By Bridget Hogue
In the United States, 1 in 4 adults have some form of disability (CDC, 2020). Of these individuals, 1 in 3 do not have a regular healthcare provider, another 1 in 3 have an unmet healthcare need because of cost, and 1 in 4 did not have a routine check-up in the past year (CDC, 2020). Disabilities affect a wide range of functionality. They can be chronic or short term, apparent or invisible. Adults with disabilities in the U.S. are more likely to have obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and consistent smoking habits (CDC, 2020). When considering racial and ethnic demographics, 8.9% of Hispanic/Latinos, 10.4% of Whites, 13.3% of African Americans, 4.3% of Asians, and 17.0% of Native Americans have a disability (Cornell University, 2018). Because healthcare and insurance are already difficult to access in the U.S., having a disability and coming from a low-income demographic has dire implications for health and livelihood. Hispanic/Latino men and women currently have lowest average income when compared to other races in the U.S. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). What are the implications of adding disability to someone’s Latinx identity in the U.S.? Exploring the intersection of race or ethnicity and disability is important for understanding identity and belonging across multiple communities.
Multiple programs and services are currently operating to advocate and provide resources for Latinx individuals with disabilities. In 2016, Latinx leaders with disabilities from across the U.S. came together to create the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities (CNLD). The members of the coalition find unity through their common “intersectional identity” and “imagine a society” in which Latinx individuals with disabilities have equal rights and feel protected and celebrated for their identity (CNLD, n.d.). Their work consists of advocacy, conferencing, committees, and conducting research to help other Latinx individuals with disabilities (CNLD, n.d.). Other organizations focus on specific disabilities, such as the Deaf Latinos y Familias Organization, founded in 2010 by Irma Sánchez. Deaf Latinos y Familias emphasize family support and involvement in the process of creating more awareness around Deaf culture and education (Deaf Latinos y Familias Organization, n.d.). The organization also discusses different Latinx cultures with children in DeafEd and Deaf adults, bringing more awareness to their ethnic origins and identities. By providing strategies for incorporating Deaf culture and ASL into the family and homelife, the organization helps preserve the Deaf identity through daily routine (Deaf Latinos y Familias Organization, n.d.). These organizations are two examples of groups that investigate the intersection of being Latinx and disabled in the U.S., and its implications for self-image, experience, and access to resources.
Advocacy for Latinx people with disabilities could not be possible without effort from the individual level. One volunteer from the CNLD, Maria (Conchita) Hernandez, has impacted the lives of many through her activism for the rights of blind children, especially in public schooling. As a legally blind, Mexican American woman who grew up in California, Conchita earned multiple degrees focusing on International Studies, Spanish, teaching with a focus on blind students, and a certificate working with Deaf-Blind students (CNLD, n.d.). She has reviewed research for special education and worked as the Director of the National Federation of the Blind BELL Academy in Washington, D.C. for five years (CNLD, n.d.). During a webinar hosted by the Disability & Philanthropy Forum earlier this year, Conchita participated as a panelist to discuss the intersection between racial equity and disability inclusion. When asked about her experience, she recalls being constantly told to wait for the right time for progress. She notes that people within the Latinx community can be ableist as well, so she is often told that the combination of her two identities are not at the forefront of current social issues (Disability & Philanthropy Forum, 2021). Conchita additionally commented “I am light skinned, but I am Mexican,” to acknowledge the spaces in which she has privilege, and those in which she faces discrimination (Disability & Philanthropy Forum, 2021). Her work not only increases access to education for students with disabilities, but proudly promotes an intersectional identity of Latinx and disabled.
Another prominent figure in the advocacy for Latinx people with disabilities is Diego Mariscal. In the U.S., Diego was born prematurely with cerebral palsy before his parents decided to return to their home in Mexico. His brother was born there without a disability, which completely altered the family dynamic as well as Diego’s experience with cerebral palsy (Mariscal, 2017). However, Diego’s parents set very similar expectations for both of their children, encouraging Diego to achieve a strong sense of independence. He notes that his parents did an impressive job of finding balance between recognizing the disability and the sense of identity attached to it, while encouraging as much autonomy and participation in daily activities as possible (Mariscal, 2017). Partaking in advocacy from a very young age, 12-year-old Diego lobbied to have an accessible training center built alongside his teammates of the Paralympic swim team in Mexico. The success of this effort led him to a career advocating for young people, encouraging them to know their rights and the disability resources available to them (Office of Disability Employment Policy, n.d.) Today, Diego Mariscal is the CEO and Chief Disabled Officer for the Office of Disability Employment Policy within the U.S. Department of Labor (Office of Disability Employment Policy, n.d.).
Advocacy in regard to the intersectional identities of being Latinx and disabled occurs through other media forms as well. Andrea Lausell—a woman of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent—creates YouTube videos discussing her experience with Spina Bifida and being Latina. Spina Bifida is a neural tube defect in the spinal cord which causes the spice to create too much back tissue, which can then tether the spinal cord and create a lump of fatty tissue along the spine (Pero Like, 2020). Andrea’s father came into contact with the chemical “Agent Orange” during the Vietnam War, which caused her to be born with this condition. She explains that disabilities are not talked about in her communities and family. For example, dancing is viewed as essential to Caribbean culture, but Andrea often needs accommodations for the various styles and movements. Tequila is also consumed as the go-to beverage during times of celebration or communal gatherings, but Andrea’s condition makes her severely allergic (Pero Like, 2020). These experiences highlight how Andrea’s Caribbean and Latina identity is often questioned when she cannot fully partake in activities as a result of her disability.
Being Latinx and having a disability in the U.S. can complicate or distort the sense of belonging a person may feel in either community they are a part of. These individuals can experience ableism within their own Latinx communities, or racial and ethnic discrimination within services of disabilities resources. The work of organizations like the National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities and the Deaf Latinos y Familias Organization is essential for providing a safe space for people within both communities. Furthermore, the activism seen from Conchita Hernandez, Diego Mariscal, and Andrea Lausell not only raises awareness but opens the door for other Latinxs with disabilities who may not feel fully accepted in any community. Respecting intersectional spaces and identities in the U.S. is essential for creating a more understanding, considerate, and accessible society.
Bridget Hogue (she/her) is a psychology student in her third and final year from West Chester, PA. She plans to study rehabilitation and mental health counseling in graduate school next fall. In addition to psychology, Bridget has a Spanish minor and pursues a certificate in Latin American Studies. Her writing and research primarily focuses on mental health in Latin America. Additional topics include women's health, LGBTQ+ inclusivity, and the effects of the War on Drugs in Latin America. Bridget enjoys playing guitar, walking her three dogs, and cooking in her free time. She is also a mentor for a non-profit organization known as Strong Women, Strong Girls. She is thrilled to be a part of CLAS this semester and to continue discovering more about Latin America!
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