by JULIE HA
Asian Americans with disabilities face multiple barriers to employment, including stigma within their own ethnic community and even within their own families, making them one of the most underemployed groups, according to new research released by advocates last month.
The data revealed that Asian Americans with disabilities (including physical and mental disabilities) were less likely to be employed than non-Asians with disabilities. Disabled Asian Americans who also lacked English proficiency charted the most striking labor market disparity, with only 9.2 percent of non-English-speaking Asian Americans employed—a lower rate than any other racial group. Among non-English-speakers of Mexican descent with disabilities, the U.S. employment rate was 13.5 percent. Non-English-speaking Asian American women with disabilities recorded the lowest employment rate of any comparison group, at 7 percent, according to Dr. Peter Wong, who led the research.
Wong, who recently completed his doctoral dissertation at UCLA on employment barriers of people with disabilities, noted that Asian Americans generally have among the highest employment rates (in California, for example, they actually have the highest, at 74.4 percent), but once disability is factored in, this community has the lowest employment. Among all Californians, the employment rate for disabled individuals was 42.6 percent, compared with 27.4 percent for disabled Asian Americans (which includes both English-speaking and non-English-speaking).
“There was very little academic research that would talk about why Asian American numbers would fall the way they fall,” said Wong, who is also the research director of Asians and Pacific Islanders with Disabilities of California (APIDC), which provided contacts and other resources for the study.
The nonprofit organization has no equivalent counterpart in other states and has essentially served as the nation’s leading organization in terms of advocacy for Asian Americans with disabilities. One key aspect missing to help buttress their advocacy over the years, however, has been data assessing the specific needs of this group, according to Patricia Kinaga, board chair of APIDC and an attorney specializing in employment litigation. “It is that essential data, that original research that does provide the engine to be able to substantiate the need for public policy changes, the need for future funding, the need for improved programming,” she said.
She called Wong’s research very grassroots in nature because it included interviews and focus groups, where there would be someone using sign language in Chinese and also in English. Testimonials from individuals with disabilities showed that they face employment barriers not only among mainstream institutions, which often do not offer culturally accessible services (one blind Korean immigrant told Wong that she had attended a blind school for one year, but because the instruction was only offered in English and Spanish, it was difficult for her to understand, so she stopped going), but also a strong cultural stigma within their own Asian community.
Part of the issue is that newer immigrants, often with limited-English-speaking ability, often rely on getting jobs within their ethnic enclaves. A past study found that an estimated 70 percent of recent Korean immigrants in Los Angeles got their first jobs in Koreatown, said Wong. “We found that in many respects it is harder for an Asian with a disability, particularly newly [arrived] immigrants, to find a job within the community—be it a local family-owned noodle shop or a larger establishment—because of a lot of cultural stigma and myths,” he said. “In some of our Asian cultures, people with disabilities are considered contagious.”
One 49-year-old limited-English-speaking Vietnamese man in a wheelchair told Wong that, in his community, they always “pity” people who are disabled, but they “don’t open their arms” for them. “When I go out, some people call out, ‘the cripple, the cripple,’” he said. A 35-year-old Chinese woman with cerebral palsy who was interviewed said that she has never tried to look for a job in Chinatown, let alone shop there because people “will stare at me.”
Even within the Asian American family unit, there are barriers. “Traditionally, Korean people … want to hide their disability,” one interviewee, a 27-year-old bilingual Korean American woman in a wheelchair, told Wong. “Parents of children who have a disability … are ashamed about that.”
“We’re seeing several areas of challenges. One is internally,” said Kinaga. “Many times [Asian Americans with disabilities], they’re not encouraged to go out and look for a job.”
There are some organizations like the Los Angelesbased Asian Rehabilitation Service, which serves a majority Asian American clientele and provides culturally accessible vocational training, but Kinaga noted its participants are often the exception, not the rule. Their families “saw there was value in trying to support and nurture that independence,” she said, but for many others, that family support system is not there.
Even among disabled Asian Americans who are able to find work, Wong found that they earned $29,478 less annually than those without a disability and worked 25 fewer hours per week.
Wong said he hopes to expand his research to include the views and perceptions of employers, including Asianrun businesses in ethnic enclaves. He said APIDC, based in Oakland, Calif., is also trying to take the lead in organizing a single permanent coalition for national advocacy for Asian Americans with disabilities, as well as to train disabled individuals and their family members to become leaders in this movement and help make this group more visible.
Wong acknowledged that it is a difficult time to be pushing a message of increasing employment opportunities for this group, given the challenging U.S. economy, but he also said that, for this population, “the rates are so low to begin with.” He added that studies have shown that having employees with disabilities on a workforce often boosts productivity for the entire company because co-workers see that their disabled colleagues are working hard and are thankful for their job. “They can be an asset,” he said.
This article was published in the January 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the January issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only.)