became foregrounded. For example, the orientation to the child as lacking capacity to remember was an outcome of parents and professionals orienting to their (institutional) roles and responsibilities to manage the practicalities of school. The comparison of views reveals strong agreement between the parents and professionals about the child. Interpreting the data based on the task-at-hand of particular data collection settings provides one explanation. For instance, the communication book is a site where parents and professionals align with each other to co-construct a version of the child.
Culture is not treated as a static set of traits and behavioural norms that accounts for the communication difficulties between Western-trained professionals and culturally-diverse parents. Rather, culture is theorised in this thesis as an evolving set of semiotic resources and repertoires of practice that participants draw upon and enact in their everyday activities. Using MCA, the ways in which participants deployed cultural categories, the social ends achieved by such deployment, and the attributes they assigned to these cultural categories, are documented. This approach takes cultural difference to be a resource that people use to account for conflicts, rather than as a determining cause of conflict. The documentation of how participants legitimised their explanations to add credibility to their accounts captures their moment-by-moment cultural categorisation work. In comparison to prior research, the significance of this approach is that it looks seriously at the parents' and professionals' mundane and enacted notions of collaboration and participation, the child with a disability, and culture.
This thesis has interwoven several data sources and applied complementary analytics in order to reveal and understand some of the everyday complexity of cross-cultural parent professional interaction in the special education context. There is reason to look carefully at the daily achievements of the participants for it is where the intricacies of a phenomenon lie
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