“You can’t have ADHD, you get straight A’s and you’re in the talented and gifted program.” This was my mother’s foolproof argument after school one day in response to my latest self-discovery. Her invalidation wasn’t intentional. It was a reflection of a systemic barrier to information and resources around mental healthcare–a common experience among many communities in the Asian diaspora.
This NBC article suggests only 7% of Asian American students are supported in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)— the lowest of any racial group. Cultural and generational differences, pressures to assimilate within white America, socioeconomic inequities, inadequate research, and stigmas rooted in ableism all contribute to a lack of accommodations for disabled Asian Americans: most of that comes from within our own cultures. How can we advocate for access and support if we can’t get through a conversation about diagnosis?
Decades of messaging contributing to the model minority myth also instill a cultural belief that disabilities are individual problems and working harder is the solution. This narrative of “just work through it” powered me through the first few years of my career until my body shut down from burnout. After intensive episodes of depression that left me immobilized for days and secret panic attacks in office bathrooms between meetings, I decided to see a psychiatrist for the first time. Within weeks, I was diagnosed with ADHD, Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), and General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Eventually, I’d also come to realize that I’m autistic— through extensive research sparked from hashtags like #actuallyautistic, #audhd, #neurodivergent, and community-driven resources like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
I grieve for the years I didn’t have access to the language of disability and neurodivergence. I’m perpetually working through the guilt of being the first in my family lineage to have the support, resources, and community to discover the parts of myself my family had to suppress to survive. As a remedy, I’ve cultivated a sense of agency over my life by becoming financially independent from my family, and starting my own business to sustain my living without having to depend on a single company for income.The changes in my life are largely influenced by the disability justice movement and have helped me question— where am I placing my values and how can I claim my right to live a life full of wellness, community care, and self-determination?
Assimilation doesn’t lead to liberation. As tempting as it is to power through for the sake of conformity, following the norms without questioning the stakes is damaging and dangerous. In order to create a future that sustains our survival, we need a different foundation— different values that lead us into different directions. The language of disability and neurodiversity have the power to do this.
Autistic educator and disability justice advocate Lydia X. Z. Brown describes neurodiversity as “a philosophy and a movement based on the idea that all people are fully human no matter what kind of brain they have. In other words, no type or degree of disability can ever make someone less worthy of existing in the world, or less deserving of the support and care they need and want.”
To clarify, neurodivergence is not a diagnosis. It’s an umbrella term coined in 2000 by autistic rights advocate Kassiane Asasumasu to expand on the term neurodiversity, coined in 1998 by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in a thesis published at Sydney’s University of Technology. It’s something that anyone can claim for themselves, to better articulate their experiences and advocate for the accommodations they need.
In a disability-justice forward line of thinking, asking for accommodations helps create more accessible, inclusive cultures and advocating for our needs contributes to collective care. An example of this in practice is often cited within the curb-cut effect. Initially designed for wheelchair-users, ramps help everyone from delivery workers to parents with strollers safely move between street and sidewalk. When disability is part of the conversation, we elevate the experience for everyone.
My life changed for the better when I started identifying as disabled and neurodivergent. I became more intentional about my friendships, more boundaried with my work, and less worried about being different. My painful history became a source of power and connection, more than a source of suffering and shame. I still experience autistic fatigue, everyday acts of ableism, and frustration wading through inaccessible environments. But I now have language to describe it as ableism and communities to collaborate with as I work toward cultural, systemic change.
While Asian Americans are underrepresented in medical statistics, there’s an abundance of leadership among social movements. Advocates for disability rights like Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project, Mia Mingus of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective and Leaving Evidence blog, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, who authored Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice and The Future Is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes and Mourning Songs, and late revolutionary thinker Grace Lee Boggs have laid out radical models to advance conversations around change, movement, and collective care. The more we lift them up, the more we provide access points into this dialogue.
I may not be able to go back in time and redo conversations with my mother about my disabilities, but I am committed to a lifetime of work to change the cycle for future generations. In a neurodivergent-friendly future, I imagine a world where more people have more access to language that affirms their experiences, allows for generative conversations about the accommodations they need, and helps them advocate for a culture that designs for disabilities. In a disability-centered society, I imagine living in a world with people who listen.