NOW Live from the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

Not a Unicorn: Finding Communities Within A Community

July 26, 2015 is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We are taking this opportunity to share the stories of two Asian Pacific Americans within the disability community. Alice Wong is an activist with the Disability Visibility Project.

Alice Wong

2012 event held by Asian Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California with guest speaker Tammy Duckworth. (Alice Wong)

As a disabled Asian American woman, I am not a unicorn by any stretch. And yet, there are times in my activism when I rarely see people like myself represented. So often, I’m the only Asian Pacific American (APA) in a room full of APAs talking about disability issues and ableism or the one of a few disabled APAs talking about race from the point of view of a person of color at an event for people with disabilities.

July 26, 2015 is the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA is a major civil rights law that impacts approximately 57 million people with disabilities prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal access to social participation. In the lead up to this landmark event this week, I wonder to myself, “Where are the Asian Pacific Americans with disabilities in the coverage of the history of the ADA? What is the status of Asian Pacific Americans with disabilities in 2015? What is the disabled APA experience?”

By telling our stories, we reach out to find others like ourselves. Our stories also offer alternate interpretations and understandings of the world to others. In an effort to find and amplify the stories of people with disabilities, especially disabled people of color, LGBTQIA individuals, and immigrants, I launched the Disability Visibility Project (DVP), a community partnership with StoryCorps last summer. The DVP is a grassroots campaign encouraging people with disabilities to record their oral histories in an effort to document our history and culture and to celebrate the upcoming ADA anniversary.

Tony Wong (no relation) has cerebral palsy and immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong at the age of 14. In this audio clip, he recalled his transition from being in a special education school in Hong Kong with all disabled students to life in the United States in a mainstream setting and when he began to feel more ‘American.’

Jisun Lee blogs about race, disability, Korean American culture and parenting. A mother of four children (including a son with Down syndrome), Jisun described about the lack of racial diversity in the dominant narratives about people with Down syndrome.

Talking with APAs about disability like Jisun and Tony, I have seen how, in spite of our differences, we share similarities in being marginalized in multiple aspects across social contexts. There is power in finding communities within a community. In my work as an Advisory Board member of Asians and Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California (APIDC), I provide guidance and direction on the organization’s activities and outreach to the APA disability community. A big believer in social media as a tool for social change, I recently created a closed Facebook group for APAs with disabilities, a safe space for community building, networking, discussion and sharing.

There is a lot of complexity and nuance in what means to be an ‘Asian Pacific American’ and a ‘person with a disability.’ The APA and disabled lived experiences are not the same but there are many parallels. From my observations, both APAs and people with disabilities:

  • Are considered monolithic and yet are incredibly heterogeneous (by disability, class, race, ethnicity, nationality, language, sexual identity, gender expression, etc).
  • Seen as monolithic, they need better collection of disaggregated data for a more accurate picture of what these populations look like and need.
  • Have a history of social movements influenced heavily by the civil rights and Black Power movement of African Americans resulting in solidarity and participation in each other’s political activism.
  • Have identities that are pan-Asian and cross-disability with the intention of building coalitions and political power.
  • Have similar stereotypes such as the ‘model minority’ or the ‘super crip,’ harmful constructs that obscure the challenges and struggles of others members.

The issues that face APAs should be of interest to people with disabilities and vice versa. Our struggles are intertwined—disability justice is social, racial, environmental and economic justice. APAs with disabilities can speak with unique expertise on all these matters and more.

Intersectionality is more than just a theory about oppression—I live it everyday in every single interaction. APA individuals, organizations, and institutions need embrace the diversity within, include the participation of APAs with disabilities, and confront the cultural attitudes and stigma toward disability (especially mental illness) in the APA community. Raising awareness is not enough, but it is the first step in disability acceptance.

If you enjoyed this post, check back tomorrow for a post by Jisun Lee on raising a biracial child with Down Syndrome.


Alice Wong is a Staff Research Associate at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, UCSF. Alice works on various research projects for the Community Living Policy Center and is an author of online curricula for home care providers and caregivers for Elsevier’s College of Personal Assistance and Caregiving. Currently, she is the Founder and Project Coordinator for the Disability Visibility Project, a community partnership with StoryCorps. Alice is also a Presidential appointee to the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency charged with advising the President, Congress, and other federal agencies on disability policy.

For more information about the Disability Visibility Project: Website | Facebook | Twitter

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