The summer before I started college, my family and I went on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to our native land: South Korea. In many East Asian cultures, it’s seen as a rite of passage to visit the land of your ancestors before embarking on a significant journey, like starting college. This would be my first time stepping foot onto my parents’ and grandparents’ homeland, and undoubtedly my last.
I was born three years after my family emigrated from South Korea to America. In some ways my upbringing wasn’t that much different from other first-generation children of immigrant parents. But in some ways it was. I was born with cerebral palsy, a neuromuscular condition that affects my mobility and speech.
I stuck out like a sore thumb throughout my primary and secondary school years in a predominantly white suburban town in Central Jersey (yes, it exists). Not only was I the lone East Asian student in most of my classes, but also I was the only one who used a wheelchair.
Luckily, I was never outright bullied at school. At worst, my peers treated me like the elephant in the room; everyone noticed my presence but dared not to speak to or about me. Nonetheless, I always found refuge in my solid group of school friends and tried my best to ignore the rest.
Afraid that my sisters and I would lose touch with our Korean heritage, my parents forced us to attend a Korean-English church every Sunday. And that’s the place of origin for my most prominent scars. Without fail, the kids would remind me that I didn’t belong. The parents weren’t any better; they’d always talk down on me or say that I’d get “cured” of the curse of my disability if I “prayed” enough.
Given this history, perhaps I was naive to think that the residents of South Korea would be different during my high school trip. From restaurants denying me access because of my wheelchair to taxi drivers driving off on my parents and me after noticing my disability, the trip quickly turned into my worst nightmare. I spent the majority of the month-long trip cooped up in the hotel room watching K-Drama alone. Many East Asian cultures still institutionalize people with disabilities – out of sight, out of mind. Without seeing people with disabilities living their lives in mainstream society, the general public has no reason or incentive to reevaluate their views on those different than them.
As a journalist, I now spend most of my time covering the intersections of disability and the issues of race, gender, culture, politics, and sexuality. Much of my work gave personal validation to my persistent feeling as a person of color: disability has a race problem and race has a disability problem.
Think of the last time you’ve seen a character with a disability in a movie or show. Probably too few in between. Out of the paucity of those characters you were able to remember, most, if not all, of them, are probably white.
One possible explanation of why there is an underrepresentation of people of color within the disability space is that we often don’t have the privilege of even speaking about it. As people of color, our race and ethnicity are already a vast force working against us, so adding another layer of oppression can be seemingly unbearable.
This erasure of disabilities within communities of color doesn’t just stop at Hollywood. As I reported last year, the Black Lives Matter movement grossly overlooks the disabilities of Black and brown victims of police brutality. The Ruderman Family Foundation estimates that disabled people make up one third to half of all those killed by law enforcement officers. Yet, akin to many Asian cultures, disability representation – or at minimum, recognition – is nonexistent within Black and brown communities.
To correct some of these problems, journalists must approach each story with an intersectional lens. For example, there isn’t only a “race issue,” “disability issue,” or “LGBTQ+ issue” – all types of discrimination are inherently influenced by one another. The source of a particular discriminatory incident cannot be traced back to one origin; it’s much more nuanced than that. As we saw in the Atlanta spa shootings in March, the perpetrator likely had more than one motivation, be it racism, sexism, or what law enforcement called a “sex addiction.” A reporter would be doing a huge disservice to the scope of the story if they omit any layer of it.
In the same vein, journalists – and the overall media industry – must see people with disabilities outside of their disabilities. Disability is not the only identity that we have; it might be a significant part of our daily lives, but it’s merely one aspect of our personhood. Including a source with a disability in a story for the sake of being “diverse, equitable, and inclusive” does not move the needle anywhere; it’s just lip service.
Stories that aim to encompass diversity, equity and inclusion must take a holistic approach. Don’t try to paint a cohesive picture, but rather approach the story as a mosaic. Each piece of the story and the source’s identity is unique, yet an integral part of the overall artwork.
I’m not the first person to admit that the past year has been challenging, especially for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Although it gives me hope that multiple news outlets are finally reporting on the horrendous violent crimes against AAPIs, it frustrates me that disability is not included in such coverages or discussions.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 10 Asian Americans live with a disability, but that’s most definitely a gross under-reporting. Asian Americans are not likely to admit they have mental health issues because of shame and stigma, so acknowledging or documenting that they have a disability of any kind is out of the question for many. However, as perpetrators of AAPI hate crime often specifically seek out the vulnerable – eyeing them as “easy targets” – it won’t be surprising to find out that many of those victims have disabilities.
There are journalists and media activists like Wendy Lu, Alice Wong, and Tiffany Yu doing the grunt work to introduce disability into the mainstream AAPI lexicon. But it shouldn’t solely depend on the select few to carry the whole weight of a population.
Covid-19 continues to affect those with disabilities disproportionately. The AAPI community as a whole has been hurting, and their pain has finally come to light. But there is the dangerously forgotten group within the community: AAPI with disabilities. They’re brutally discriminated against within the minority group. What news cycle will it take to have their stories heard and seen?