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Posted by on Jan 15, 2019 in Student Paper, Student Submission |

Cultural interpretations among Asian views of disability

By Jennifer Feng

Disability identity is a multilayered and complex phenomenon.  It not only entails examining the medical facets of functioning, but it also explores historical and sociocultural roots of what makes disability unique. In modern day society, racial and cultural considerations often surround and pervade how one’s disability experience ought to be or how one’s conception of disability is defined. Being a female of Asian descent, my experiences will entail different expectations than those of a male of Caucasian descent. In this paper, I will explore the fundamental concept of intersectionality and how it affects the disability experience, specifically focusing on Asian heritage and cultural values that illuminate the disability and rehabilitation process. Furthermore, I will also examine the ways in which Asian and American perspectives on disability differ and impact the disability experience.

Intersectionality, by definition, stipulates membership in a multitude of protected categories that may or may not be vulnerable. These intersected identities come together to formulate a unique experience for the individual and individuals involved. Intersectionality also helps to highlight differences and similarities and how the involvement of one specific aspect of an identity may contribute to certain experiences. Intersectionality is also usually the contributing element that is fundamental to the minority experience. That is, disability alone may not have so much of an impact unless it is illuminated by the fact that someone is a minority. For example, an African American female with no knowledge base of the English language or culture may not experience societal expectations and routines the same way as a Caucasian male with expansive knowledge of cultural expectations (Shaw, L.R., Chan, F., & McMahon, B.T., 2012).

Disability is a concept that, when added to an individual’s identity, needs to be analyzed carefully within the wider dynamics of a person’s psychosocial background. Depending upon the racial composition, sexual orientation, and economic factors involved, one might live a life that is entirely different than expected or anticipated. For example, it has been shown that Caucasian middle-class individuals benefit from the disability experience because they are able to collect financial benefits in addition to understanding and navigating the system. On the contrary, as someone of Asian descent, I know that those who share my family’s cultural background, as well as our minority status, are subjected to not only stigmatized treatment but also disadvantages associated with linguistic needs. In addition, cultural values within the Asian race make the disability experience such as treatment-seeking behavior difficult.

In addition to the stigma involved in having a disability, there is also the question of what qualifies as a disability. What qualifies as a disability would entail a comprehensive look at the historical and cultural traditions surrounding impairment, medical necessity and other socially constructed meanings. Furthermore, disability qualifications would sometimes entail merit, as a “social” disability would not warrant the same types of assistance as a “medical” disability. According to Asian tradition, mental illnesses would not qualify as disabilities, as they are thought to be social conditions and not medical conditions.  In other words, it is seldom thought that one is impaired if there is a mental illness.  This type of tradition contains implications for how disability is defined and accommodations are made, perceived and viewed which ultimately affect success among other aspects. Because of this, it is crucial to carefully consider what is involved in determining what constitutes a disability.

Stigma, by definition, involves the assignment of negative value based upon possession of undesired and/or unfavorable health or other conditions. Stigma can often be associated with rejection, devaluation among other exclusionary agendas. Stigma, often when introduced into the wider scheme of society, involves confinement to a specific set of standards, assumptions, values, and stereotypical perspectives about someone’s identity and/or abilities, backgrounds, among other things. More often than not, this confinement to specific standards and viewpoints implies negative and/or less than normalized or favorable conditions.

When applied to the Asian American culture, stigma often connotes significant levels of perception associated with deficiencies, lack of worth, and incompetencies. This translates to issues around an individual’s capabilities, projected accomplishments, motivations, character, and whether he or she is worthy of assistance. This may also often translate to individuals being subjected to inferior treatment among their peers and be disciplined by their superiors.  Instead of viewing the individual through a lens of strength-based acknowledgement, the individual is now being viewed as someone with deficits that need to be fixed. This type of viewpoint very often contributes to a neglect of the individual in the sense that the individual is not given the chance to demonstrate their unique sense of self which quite often translates to the feeling of inferiority. This also raises the question as to how an individual is given the opportunity to demonstrate and/or prove their talents and strengths in spite of their perceived weaknesses. It also brings into question how this particular point of views aligns with the specialized regulatory laws designed to accommodate individuals with disabilities, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA provides accommodations and other special agendas that create opportunities for such individuals. Juxtaposing the ADA with the values that pervade Asian American culture, it presents certain dilemmas that would be beneficial to work through for the purpose of improving and advancing rights for individuals with disabilities (Lam, C.S., Tsang, H., Chan, F., & Corrigan, P. , 2006).

Asian Americans greatly value concepts that encourage hard work, saving face and striving for excellence. These values seem antithetical and counter-cultural to the defining features of Asian tradition, since productions and outcomes are equivalent to value and worth.  Asian values that encourage hard work, saving face and striving for excellence mainly stem from Confucian values that emphasize diligence to promote and maintain a sense of self. In light of these values in mainstream American operations, Asian Americans are taught to persevere despite challenges, obstacles, and setbacks. With this expectation, it leaves little room for mistakes or room for learning that would otherwise be perceived as “failures.” Viewing this with certain policies within American society, such as the American Disabilities Act (ADA), it is understandable why the disability culture and its associated values do not align perfectly with beliefs and traditions of Asian culture (Miles, 2000).

