Oftentimes, there is an assumption that Vietnamese Americans perceive disability as a condition that is a “debt” from sins committed in a previous life (Jegatheesan, Miller, & Fowler, 2010, p. 124; Wang & West, 2016, p. 5). While that assumption may be accurate for some Vietnamese Americans, it does not thoroughly capture the attitudes of many other Vietnamese Americans who have direct experiences with individuals with disabilities (i.e., neighbors, immediate family members, extended family members, individuals with disabilities in public spaces).
Perceptions of disability in the Vietnamese American community must be understood within the acculturation framework. Acculturation refers to the process of acquiring subsequent values, beliefs, and behaviors associated with a dominant culture (Jegatheesan, 2009). Individuals possess varying levels of acculturation, which impact their attitudes toward disability.
More acculturated Vietnamese Americans tend to have more positive attitudes toward individuals with disabilities (Huer, Saenz, & Doan, 2001). The idea that individuals with disabilities are “debt” is contested. Moreover, acculturated Vietnamese Americans expressed no fear or discomfort around individuals with disabilities, supported services that individuals with disabilities needed, and endorsed special education services for children with special needs in public schools.
Vietnamese Americans’ attitudes toward disability stand in stark contrast to attitudes of Vietnamese individuals. In Vietnam, society as a whole perpetuates “moral accusations” against families who have children with disabilities (Gammeltoft, 2008). Parents themselves described their lives as well as their children’s lives as “miserable” and perceived their children’s conditions as “burdens” developed from parental or ancestral misdeeds.
While Vietnam has legislation and policies in place to protect individuals with disabilities, these legislation and policies are not strongly enforced. Thusly, individuals with disabilities in Vietnam continue to be discriminated against, denied access to resources, and denied employment, leading to isolation within the community, worsening of medical conditions, and impoverishment.
Enforced legislation in the US, on the other hand, provides protection to those with disabilities, which in turn allows these individuals access to the community. This access not only allows individuals with disabilities opportunities to receive services and supports, but it allows spaces for interaction with society and members of the larger community, while, at the same time, dispelling any societal stigmas or stereotypes of disability.
One of the main reasons contributing to positive perceptions of disability in the Vietnamese American community is the interaction with individuals with disabilities. The spaces that allow for interactions create visibility for the disability community and help inform non-disabled Vietnamese Americans of the medical and societal conceptions influencing the understanding of disability. Consequently, through interactions, stigmas, misconceptions, and stereotypes are re-examined, critiqued, and replaced with more informed and compassionate understandings.
Kim Dieu is an educational psychologist at the Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders and doctoral student at Chapman University. She is currently in her final year of the doctoral program, working on research that examines the experiences of Vietnamese American mothers and their experiences navigating their child’s autistic world. Kim’s areas of research interests include resiliency, culturally and linguistically diverse populations, disability, mental health promotion, and Asian American mental health needs. She is a reviewer for Contemporary School Psychology and works with local, national, and international organizations in promoting inclusive educational practices, mental health awareness, disability rights, and ethical psycho-educational assessment procedures.