When Mohita Abbaraju told their parents that they were trying to apply for disability accommodations at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Abbaraju’s father called it “the easy way out.”
Abbaraju, a college junior, was born into an immigrant Indian family and lives with depression, anxiety and chronic pain. Even though their parents provide financial support and help with finding doctors and scheduling appointments, Abbaraju said there’s an expectation to meet certain standards — that is, get good grades, graduate in four years and find a stable job — at the same pace and level of rigor as their non-disabled peers.
“I think a lot of the stigma comes from trying to prove that you belong in the country,” Abbaraju said. “It’s like in every environment, you’re having to work extra hard to fit in.”
While there is no singular narrative to being American, the pressure to conform to Western values, lifestyles and standards of success is especially hard on disabled Asian American families. About 1.4 million Asians and Pacific Islanders in America identify as being disabled, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A persisting model minority myth, family honor and the fear of being a burden all help feed the societal message that Asian immigrants need to acculturate as fast as possible.
While people with disabilities already experience internalized pressure to find cures and treatments, disabled immigrants in particular experience the double bind of having to prove that they’re hardworking and deserve to belong, according to Mia Ives-Rublee, 34, a Korean transracial adoptee and wheelchair user based in Washington, D.C. Much of these societal standards are rooted in America’s racist history, stemming from anti-immigration policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
“We need to make sure our community survives and thrives wherever we’re at, and part of that means putting our heads down and not complaining and working hard and being that American success story,” said Ives-Rublee, a disability activist.
But the perceived need to assimilate can be a massive hurdle, since cultural-specific disability stigma breeds distrust in immigrants who feel like they aren’t welcomed. Western doctors, for example, may belittle the medicine that immigrants use from their home countries to treat a wound or sickness.
Additionally, a collectivist mentality — in which the family unit is considered to be central to Asian identities — means that family dynamics are even more complicated when relatives are disabled.
“I have an aunt who has cerebral palsy. There’s this mentality of living in joint families. People sort of band together and do what needs to be done,” Abbaraju said. “I think it’s really great that people want to take care of each other, but on the other hand, I think she’s infantalized a lot.”
Perceptions of disability also vary widely. While physical, visible disabilities are usually treated with pity and seen as a weakness, invisible disabilities often lead to skepticism or doubt about whether the disability is really an excuse for not working hard enough. All of these misconceptions are exacerbated by inaccurate portrayals of disability in the media.
“I specifically remember my parents being like, ‘This mental illness stuff is like a white people thing. You only see it on American TV,’” Abbaraju said. “I think for Asian women, it’s especially hard because I feel like they’re not given the support for their disability or they’re expected to work through them or just kind of keep them hidden and take care of everybody else.”
Traumatic lived experiences can also contribute heavily to disability stigma within Asian immigrant families.
In November 1997, when Tiffany Yu was about 9 years old, she lost her father in the same car accident where she acquired her disability, a brachial plexus injury. After the accident, her mother faced the double stigma of being a widow as well as having a disabled daughter — a consequence of cross-cultural patriarchy that not only comes at the expense of Asian women, but also younger generations. (Similarly, disabled Asian men must grapple with stereotypical expectations of masculinity like being the primary breadwinner and head of the household.)
“As many of us do, I just grew up with the thinking that my goal in life was to figure out how to be fixed,” said Yu, now 31, a Taiwanese American who lives in San Francisco.
After working as a banker for many years, she decided to become a full-time entrepreneur and launch Diversability, an organization dedicated to rebranding disability through community — not nearly as prestigious a path as finance, at least to her mother.
“My mom calls what I do ‘monkey business,’” Yu said. Her disability advocacy work isn’t considered to be as prestigious as her previous career in finance, she said, in large part because of the stigma around disability and lingering pain of the car accident from decades prior.
At the same time, Yu recognizes that intergenerational trauma has played a significant role in creating emotional distance within her family. Her mother, a refugee of the Vietnam War, immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s, supported herself through graduate school and raised four kids on her own for 20 years.
“I think embedded within her immigrant story are a lot of ideals of what the American dream would look like for her and her kids,” Yu said.
As many of us do, I just grew up with the thinking that my goal in life was to figure out how to be fixed.
For many immigrant families in the U.S., older and younger generations are often brought up to view disability differently.
“I have some sympathy for my family because I recognize that they’re both from relatively small towns in Pakistan, so the narratives around disability are different,” said Noor Pervez, 23, a Washington, D.C., resident who is South Asian and Muslim. He has fibromyalgia and autism. To his parents, being disabled in Pakistan — or anywhere, for that matter — means being ostracized in society and having less access to health care, transportation, resources and human rights in general.
“It’s very difficult to convince them that it really is possible to live a full and vibrant life with a disability because of the narratives they grew up with,” he said.
And for multiply marginalized Asian Americans, disability is just one part of a complex identity that intersects with race, gender, sexuality and many others.
Growing up, Travis Chi Wing Lau didn’t have the vocabulary to describe disability other than what society had taught him — that it was a mark of suffering he needed to overcome in order to excel in school and in life. It wasn’t until he moved to West Hollywood for college in 2008, after he had come out as gay, that he began to understand his experiences as a gay disabled Chinese American man.
Lau soon found a community among other gay Asian men in the city, but he often felt the need to keep up with his friends when they went out at night. Lau has chronic pain, brain fog and scoliosis that drastically affects his ability to move and breathe.
“I ignored my pain. I pushed my body to consume more alcohol than I should have. I forced myself to stay out when my body needed to rest, and that just felt like ― that was the cost of social belonging,” said Lau, a postdoctoral fellow specializing in British literature, the history of medicine and disability studies at the University of Texas Austin. “It felt like I would have to give up that sort of pleasure being with queer friends or partners who may or may not know how to deal with disability.”
Lau said he is looking forward to the day when disability is seen as part of what makes the Asian American experience valuable — and when disability rights aren’t viewed as a radical notion. Having those difficult, uncomfortable conversations with friends, family and community members is an essential first step to unlearning those patterns of disability stigma.
“I think there’s something really powerful when something that’s been marginalized be ordinary,” Lau said. “I want to forge family relations that normalize and make it as typical as any other experience.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the number of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. who identify as disabled.