Family Matters

From a young age I was often told "you should feel lucky that you were born in America." I didn't really understand why my parents who were from Hong Kong, and Vietnam made such a big deal about my birthplace until I got much older. Until I experienced some of the opportunities I have had, until the day I went to Macau on a family vacation and felt like a tourist attraction with the way many of the natives gawked. "They're not used to seeing someone with a disability out with their family on vacation..." It was explained to me that typically people with medical conditions are kept in their homes, held in research institutions, or simply become societal pariahs on the street. Indeed on my first trip to China, when I was around four or five, my parents visited a hospital and they were told they could leave me there so that researchers and scientists could do experiments on me. Needless to say my parents didn't opt to do that.

Instead of talking about the multicultural perspectives on disability, what I actually wanted to talk about today was how family shapes a person's perspective on disability. Sure, a child is sent to school and is surrounded by their peers - they may even have access to media and other resources that influence their own ideas of their disabled selves; however, I think that the biggest influence on a person's identity (if not the one that is most lasting) is a person's family. I was fortunate that my mom's presence was something of a trailblazer, a go-getter, and a conscientious student. My dad always the hard worker, vigilant in his respect, and one who valued kindness towards each other. Some of these things you could attribute to their cultural backgrounds as the only child, or the eldest son from humble beginnings in Hong Kong -- together they meshed these values to begin a family and raised my two brothers and me. My mom also used to tell me how fearful she was of people with disabilities when she saw them on the streets in Vietnam, she'd walk on the other side of the street or avoid crossing paths with them altogether. To this day I'm not sure if there was ever an explanation for that, or maybe because she simply feared and felt uncomfortable around what she didn't know.

Clearly my being born in the States helped to change that perception for my family. In America I was born in a state that valued early childhood education, that encouraged all kinds of therapies and services for kids with 'special needs', and slowly over the years (until well into late elementary school, and middle school) they would become more comfortable and less afraid of pushing me to the same standards and expectations as my non-disabled brothers. But being receptive to a community that was more inclusive & embracing of children with disabilities than they were familiar with, believing in their child's potential, and being comfortable with being wrong with what they once knew -- all had a tremendously positive impact on me. I think that I was able to grow-up with a strong sense of myself (expectations of myself, how I expect to be treated, goals I set for myself, etc.), and even though conceptualizing "what it means to be disabled" was not something I thought about until my early adulthood - my family's foundation certainly gave me the ability to think about this on my own.

Although I can only imagine it, I think being surrounded by those who undermine your individuality and potential can have a greatly negative impact on a person's eventual ability to be independent. Independence isn't just something that manifests itself in the physical sense (independent mobility, or living on your own, or getting dressed on your own, etc). There is also such a thing as independence of mind and I think that's the strongest and most valuable form of independence there is, the one where other forms of independence can then draw their strength and experience from.

I feel like I am starting to ramble into one too many directions here at this point, but the take-away of this entry is to emphasize the importance of a family's influence on an individual with a disability. That's often the first impression of how disability is seen by others, how it can impact the way you conduct yourself, and eventually (I think) plays a part in how far a person goes.

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2 Responses to Family Matters

  1. Excellent post!! Growing up my family had close friends whose son was born with one leg and some other physical deformities. They treated him no differently than their other children and he participated in all the same activities, etc....they were my first examples of how to treat someone with a disability. So your parents likely shaped not only you, but so many others as well.

    1. Thanks!! I hadn't thought about the kind of "ambassador" type role my parents were also helping me to become for others who might not realize how to treat others w/disabilities. Great point!


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