AAPI Mental Health: Understanding Ableism and Disability
July is Disability Pride Month! Disability Pride Month was initially founded to commemorate the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in July 1990. Since then, Disability Pride Month has evolved into a celebration of all disabled people, with the disability community seeking to redefine and destigmatize disability. Our intern Amanda, who is neurodivergent and living with a chronic illness, explores what disability and ableism are, and what the intersection of disability and AAPI identity may look like.
What is a disability?
The term disability does not have one singular definition. However, in conversations around disability, we must center the voices of disabled people, especially disabled people who hold multiple marginalized identities.
Stacy Park Milbern, a Korean American disability rights activist, says “disability is what society creates as a barrier because of impairment. When I am in a place where my access needs are being met, then my impairment isn’t so significant.”
To fully understand Stacy’s definition, it is important to differentiate between impairments and disability, a distinction made by the social model of disability. The social model understands impairments, which are functional limitations a person might face, to be a natural part of being human and something that society should accommodate in a non-judgemental way.
This is in contrast to the medical model, which frames a person’s impairments as something that must be fixed or cured, and that their impairment alone is the reason why they are not able to fully participate in society. All human beings are complex and require unique needs, regardless of ability. Thus, we can understand impairments to be differences rather than deficits, and work with disabled people to ensure they receive the specific support and accommodations they need to thrive.
According to the CDC, 26% of adults in the U.S. have at least one disability. Not all disabilities are visible, people of all ages can be disabled, and disability can occur at birth, be sudden, or be gradual. Impairments that can result in disability include mental illness, physical impairments, significant trauma, neurodivergence, chronic illness or pain, and beyond. However, always defer to how an individual chooses to identify themselves instead of assuming disability. If a person does not identify as an individual with a disability, they may choose to use the term “able-bodied” or “non-disabled.”
Ableism is prejudice and discrimination against disabled people, and is a type of oppression that has deep roots in the structure of our society. Under ableism, society is structured to favor non-disabled people, and disabled people are considered expendable.
Abolitionist educator, organizer, and lawyer Talila A. Lewis describes ableism as “a system of assigning value to people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normalcy, productivity, desirability, intelligence, excellence, and fitness…you do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”
A society such as ours where people must have “employable skills” and work in order to have money, healthcare, and the means to get their basic needs met is inherently ableist. Those who are unable to work or do not receive necessary accommodations at their workplace are left to struggle or put themselves through undue stress in order to stay employed.
Ableism encourages society to assume disabled people do not have the capacity, autonomy, or knowledge to make decisions for themselves. This may look like removing their right to make personal decisions, such as through conservatorship, or being “so inspired” when disabled people achieve anything at all. Further, when we define individuals’ worth through subjective qualities rather than their inherent value as a human, dehumanizing language and violence toward those who do not meet a certain standard becomes more acceptable. This opens the door for harmful biases, like healthcare discrimination that dictates who is worthy of care, and dangerous laws, such as those that banned visibly disabled people from appearing in public.
While you do not have to be disabled to experience ableism, ableism most significantly impacts disabled people who have to navigate ableism in addition to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or other forms of systemic oppression. Ableism is so ingrained in our society, language and systems that it may be initially challenging to name it when it is happening.
An example of an everyday ableist interaction could be:
You have decided to listen to what your body needs and stay in bed until you feel ready to get up. Your parent barges into your room, saying, “You’re so lazy! When I was your age, I woke up at dawn every day! Why are you so tired all the time, your life is not that hard?”
Your parent assumes you staying in bed is a result of your own unwillingness to work hard, rather than attempting to understand the valid reasons you have for wanting more time in bed. You could be experiencing pain from an injury, fatigue from a chronic condition, or exhaustion from a mental illness. Maybe you can’t even explain why–you just know that rest is something you need right now. Regardless, the assumption that you are lazy or spoiled because your body needs rest is ableist.
Current census data shows that 1 in 10 Asian and 1 in 6 Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander adults in the U.S. have at least one disability. Disabled AAPI have been found to experience greater everyday discrimination, greater phsychological and physical distress, and poorer physical and mental health ratings than their non-disabled counterparts. During a pandemic and time of heightened anti-Asian racism, disabled and immunocompromised AAPI face an especially high risk of violence and discrimination.
Oversimplification of the AAPI demographics makes it difficult to pinpoint accurate representation of specific ethnic groups in research around disability. For example, research shows that Native Hawaiians are overrepresented in special education, in part due to differences in Western style schooling, Hawaiian culture, and language. However, Asians are underrepresented in special education, in part due to stereotypes or lack of utilization of services.
For many disabled Asians, navigating an ableist society may look like actively resisting the ableist model minority myth, which incorrectly assumes all Asians are successful, wealthy, and hardworking. This harmful stereotype is especially destructive for disabled Asians, many of whom are made to feel invisible or ignored within disabled or Asian spaces. Further, the model minority myth may make it more difficult for Asians to request and find needed accommodations, support, or self-identify as disabled.
While cultural factors and values, like family image, collectivism, and productivity, certainly influence the disabled AAPI experience, it is equally important to acknowledge that pressures to conform and assimilate may make it more difficult for disabled AAPI to make important life decisions or change harmful narratives around disability in AAPI homes. There may also be differences in perception of visible vs. invisible disabilities, with some families refusing to acknowledge the validity of a disability that cannot be seen. Struggles with disability may be difficult to convey because of differences in beliefs around wellness or the limitations of language and translation.
We can work to create a more equitable world for everyone. To start, asking for our needs to be met, whether or not we identify as disabled, helps normalize the reality that every human has unique support needs. Rather than forcing ourselves to fit into specific boxes, asking for help or accommodations empowers us to shape the world around us and foster an environment where it is safe to be vulnerable. When you ask for what you need, you signal to others that they deserve to have their needs met, too.
- You have inherent worth. No one can take that away from you.
- Asking for help does not make you weak, it makes you human.
- You do not have to be suffering in order to ask for what you need.
- Utilizing accommodations does not mean you are taking the “easy way out.” You are giving yourself room to breathe.
- It is understandable to be afraid to ask for what you need, especially if you’ve been repeatedly silenced or denied help. Take the time you need to gain courage.
- Buder & Perry, 2022
- CDC, 2016
- AADI Resource Guide, 2022
- Talila A. Lewis, 2022
- Greiwe, Chicago Tribune, 2016
- Mereish, 2012
- National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2020
- Hasnain et al., 2020
- Ogata et al., 2006
- Wu, Race Files, 2014
- Disability Visibility Project, 2016
- Lum, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, 2010
- Lu, HuffPost, 2021
- Yamamoto, 2010