Visibility for Disability
Updated: Mar 29
Written By: Gladys Bayani Heitzman
Image Courtesy of VectorMine/Shutterstock
I was diagnosed with Apraxia of Speech and Dyspraxia, also known as Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), at five years old. These neurological disorders cause individuals to experience difficulty with skilled movements even when a person has the ability and desire to do them. The “skilled movement” could be something as simple as tying your shoes, braiding your hair, using chopsticks to eat–or something more imperative, such as speech and other pillars of oral communication. With Apraxia, the brain struggles to develop plans for oral movements, impairing how an individual forms words, mimics sounds or learns languages. At nineteen, I received another formal diagnosis for a coexisting condition, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Though non-visible, these disabilities were very prevalent in my life and hardly “non-apparent” to me. Additionally, without knowledge of the specific diagnosis, my hidden disabilities often went unaccommodated.
Being Filipino American and the daughter of an immigrant played a crucial role in building my worldview, especially how I viewed the concept of having a disability. There was a constant need to prove myself, to show that I did not need medication or extra help to perform to the same standards as my peers and siblings. I also felt lonely, I was already the only Asian in my rural American class, and I did not want to be “disabled” on top of that.
I did not want to be linked to that identity and actively tried to mask or hide neurodiverse traits out of shame. Even after I started taking medication, I still found myself keeping it a secret–I would never disclose that I had a disability on job applications and when my friends would poke fun at me for something that was linked to my disability, I would just laugh it off and not explain the deeper implications.
Neurodiversity is not only something that is not celebrated in Asian communities, the topic as a conversation is discouraged and considered taboo. This is incredibly harmful to Asian Americans with disabilities as it hinders a conversation over the intersection of race and disability. The Asian community as a whole is underrepresented when it comes to the context of disability, mostly due to the stigma surrounding the pressure to conform and perform at a young age. It seems that this pressure is born from the model minority myth and places a cultural expectation on Asian Americans as a group, that each individual has to meet certain requirements and live up to the persistent stereotype. The idea of a model minority tends to hide the complexities inherent within Asian American identities, thus when you do not fit the template, you struggle to find belonging within the community.
The model minority myth and the idea of toxic positivity go hand-in-hand as we carry an “everything is fine, nothing is wrong, I am okay” attitude because we feel that there is no reason to complain when we have been told of the hardships our parents had to endure as immigrants–specifically as Filipinos. We internalize the message that we should be grateful, as we have “easier” lives than our parents. Our community needs to be more vocal and advocate for mental health and disability awareness, but we first need to accept that we do not have a monolithic identity, and prioritize the importance of understanding and validating those who struggle to fit into the template.
My disabilities played–and continue to play–an impactful role in my life, and it took a long time for me to realize that vocalizing my disability could be empowering. Moreover, minimizing and masking my neurodiversity compromised my mental health, making me more apt to higher levels of stress and depression. Neurodiverse individuals experience and interact with the world in different ways, the brain works in a different way, so nothing positive comes from pretending to be something or someone you are not.
Psychotherapy and receiving a formal diagnosis did not solve all of my problems, paradoxically, it seemed to create more problems than there already were. In hindsight, it was a starting place that helped me address my childhood trauma and find closure and understanding by facing the truth. My next step was finding peace in vocalizing my journey and claiming my neurodiversity. It was hard in the beginning, and still hard now, but the more I talked about my experience, the easier it became. I was also able to help others, serving as the person my friends would come to when they needed advice on their path to diagnosis or help working out their own troubles. I did not realize that when I was advocating for myself, I was inherently advocating for others.
Nearly 70 percent of disabilities are non-visible. Our experiences are already different as Filipinos; we need to share our experience with disability just like we share our experience of being Filipino and embrace all of the aspects of who we are, even if that means acknowledging that you are different or not okay.