Multiple Minorities

Will the real me please step forward?

by Kathy Wechsler on July 1, 2006 - 2:33pm

QUEST Vol. 13, No. 4

Have you ever been unable to enter the synagogue because it’s not wheelchair accessible? Or felt awkward at a dance for people with disabilities because of your sexual preference? Maybe your African-American community is pulling you one way and your disability community is pulling you the other way?

Just remember that you’re not alone. Many people with disabilities are members of other minority groups as well.

Double the discrimination

Belonging to more than one under- represented minority group at the same time means that you may face more discrimination from mainstream culture and have to cope with more challenges in your everyday life.

“For a person who faces more than one stigma, there’s a tendency for people to react to them more negatively than if they just have one stigma,” says Carrie Yang Costello, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. “If you have a whole bunch of strikes against you, then it’s harder to face mainstream society. Each way that you deviate from the norm is held against you.”

One area in which multiple discrimination can occur is the job market, affecting your ability to find a job, keep the job and feel comfortable while working at the job.

“Gender interacts with your earning process, so women earn less than men in America, and then people with disabilities also face employment issues where they tend to earn less,” says Yang Costello, who researches privilege, race, class, gender, disability and how they affect a person’s identity. “So, if you have those two effects interacting you’re going to have women with disabilities making less than men with disabilities,” who in turn are making less than men without disabilities.

As an African-American woman with a disability, Leri N. Lewis of Southfield, Mich., has much experience with multilayered discrimination. Although Lewis, 34, loves her career as a tax analyst at Comerica Bank in Detroit, getting where she is today wasn’t easy.

In the past, Lewis, who has spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and uses a scooter to get around, had trouble finding work in the accounting field.

“The jobs that I would apply for are in a market that’s already so tight,” she says. “It was bad enough that I was a minority. Then I’m trying to compete in a corporate structure, so being a woman didn’t help that either.”

In 2002, Lewis worked at a glass-manufacturing company. Out of 400 people in her building, Lewis was one of only three African-American employees and the only employee who had a disability.

“They hired me to do a job, but they never really trusted what I was saying or my input on the job,” Lewis says. “I found that they always went to someone else to verify information.”

In addition, the company dragged its feet when asked to make simple work accommodations — such as helping Lewis lift her scooter out of her car.

She left that job after five months and went back to the job search.

Tired of the runaround, she began Premier Payroll, a small company that handles payroll for small businesses and taxes for individuals and businesses. Lewis still does the tax portion of Premier Payroll, along with her full-time job at Comerica.

Gender and location

Although it may seem that women with disabilities get the short end of the stick when it comes to employment, there also can be gender issues for men with disabilities, Yang Costello says.

“Men may tend to face more discrimination or problems because of expectations that men are supposed to be physically strong and independent.

“For women the special issues would be, say, facing people in a public that tends to judge women harshly for not holding up to standards of beauty or physical decorum.”

Some people belonging to multiple minority groups don’t experience discrimination. Where they live seems to make a difference.

Yang Costello, who is Jewish and has a disabling condition (endometriosis), grew up in New York and says she never had problems with discrimination.

Members of more than one minority group often do better in large cities, agrees Premkumar Harimohan, who has Becker muscular dystrophy. He moved from Bangalore City, India, to New York in 1969.

Harimohan, 63, has worked as a civil engineer at a U.S. government agency for 23 years. He says his ethnicity and disability have no effect on his daily life because in such a large city many people belong to minority groups.

“Being of any ethnicity makes no difference here as far as being physically challenged and finding facilities to accommodate [special needs],” he says.

Michael Tews
Michael Tews

Michael Tews of Cedarburg, Wis., says that being Korean and having Duchenne muscular dystrophy has always made him stick out, especially since he lives in a small town where there aren’t many minorities.

“I try to fit in, but I do feel out of place because I’m the only one at my school that has been in a wheelchair,” says Tews, 17, who’s one of three Korean-American students at Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School, where he’s a senior. “I still feel that I stick out and that everybody knows who I am because of my disability and [my ethnicity].”

Whether you have positive or negative experiences also depends on your attitude, how you see yourself and how you react to your surroundings.

Among friends

When Tews was a freshman, he used to get picked on, sometimes for being Korean but most often for having a disability, he says. As his fellow students matured and got to know him, things started getting better for Tews. In 2004 and 2005, he served as the local MDA Goodwill Ambassador for Southeastern Wisconsin.

Some multiple minorities say they’ve only seen prejudice in employment situations; others have trouble in social situations.

Social acceptance was never a problem for Lewis.

“I’m a people person,” she says. “One thing about me, the way my parents brought me up, I’m able to adapt with any race or group of people. That’s why when I experienced all the [employment] rejections, it was so difficult for me because I couldn’t understand why.”

