Refugee women who are differently abled (woman with physical disability) face a lot of challenges. Most people will agree with this. Where our views might differ is in the types of challenges we face. As a differently abled woman, these are some of the challenges I face:
Pity from society is one of my biggest challenges. When society pities us, it is a constant provocation. When you pity someone, you are saying “I am better off than you, poor you, who doesn’t have the advantages that I do”. Society means well, they think they are being compassionate and they are. However, pity from society has a way of debilitating a person with disability. If you grow up being pitied, what follows is self-pity.
A person’s brain is a very powerful tool. Differently abled women who grow up in this type of environment can develop several types of sophisticated defense mechanisms. This can be detrimental to a person’s mental health, making us vulnerable to several mental disorders. So pitying us does not help. What will help is people recognizing that we can do anything we set our minds to. Tell us there is nothing that can stop us if we work hard and have determination and focus.
Difficulties in finding independence are common for refugee differently abled women. Sometimes how I feel is I don’t have the right to be angry with people because I might need their help tomorrow. Let me give a classic example. I used to have a roommate. She was Eritrean and she absolutely believed that I should not do housework, which worked out fine because I have a job and it is difficult to juggle the two things together. But what happened is I became dependent on this woman. And that made me feel trapped. If I was in my country, I would have my family’s support and I could be mad at them and they would still be there for me. But I am not in my country. I am dependent on this woman to take care of me. Which makes it very difficult to confront her or be angry at her. Now, I’m happy to report, I am living on my own and I like it. When I need assistance with housework, I am usually in a position to just hire someone to do it. There are differently abled women out there who still feel like I did, trapped. So, my friends, when you assist a person with disability, do it for yourself because you have a good heart and are guided by your beliefs. Don’t expect the differently abled to smile at you every day and thank you every time. If we ask for assistance, assist us whether you like us or not. Kindness is its own reward.
Next is the difficulty to find a life partner. I gave you the example of my roommate above. Society had so much admiration for my roommate: “Look at this kind compassionate woman who is living with a person with disability out of the goodness of her heart”. Society is not wrong. She was very kind to me. But imagine if I had a husband or a wife. Society would view him/her the same way they viewed my roommate. No matter how accomplished or how good a person we are, society will sympathize with the wife or the husband of the differently abled woman. God forbid, even your partner could feel that way. As if he/she is doing you a favor by being with you. The relationship wouldn’t be between equal partners. So, my friends, remember; when we differently abled women are in a relationship, we also contribute, we also care for our partner.
The above scenario is if you are lucky enough to find a partner. I cannot count the number of people who ask me “are you married? Do you have children”. When I answer no, a lecture always follows, not counting the number of men who try to take advantage of the situation. Society puts a lot of pressure on us to have children any way we can. Society tells us to lower our standards, to not wait for marriage, to have a child any way we can. I am one of the few lucky ones because I had a great mother. Mom told me to educate myself, to better myself as much as I can. If a partner came along, fine. If not that’s ok. She told me to never lower my standards and she also said if I do my best and be the best person that I can be, God will take care of the rest. I also have a great stepfather who married my mom knowing she had a differently abled child. That is not common in my culture. He is my hope. There might be another man/woman out there who is like him. I will wait for that man/woman and I know God has a plan for me. So, my friends, it is insensitive to ask differently abled women and girls if they have children or not. It is equally insensitive to convince us to lower our standards with the argument that our children will take care of us when we grow old. I know you mean well, I truly do, and I thank you for being compassionate enough to advise us, but it doesn’t help. What it does is lower our self-esteem and consider any partner that accepts us without putting consideration to their character.
Society has a view that women with disability are very fragile. So, whenever we make a mistake, nobody wants to correct us. When we say something wrong, again nobody corrects us because “how dare you criticize a woman with disability?” This makes us continue doing or saying the wrong things while thinking we are doing ok. However, it reaches a point where people can’t stand it and they distance themselves from us and we are left thinking, “What happened?” or “What did I do wrong?”. So, my dear friends, if you see us doing something wrong or if we say something wrong, correct us, we can take it.
There are people out there who equate having a sexual relationship with a differently abled woman to pedophilia. They believe that any man who approaches a woman with disability for a relationship is taking advantage of her. They are not. We are women just like every other woman out there. We are not fragile or in need of protection in this case.
One last thing; please do not make decisions for us without our consent. When I was in high school, I was part of a youth Organization called NUEYS (National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students). I was absent during one meeting. They were deciding a chairperson for our high school’s branch of NUEYS in that meeting. They nominated me to be the chairperson, but then changed their mind because the office was on the third floor. Had I been asked I might have agreed with them or not. But I was not asked. Another incident, when I got into law school, on our first day of class our director called me in to his office and advised me to change my choice of study because law school classes were on the second floor and they couldn’t change their location just for me. So, my dear friends, again I know you mean well, but when deciding things for us, please involve us in your decision making.
Written by Hadnet Tesfom
Community Interpreter, Refugee Law Project