Ethnic minority women are too often forgotten when we discuss disability

The government and our educational institutions have a responsibility to make sure that no child feels like I did ever again.

For the past year, all I have been reading is how the United Kingdom is racist, how Brexit, Meghan Markle’s treatment and pay inequality show how ungenerous and narrow minded we are.

But all I can think about is that this is not an exclusive issue with the UK. Bigotry is a disease that runs deep through every part of the world.

In fact, for the majority of my life, I have accepted such attitudes – believing it is the norm, or just part of a fact of life. Showing any reaction often just made me the odd one out, the one who couldn’t take their definition of a joke.

I guess the reason behind my acceptance of the situation is that wherever I went I was met with the same negative comments. They did not stem from one segment of society, but all of them.

Being a disabled Muslim British-Arab woman meant I had to confront prejudice from every angle. During the first few years of my childhood in Mosul, Iraq, the obsession of people insisting on “curing” me and making me walk and be “normal” instilled in me a sense of being “broken” and the need to be “fixed”. But I was a stubborn child and, even though certain things like leg or back braces might have helped to strengthen my muscles – I have congenital muscular dystrophy, a muscle-wasting condition – I refused everything, rejecting the idea of being a lesser human being that could be cured.

I did not want these people to win, even if it meant I would get weaker physically. Having a disability in Iraq carries shame and stigma – this is a country where there are no recorded figures of the number of disabled people.

Upon moving to the UK, I was enrolled at a special needs school in London. Initially I was ignored. No one played with me, even when I tried bribing them with my toys. They would take them and go to play with someone else, because I didn’t speak a word of English.

After six months I had learnt English and could finally talk and joke with the other students. But I didn’t count on the exclusive club of the disability hierarchy that exists in special needs schools.

Your friendship value is judged on the severity of your disability, so there were different groups of people that belonged together. In this, I fell in between: I did not have the physical strength to be active and engage in sport, so obviously I could not join that elite group; but at the same time I was not disabled enough to belong to the third group.

Shamefully, I was glad I didn’t belong to that group, but I was just following the rules set by these people and desperately trying to survive.

I lost my father during this time and, traditionally, Iraqi women wear black clothes during the mourning period. Two disabled students who were on my bus began to mock my mother for not changing her clothes. I felt so angry and hurt – how could I explain to these ignorant children that my father had passed away and that it was our way of mourning?

When I reached secondary school age, I began to notice how other children looked down on special needs schools. They assumed that all we did, all we could do, was colour pictures and play games. I didn’t want to be less than other people, so I fought hard to go to a mainstream school to get a “proper” education, against my family’s wishes.

This was the toughest period of my life. I felt more isolated than ever. This situation was made worse by the Gulf War, where I was regularly asked if I had bombs in my school bag.

I began to feel then that my disability affected my femininity. Hearing boys laughing about the idea of me being their girlfriend made me conscious of the fact that I was a nightmare option for anyone. I felt like I wasn’t worthy or attractive.

Like many teenagers, I built myself a protective cage. I didn’t allow others near me, or see my pain. I chose instead to focus on excelling at my studies. After a while, they all came to me for help with their homework and I knew then that I had won the battle. I realised then that academic advancement was my way to prove that I am not less.

At college, I was discouraged from applying to London’s top universities. Teachers would tell me that I wouldn’t get accepted, but tell fellow students to aim higher. I knew the only difference was that I was disabled and they were not. I got good grades and went to one of the best universities in London, before getting my Masters and beginning my PhD.

But in a recent hospital appointment, a doctor read my name then asked me if I spoke English. Obviously having a foreign name means I must not be able to do so I laughed and replied that I had to be able to, for my PhD.

Wherever I go, regardless of what I have achieved, I am judged on my appearance, gender and ethnicity. I am not the only one. The Shaw Trust Power 100 – the 100 most influential disabled people in the UK – contains only five ethnic minority women.

Recent research by Asian People’s Disability Alliance shows the barriers to independence for disabled Asian women. The report, Humare Avaaz (“our voice” in Urdu), highlighted the unknown and often forgotten cultural and social barriers for disabled Asian women.

All of my life, I have felt the pressure of offering the best version of disability to be accepted, the best version of an Arab female to succeed and the best version of British Muslim to be included. Yet no matter how hard I have tried, I was often met with rejection and exclusion.

With the recent coronavirus crisis, this exclusion was made bolder than ever. The government and media reassured the public that it will only affect the disabled and the elderly, as though we don’t matter. Imagine what a non-disabled person would feel if they were told not to panic because it will only affect you, not the elderly or disabled.

Ultimately, how can we expect attitudes to change for people like me, when the government and media are spreading messages like these. Maybe this is part of the reason why I let go of my obsession into fitting in a while ago. I will never again run away from these attitudes. I will do all I can to challenge and change them.


This article first appeared in The Independent.

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