As previously stated and alluded to, hard work, merit and respect are intricately woven into the values within Asian culture. These values form the core identity of an Asian American and are fundamental to virtually all aspects of performance-related tasks and modes of being. It is usually perceived to be the “norm,” and anything that would cause deviations from it when it comes to performance and/or evaluative activities would be to look at the matter as extraordinary and requiring rehabilitative procedures to bring one back on track.  Rarely are deviations from the “norm” considered to be a specialized form of talent or alternative way of life or perception. This type of cultural lens contains varying implications for treatment and inclusion into mainstream society that would fundamentally value them as contributing beings of society.

Finally, a very culturally controversial topic involving disabilities is that of classifications and categorical considerations of disabilities. Given the cultural lens and framework of hard work and its direct relation to merit, many disabilities that are not considered to be medically related are most often overlooked and not considered central to the disability dialogue. This type of cultural lens presents challenges that are in direct opposition to the ADA and may conflict with the values presented within.

The challenges presented as a direct result of this type of categorical analysis of disability also has implications in disability identity development in that misunderstandings can arise. That is, if individuals are not performing according to a set standard due to their disability(ies), it may be a result of an underlying disorder which, if not diagnosed correctly, can hinder opportunities (Chou, C.C., Cardoso, E., Chan, F., Tsang, H.W., & Wu, M.Y. , 2007). This can lead to frustrations and other lack of accommodations.

To illustrate the above points, I would like to describe a case study example that demonstrates how these cultural values pervade and affect the disability experience.  Ms. M is a female in her early 50’s, having been lately diagnosed with autism. Ms. M is of Asian descent with cultural origins in East China. Ms. M’s family reports socially inadequate interactions that have been “awkward.” Ms. M’s voice volume does not always align with the environment in which she is situated. Ms. M has also had difficulty maintaining employment due to her social interactions with co-workers, customers, and bosses. Ms. M’s sister reports that the family has often been unhappy with Ms. M’s comportment style and attributed much of her employment failures to her inability to “be a better person.” Ms. M’s sister also reports that they were reluctant to seek help and treatment in hopes of obtaining accommodations because it was perceived to be “morally weak” to require assistance. Because Ms. M’s disability did not involve an impairment that was outwardly visible and was considered to be otherwise socially extraneous, Ms. M’s disability was overlooked and dismissed. Much of Ms. M’s disability was attributed to Ms. M’s inability to maintain solid and decent character and therefore she was not deserving of certain assistance or agendas, according to statements made by Ms. M’s sister. When introduced to the Supported Employment program (SEMP) sponsored by the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), Ms. M and her family were shocked that such programmatic objectives existed.  Ms. M’s family members were hesitant, at first, to accept the program because it was perceived to be denigrating to the values of hard work, merit, and respect since assistance and accommodations in this regard would mean making standards somewhat easier to achieve, thereby altering the quality and integrity of such endeavors.

Because of the discrepancy in cultural values between that of Ms. M and her family, and that of policies existent in American society such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, little was done to help ease Ms. M and her family into the disability experience. Rather, Ms. M and her family members were not only faced with the lack of accommodations, but also with the anxiety of having been stigmatized and having to face a lifetime of obstacles for which there can otherwise be accommodations. Ms. M and her family’s experience is an excellent example of the need for not only a better understanding of Asian cultural values but also of how to apply them to, and integrate them into, policies that would benefit those directly involved.

Asian values stipulating hard work, saving face, and merit present unique cultural highlights that can help bolster progress and advance achievements in addition to success. However, such values present ethical dilemmas and challenges when attempting to assist and advance rights inherently valuable and deserving of people with disabilities. In contrast to ideals implicated within policies such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Asian values emphasize a constricted view on what constitutes disability and whether certain objectives in place should be used to assist those with disabilities.  By examining and analyzing Asian cultural values associated with disability, we can begin to form a better understanding of how to assist these individuals for the purposes of empowering and advancing human rights in this area.  Future developments into this topic involve how disability policies are perceived in light of these cultural values.  Also, how do these values intersect with other minority populations? And in what capacity do they overlap so that better communication and dialogue can ensue? Plans to formulate better visionary agendas in which such values can be embedded into mainstream society are imperative so that a more inclusive dialogue can be developed. By better understanding the values surrounding Asian culture, we begin to understand how to both strengthen the disability experience while preserving traditions that might otherwise denigrate and discourage help-seeking behavior if eliminated. By helping to ease the experience, we can better transition into providing assistance where needed.  Though much progress to advance the knowledge base within disability in the Asian community has been made, much inquiry- based work into the direct practice and larger picture work exists to improve outlook involving disability and associated criteria.


Chou, C.C., Cardoso, E., Chan, F., Tsang, H.W., & Wu, M.Y. (2007). Psychometric validation of a self-efficacy and outcome expectancy scale for Chinese people with mental illness. International Journal of Rehabilitation Research. 30, 261-271.

Lam, C.S., Tsang, H., Chan, F., & Corrigan, P. (2006). Chinese and American perspective on stigma. Rehabilitation Education. 20, 269-279.

Miles (2000). Disability on a different model: Glimpses of an Asian heritage. Disability & Society, 15:4, 603-618,

Shaw, L.R., Chan, F., & McMahon, B.T. (2012). Intersectionality and disability harassment: The interactive effects of disability, race, age, and gender. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin. 55, 82-91.

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