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  • Writer's pictureGuest Writer

Intersectionality and disability

Updated: Apr 14

by Sana Fatima Khan  


Individuals with disabilities from ethnic backgrounds encounter challenges in healthcare access due to a combination of environmental factors affecting both minority groups. Language barriers, unemployment rates, cultural values, and attitudes all play significant roles in this complex intersectionality (1). 

Within the expansive field of disability studies, the intricate relationship between disability and race/ethnicity introduces a complex paradigm. This intersection often remains uncharted, with the dual identity of individuals belonging to both minority groups receiving insufficient attention. In numerous research studies, individuals tend to self-identify based on societal perceptions, shaping the way disability is understood within diverse cultural contexts. The concept of disability stands at a crossroads, positioned between social and medical models. In an ideal world devoid of ableism and inaccessibility, disabled individuals would be just as capable as those  without disabilities. However, drawing from personal experience, it becomes apparent that my disability inevitably takes precedence over my ethnic minority status — a circumstance beyond my control. 


To comprehend the disability model, examining how people self-report becomes crucial. Questionnaires that probe participants about their daily life and mobility serve as key indicators of the effects of a disability. Without this subjective self-reporting, many disabilities might go unnoticed, as their acknowledgment relies solely on how individuals perceive the impact on their lives. Notably, individuals with disabilities from ethnic minorities might feel compelled to underreport their disability or decline to seek help, influenced by cultural views that consider disability a hindrance to be concealed. 

Understanding and synthesising research in disability studies poses a complex challenge given the varied perspectives within the field. Some view disabilities as a social construct, while others perceive it as a medical issue where individuals with disabilities assume an 'impaired' role that healthcare professionals may be unable to “cure”, thereby defining their entire identity (2). Research in this area is often limited, with a concentration on learning disabilities, failing to adequately represent the diverse landscape of disabilities. 


People with disabilities have historically been excluded from psychological studies, reflecting epistemic exclusion. This exclusionary practice fails to engage disabled individuals as individuals, rather as part of a heterogeneous group. Robert McRuer's "Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of  Queerness and Disability" delves into the perspective that 'compulsory able-bodiedness' is rooted in capitalist ideals, arguing that people with disabilities do not conform to societal norms. This challenges the celebration of differences versus conformity in society, emphasising the need for a more nuanced understanding of disability that encompasses the multifaceted dimensions of identity within the broader social context (3). 

In 1999, a study focused on children from ethnic minority backgrounds with disabilities unveiled a critical issue: parents faced significant challenges due to language barriers, impeding their comprehension of available support services such as respite or caregivers (5). The study underscored the stark contrast in meeting the needs of minority-ethnic children with disabilities compared to their White counterparts, revealing a noteworthy attainment gap. Although conducted in 1999, the study implies a persistent and substantial disparity in addressing the  requirements of minority-ethnic children with disabilities. A poignant example of oversight comes to light in the realm of sexual health, where there is a prevalent assumption that individuals with disabilities lead non-existent sexual lives (4). This assumption, compounded by specific racial backgrounds, gives rise to additional challenges, especially in cultures where sexual intercourse is sanctioned exclusively within the confines of marriage. This cultural context fosters a lack of awareness regarding sexual health and undermines the significance of public health initiatives, including screening.


Comprehending disability studies and understanding the relationship between race, disability, and health is an ongoing process that requires research through the lived experiences of people with disabilities and research conducted by non-disabled individuals. Particularly, research on ethnic minorities should accompany disability studies, as 8% of the UK population has disabilities and is from an ethnic minority background (6). Examining health inequalities and significant challenges is imperative for influencing policy to ensure that people with disabilities, irrespective of ethnicity, can access the same type of healthcare. This holistic approach is vital for fostering inclusivity and addressing the nuanced complexities at the intersection of disability and race. It requires a comprehensive understanding of the factors that contribute to the disparities faced by disabled individuals, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds. 


Research into disability and race should strive to capture the diverse experiences and perspectives within these communities. The lived experiences of individuals navigating the intersections of disability and ethnicity provide valuable insights that can shape policies and interventions to bridge existing gaps. Moreover, involving disabled individuals from ethnic minorities in the research process can help ensure that their voices are heard, and their unique needs are adequately addressed. 


In conclusion, the intricate relationship between disability and race introduces a multifaceted paradigm that demands careful examination and understanding. Acknowledging the intersectionality of these identities is crucial for addressing the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities from ethnic minority backgrounds. By exploring these complexities, researchers, policymakers, and society at large can work towards creating more inclusive environments that empower all individuals, regardless of their diverse identities, to access healthcare, education, and opportunities on an equal footing. 


References

1) Lindsay, S. et al. (2022) ‘Exploring the lived experiences of ethnic minority youth with  disabilities: A systematic review and meta synthesis of qualitative data’, Disability and  Rehabilitation, 45(4), pp. 588–601. doi:10.1080/09638288.2022.2040614. 


2) Brinkman, A. et al. (2022) ‘Shifting the discourse on disability: Moving to an inclusive,  intersectional focus’, Am J Orthopsychiatry [Preprint]. doi:10.31234/osf.io/drmn7.  


3) McRuer, R. (2008) Crip theory cultural signs of queerness and disability. Enskede: TPB. 


4) Accessing sexual and reproductive health-care services and reproductive rights for all  persons with disabilities (targets 3.7 and 5.6) (2019). [Preprint]. doi:10.18356/c93219ca en. 


5) Minority ethnic families caring for a severely disabled child (1999) york.ac.uk. Available  at: https://www.york.ac.uk/inst/spru/pubs/pdf/minoritysumm.pdf.


6) Complex disabilities in the UK research: Demographic breakdown (2024) Sense.  Available at: https://www.sense.org.uk/about-us/statistics/demographic breakdown/#:~:text=727%2C560-,Ethnicity,background%20(approximately%20143%2C784%20people).

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