Disability in Asian Culture

By Hanna Fernan ’24 and Fayza Jaleel ’24 for Fall 2020 Issue

Ever since I was a kid, the looming elephant of disability had always watched over me. When I went to parties as a child, I was invariably asked about the cause of my disability. The truth was, I didn’t and wouldn’t know what caused it until my parents told me eight years later; that didn’t stop the speculation. I have cerebral palsy, a condition caused by oxygen deprivation at birth. Nothing about it is contagious or genetic. Some thought that I was a strange child and chose to avoid me; others went the opposite route, choosing to turn me into a superhuman. Growing up disabled is strange, because the same person that tells you that you’re “inspirational” is the exact same person who avoids contact with you on the bus or in the lunchroom. I’ve always thought, “if I was so inspirational, then shouldn’t they want to sit near me instead of avoiding me like I’m a nine-horned-acne filled mongoose?” Addin being a brown skinned Muslim women who occassionally wears a hijab and you’ve got a full blown nine mile radius between you and the next person. Social distancing pre-COVID.  

Wanting to find my own identity, I joined a support group exclusively for adults with disabilities, but soon discovered censorship of topics like #BLM from an overwhelmingly white group with white moderators. Frustrated, I conducted a survey of the group discussing access to healthcare and perception of disability; 92% of respondents were white. The one Asian respondent to my survey said “I love being from where I’m from, but no one else here gets my identity as a disabled person.”  To find the root of why many Asian people choose to stay silent on disability and talk about how perceptions of disability are similar and different across Asian countries, I talked to three friends — some of whom had embraced disability more than others — about how culture and expectations around who a person should be influenced disability, as well as whether or not they regularly interacted with other disabled people. One commonality amongst all interviewees was the idea of work ethic as a central part of the Asian identity. Person A, a teenager, said that the expectations  did influence her perception of her disability negatively saying, “I wish I wasn’t disabled. My parents are very kind, but sometimes they think that I am able to do things that I’m not… that if I didn’t do something it was because I didn’t work hard enough. They also did not let me interact with disabled people as much” Person M, a college student, said that acceptance of disability was something developed over time: “I think you and I are just more woke about it [disability]… my parents were not too harsh but they also had expectations in terms of work ethic.” Person Y, a 49-year-old tutor with CP, simply said, “I like to stick to things that I am good at. I know some people with disabilities, and I tutor them too.”

As shown, having a disability is a difficult experience in accordance with those who identify as Asian. Whether in an Asian country or a Western country, people with disabilities can still face different stigmas regarding work and school. As a Filipina born in the U.S., I’ve slowly learned about the stigmas that come with disability in Asian culture through my family. My father is physically handicapped due to an accident when he was 19, affecting his ability to walk and some motor functions. However, this hasn’t hindered him from getting jobs when he immigrated to the States in the 1990’s. He has continually been independent, not letting his physical disability get in the way of his life. I remember him talking about the differences between people in the States and people in the Philippines, in terms of perception. Americans would not mind my dad limping through the airport, but when it came to the Philippines, it would become significantly more noticeable to others. Subtle differences like these call attention to the pervasive stigma surrounding disability in Asian countries, despite the gradual move towards acceptance. 

In the Philippines, the 2010 national census counted 1.57% of the 92.1 million population of Filipinos with disabilities (Cruz et al. 5). The Magna Carta still ensures that people with disabilities (PWDs) have a right to employment and access to quality education. Despite this, there have been problems of portrayal, alongside discrimination against PWDs. For example, the Philippine Daily Inquirer has published a few “insensitive” articles, which makes it more difficult for people to learn about disabilities. Additionally, this furthers the idea that superstition has a role in disability, a concept common in Filipino culture. Overall, stigmas are definitely more apparent in Asian countries, where children with disabilities are usually hidden away, due mostly to prevent shaming the family name (Jaucian). Nonetheless, even small amounts of help or understanding of a disability can help make children’s lives much easier. It is, therefore, key to move past these stigmas, no matter the context.  

When it comes to the U.S., disabled Asian Americans still face hardships when it comes to adapting to society. In conjunction with the difficulties of finding resources and treatments, “disabled immigrants in particular experience the double bind of having to prove that they’re hardworking and deserve to belong” (Lu). This highlights the strain existent in having to deal with Western values and standards of success. Nevertheless, the move towards getting rid of stigmas is evident in progressive parts of the Western World.  According to a study done by San Jose State University, Asian parents still embrace traditional Asian beliefs, such as high regard for teachers and high educational expectations for children with disabilities, but these parents simultaneously rely more on support from family, in addition to having involvement with their children’s special education programs (Nguyen and Hughes). These results highlight how current Asian perception of disability still contains traditional values, but is gradually moving forward to normalize disability and the challenges that accompany it.

In retrospect, disability remains a challenging topic to discuss in Asian culture. From inaccurate portrayals to normalizing the ignorance of disability, these problems affect Asian PWDs no matter the location. Regardless, it is important to remember that these are real people who are treated unfairly due to factors they cannot control. Hence, things need to change: specifically, the decrease in stigmas and the increase in help towards PWDs are necessary in bringing acceptance and inclusion. 

Works Cited 

Cruz, Booma, et al. “Getting it Right: Reporting on Disability in the Philippines.” The Asia Foundation, VERA Files Incorporated. 27 April 2016. Web. 20 October 2020.

Jaucian, Don. “Breaking the stigma on Filipino children with disabilities.” CNN Philippines, CNN. 03 March 2017. Web. 20 October 2020.

JL Javier. Disabled Children and Integration into Society. 2017.

Lu, Wendy. “What It’s Like Being Disabled And Asian in America.” HuffPost, The Huffington Post. 24 May 2019. Web. 20 October 2020.

Nguyen, Quyunh, and Margaret Hughes. “Perspectives of First Generation Asian American Parents towards Children with Disabilities and Their Educational Programs.” The Journal of Special Education Apprenticeship, vol. 2, no. 2, 2013, pp. 1-12. ERIC,

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