Student Post: Using multicultural imaging for a multi-cultured classroom

by Julia Schellenberg, OT Level II Clinical Fieldwork student

I was recently tasked with creating social stories for some of the students I work with at my fieldwork placement. As I began researching for images and characters to include, I started to notice a trend in what I was able to easily find and this trend will be the focus of my conversation here. Having been raised in the age of the Internet, I consider myself an adept researcher capable of mining effectively for most anything and everything. However, as I cruised the information superhighway, I was struck by how culturally diverse populations were missing from the available imagery. On the surface, this may seem like a non-issue, what’s the big deal? Does it really matter that a cartoon character has white skin; are we just being too sensitive? Too “politically correct”? The short answer is yes it matters, it matters a great deal.  


How we present information to our students shapes how our classrooms and environments feel and whether we choose to be responsive from the start, can make all the difference in the world for marginalized populations and students who bring experiences from outside the dominant culture. According to Campbell, “The absence of a child’s culture from the stories in print and digital media can also be problematic. When children never see their culture represented in a library storytime or in materials on the library shelves, they receive a resounding message that the librarian does not think their culture is important enough to feature in the library. This invisibility within the library’s programs and materials can equally be harmful to a child’s self-image” (p. 3). Invisibility is akin to indifference and indifference is what leads to feelings of worthlessness. It is absolutely critical that we keep this in mind when selecting and creating materials for our students because it is in this careful selection that we can help change the way we see difference and create a truly diverse understanding of culture, and as a result childrens’ sense of self.  By doing this, we aren’t being “politically correct” or overly sensitive, but rather, we are doing what ought to be done, creating a space in which every child can be included, can recognize that she matters, that what she brings to the table matters. I would like to be clear here about how this serves both marginalized populations and those who find themselves in the dominant culture. By including multiple representations of what it means to be human, we don’t erase what it means to be white, or Christian, or straight, rather we send the message that while all of those ways of being and identifying are acceptable, so is being gay, trans, Muslim, black, Asian, etc. By including diverse representation, we create possibilities for conversations about difference that can generate understanding, something we sorely need as a diverse global community. 


We must be responsive to the multitudinous cultures we serve or risk continuing to unintentionally aid and abet the reproduction of a culture that does not serve anyone very well. When we don’t seek out ways to include the rich panoply of humanity in our representations, we tacitly send the message that we accept inequality, that we are willing to overlook the uncomfortable nature of privilege for our own peace of mind. 


In a 2012 paper on this very topic, authors Ruggs and Hebl state “…integration is a necessary but insufficient condition for achieving fairness and equality for all students.” (p. 1) As we move forward it is necessary to go the extra mile to include all people in our own practice and in service delivery at large. This can be done through fighting for more diverse resources, expressing the need for representation in materials, and creating products that display diversity. 


I will end with another quote from Ruggs and Hebl, they state “Although a classroom may include diverse students, if some students perceive barriers and do not feel included, an actual atmosphere of diversity may not exist.” (p. 1) This responsibility does not fall squarely on one person, one practitioner, or one group, but that is where it can start. 



Campbell-Naidoo, J. (2015). The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children. Association for Library Service to Children.  Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/alsc/sites/ala.org.alsc/files/content ALSCwhitepaper_importance%20of%20diversity_with%20graphics_FINAL.pdf

Ruggs, E. & Hebl, M. (2012). Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Awareness for Classroom and Outreach Education. In B. Bogue & E. Cady (Eds.). Apply Research to Practice (ARP) Resources. Retrieved from http://www.engr.psu.edu/AWE/ARPResources.aspx