Solid self-esteem is essential when you belong to multiple minority groups. If you’re shy and keep to yourself, you’re going to have more issues, Yang Costello says.

Be proud of who you are. Your differences make you unique.

Members only

Multiple minorities often are torn by competing loyalties, says Yang Costello, author of Professional Identity Crisis: Race, Class, Gender, and Success at Professional Schools.

Within a minority community, members who share the same status find camaraderie from facing similar problems, chal-lenges and demands from members of the majority group. As a part of this solidarity, you’re expected to be loyal to your community, meaning that you don’t try to hide from the larger society what makes you belong to that particular minority group.

For example, if you’re a member of the disability community, you’re encouraged to state that you have a disability and not try to pass as able-bodied. The same is true if you’re a member of the gay and lesbian community. No matter which minority group you belong to, there’s an expectation from the community that you’ll “come out of the closet” and announce that you’re proud to be a member of that group.

“What’s interesting is that if you’re a member of more than one minority, you may feel like the two communities are fighting over where your real home is,” Yang Costello says. “If you’re, say, Latina and have a disability, you may find your disability community expecting you to think of yourself as disabled first and your Latina community expecting you to think of yourself as Hispanic first and that other things are supposed to come second.”

The problem is that whichever minority group you choose to “call home,” you may end up feeling disloyal to the other group.

And, in the big picture, it’s harmful not to have all of your identities acknowledged. Your self-esteem takes a dive when you feel that you’re lying about your status, and your relationships with some people are built on false premises.

Yang Costello advises, “The easiest step to take can be to initiate a conversation in a home community about the fact that people assume that you have to be ‘my community first.’ So if you’re talking about [the disability community], they’re saying that [your disability] is the central defining factor and other factors are sort of irrelevant because this is our community.”

When discussing your multiple minority statuses with one of your home communities, you’ll either open the doors for understanding or be ignored.

Split in two

In the worst case, one of your minority groups may not accept your membership in the other group. This often happens with members of the gay and lesbian community who also have disabilities.

Eva Sweeney, who has cerebral palsy and is a lesbian, says that she knows many people with disabilities who are homophobic and disapprove of her “lifestyle.” She has difficulty finding aides who’re fine with her being a lesbian. She’s also had a controlling aide who dictated what friends Sweeney could have and where she could go.

Eva Sweeney
Eva Sweeney with her aide, Dan Dumont

Sweeney, 23, of Pasadena, Calif., is upset that within the disability community, there’s “zero discussion of us ever! When we try to talk about our experiences, we are immediately shut down.”

On the other hand, Sweeney, who uses a power chair with a head array device, finds it frustrating when she goes to a gay bar and “it’s not accessible either physically or socially.

“People often don’t know how to approach me so they just don’t. Physical obstacles can also become social obstacles, like if a certain room in an otherwise accessible bar is inaccessible, but that’s where the person I want to talk to is…”

Sometimes the activities of one minority group aren’t accessible. Logistics can also be a problem for people with disabili-ties. How are you going to get to Latino night at a faraway restaurant?

“When people are members of a minority group, they’re really focused on advocating for their needs within their group,” Yang Costello says. “People may not be more sensitive toward other minorities, even though you think they would be since they have their own minority status.”

Take me home, country road

“Many people have the feeling that you’ve finally come home when you meet a bunch of people like you that you can spend time with,” Yang Costello says. “It’s harder to feel at home in any of your minority communities if you have multiple minority statuses than if you only have one minority status.

“If you’re, say, both deaf and you have muscular dystrophy, it’s going to be hard to find a community of people like you because it’s really going to be a small pool.”

Sweeney also has felt out of place because of double minority status.

“When I go to disability organizations for social events, I feel isolated because there are no other people there like me,” says Sweeney, who’s majoring in gender studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles, of her sexual orientation. “Also, I don’t feel like I have a community of my own.”

That’s one of the reasons Sweeney developed Queers On Wheels, an organization that offers resources to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community who have disabilities. The group presents workshops and training sessions on a variety of issues for diverse audiences and offers a discussion group for LGBT people with disabilities in the Los Angeles area.

Dealing with disloyalty

If you don’t know of a local group comprising more than one minority group, look on the Web. Searching online can put you in touch with members of both of your minority groups worldwide so that you can share experiences. If you want to chat with other Jewish people who have disabilities, you can do a Google search for “chat Jewish people disabilities” or use other key-words.

You can localize your search, also: “African-American disabilities Tucson.” Then maybe get a group together for socializing.

If there isn’t an online group for, say, African-American/Asian women with disabilities, you could start your own. There have to be others out there who belong to your same minority groups.

“Finding people who are like you often gives you the strength to approach one or the other home communities and say, ‘I’m stating that I exist, and I want you to acknowledge me and be my supportive community,’” Yang Costello says. “[The Internet] is one way for people to find each other and not feel like they have split loyalty issues in doing it.”

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