By: Gladys Bayani Heitzman
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), developmental disabilities are defined as a group of conditions due to impairments in physical, learning, language or behavior areas including, but not limited to, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Cerebral palsy, Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning or intellectual disabilities, hearing loss, and vision impairment.
March was officially proclaimed Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, he encouraged the nation to provide individuals with developmental disabilities “the encouragement and opportunities they need to lead productive lives and to achieve their full potential.” Sadly, decades later, we still have work to do, especially when considering intersectionality and disabilities. A quote I really resonate with is from Sarah Kim, a Korean American journalist who writes on race, gender, politics and culture: “As an Asian woman with a disability, I am triply invisible[.] I am a minority within a minority—hypersexualized, stereotyped, ignored. But none of those things defines me.”
As Asian people with disabilities, we face a social double jeopardy. Sociologically, the double jeopardy hypothesis argues that the combined negative effects of occupying two stigmatized statuses are greater than occupying either status alone: model minority and disabled. Similar to other Asian ethnic groups, Filipinos hold a stigmatizing attitude about disabilities.
Bahala na = Whatever happens, happens
This Filipino value/phrase, reflective of the strong Catholicism held by Filipino people, is an optimistic expression described as determination in the face of uncertainty, or to “let go, and let God.” Though admirable, this attitude can yield positive and negative consequences for our community. Entrusting your fate in the hands of God but simultaneously refusing to take initiative and responsibility does nothing to address the larger existing issues of a situation. Of course, we cannot ignore the impact of the western world, as this type of fatalism can be argued as a direct result of psychological colonization on colonized people to the feeling of powerlessness, as they are resigned to their fate.
Bahala na may play a role in reinforcing fatalistic orientation, accepting a disability as God’s will, where a disabled child represents a divine punishment for sins or moral transgressions committed by their parents or ancestors. Additionally, children with chronic illnesses or “emotional disturbances” such as autism or epilepsy are seen as being possessed by angry or evil spirits; children with invisible disabilities such as cognitive impairments or mental illnesses are viewed as inherently weak or frail in character. As Filipinos with disabilities who are confronted with this attitude, we are made to believe that disability is a mistake and that it should be corrected or faced with bravery.
However, Bahala na becomes a positive attitude if it raises one’s courage and determination to face a problem head-on. In the face of insurmountable obstacles, use this mantra as encouragement for yourself. Instead of fatalism, it is determination and risk-taking. You are ready to face these obstacles, and will do your best to achieve your goals. Instead of seeing disability as a form of divine punishment, see it as a form of divine expression of human variety and uniqueness. For me, this is our community embracing individuals with disabilities. Not only will it enrich our community further, but also the lives of those individuals. It is incredibly difficult to accept your disability and living with a disability is never easy, but when you maintain an open and accepting attitude, and are greeted with an understanding and supportive community, your engagement and productivity not just within that community but the outside world increases.
Model minority and conformity
Like other stereotypes, the model minority myth erases the differences among Asian individuals. Many do not understand what the harm is in being lumped into a group that is seen as being successful. However, no Asian community—or community in general—is monolithic. The idea of the model minority just reinforces masking and the pressure to conform.
Asian students are expected to succeed in traditional school subjects by Asian and non-Asian members of their community. The failure to succeed in performing above or at the same level as other students is seen as either a deficiency or lack of effort.
Asian students with disabilities that grow up in families that lack awareness and understanding of intellectual and developmental disabilities are often pressured to conform and mask their symptoms or traits. In my experience, many times I was told to “try harder” or to “stop being lazy,” while I was simultaneously withheld from seeing a professional, getting medicated, or asking for any sort of specialized help. I remember how embarrassed and disrespected my parents felt one year during my middle school parent-teacher conferences, when one of my teachers made the mistake of recommending that I get tested for ADHD. They told me how disappointed and ashamed they were when they got home. No other students needed that, so to be like other students, I did not need it either. I look “normal” so nothing is wrong with me; I need to perform like “normal” now.
Shame, socioeconomics, cultural barriers, lack of understanding and misconceptions, and the model minority myth are all factors that have led to the reluctance of Asian Americans from identifying as disabled. Additionally, research often treats Asian Americans as a single group, hiding diversity of the different Asian cultures and heritages. Thus, Asian Americans are extremely underrepresented in the disability community. Based on federal surveys that use six questions to identify disabilities, the prevalence of disability among Asian Americans was found to be lower compared to all other race and ethnicity groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 10 Asian Americans have a disability, whereas, the ratio among other racial and ethnic groups are as follows: 3 in 10 for American Indian/Alaskan Native, 1 in 4 for Black Americans, 1 in 5 for White Americans, 1 in 6 for Native Hawiian/Pacific Islander, and 1 in 6 for Hispanic Americans. However, it should be noted that all of this data is self-reported—disabilities are identified based on survey participants’ responses, which may be swayed by cultural attitudes. For example, an Asian American participating in such a survey may not identify as blind despite having serious difficulty seeing, even when wearing glasses, because of how they have been taught to perceive themselves by their family or community. Moreover, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that up to 20% of public school students are served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but only 7% of Asian Americans are—the lowest of any racial and ethnic group. The lack of data, research, and understanding in this regard has a significant impact on our nation’s ability as a whole to progress with disability awareness, as Asian Americans are often overlooked, misunderstood, and oversimplified—not just from outside the community, but within it as well.
This multifaceted issue will not be resolved overnight—perhaps not even within a generation. Culture and tradition run deep in our blood. However, we can start by advocating for change at home and within our local and online communities. I know my nanay might not accept or understand my disabilities overnight; she may feel embarrassed or ashamed every time I openly refer to myself as, or post about, being disabled. Something she has always said to me when I was about to make a decision she disagreed with was, “Bahala ka sa buhay mo!”—Whatever! It's your life, do what you want! This phrase would always make me stop and rethink my next steps. But recently, I have started reclaiming this phrase by taking it literally. The beginning of the phrase, “bahala ka” means “it's up to you.” I apply this to disability awareness today: it is up to me to start spreading awareness and acceptance—starting with myself and in my community. We are responsible for our own lives and our own actions, and it is up to us to start challenging and changing attitudes in our communities and within our families.
So, when we are told, “Bahala ka sa buhay mo,” do not take it shamefully or as a passive aggressive dismissal. Do not let shame or judgment silence you and halt progress or movement for your cause. Take it as motivation and determination. Live your life. Take care of your life. Spread awareness… I will!