Fostering cultural competence with disabled Asian Americans: Moving beyond the model minority concept

This is being shared pre-publication; this essay is in press with The New Social Worker.

In recent years, social workers may have paid attention to the Stop Asian Hate campaign, a result of the idea that Asians were the cause of spreading COVID-19 (Abrams, 2019). And maybe social workers have paid attention to the disability pride and disability justice movements – although the disability community often feels ignored and unseen as an element of diversity in our society (Lee, 2020). But has the social work community seen – really seen disabled[1] Asian Americans? I don’t think so. 

Often seen only as the ‘model minority,’ Asian Americans with disabilities report struggling to be recognized in the face of the challenging issues that they face. The Asian Americans with Disabilities Initiative (AADI) is here to change that and offers much for the social work community to learn from as we strive for intersectional cultural competence with these diverse communities. When we use an intersectional[2] lens, it is vital to note that disability transcends all social identities; ascholar Audre Lorde says “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives.”

Let’s start with some data about disabled Asian Americans so we can be evidence-based in our social work practice, something our Code of Ethics calls on us all to be! Understanding the scope of this population is a great place to start. We know that more than 1.3 million Asian Americans live with a disability (PR Newswire, 2021). This means that 1 in 10 Asian Americans identify this way (Courtney-Long, Romano, Carroll, et al., 2017). AADI (2022) argues that this constitutes a significant community that may lack “the proper professional and cultural support necessary to navigate their dual identities” (p. 8). Inside the Asian American community, unfortunately, there is a disability stigma that pervades people’s viewpoints around disability needing to be “fixed” which also manifests in the use of language (AADI, 2022, p. 38). And looking at the other side of the equation, in the disability community, we see very little representation of the Asian American community in either the professional service sector or in advocacy spaces. Social workers can do better in their practice by “seeing” both communities and learning about these cultural facets.

While there is a dearth of research about the Asian American disability community, we do have access to some important facts that can inform practice. For example, we know that unemployment rates for disabled Asian Americans holds at 15.7% as compared to 11.6% in the White communities (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). This connects to poverty findings in the overall disability community. Poverty rates among people with disabilities are more than twice the rate of people without disabilities (National Council on Disability, 2017).

Another problem in the overall disability community, the problem of domestic violence is also at epidemic proportions (Slayter, 2009). We have also seen research on the prevalence of this problem in Asian American communities – as with all other racial and ethnic communities (Yoshihama, Dabby & Luo, 2020). Some research has looked at how this plays out for disabled people in the Asian American community (Cramer, Choi, & Ross, 2017). Are social workers in domestic violence shelters prepared to effectively support disabled Asian American clients? A third problem that is widespread in the disability community is that of criminal victimization of other kinds (Harrell, 2021). In a study supported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, it was found that disabled Asian Americans, along with other groups of color, had a higher rate of violent victimization than White or Black disabled people, at 56.5% of the population. Are crime prevention efforts effectively targeting disabled Asian American communities?

In response to these social concerns – and so many more not covered here – there are five things social workers can do today to be better intersectional practitioners in support of disabled people in the Asian American community. They center around the need for social workers to be reflective and reflexive practitioners (Schön, 1983; 1987). To be reflexive, you consider – investigate – your interactions through introspection as they occur. You do this given the cultural, historical, linguistic and political context that you exist in. With reflection, on the other hand, the focus is on a variety of factors, these can be spoken, nonverbal, or emotional, but you also consider your thoughts that follow the actions you take in client work.

  1. Examine your own attitudes about disabled Asian American people. We contend that we have all been raised in a racist society. Dr. Ibram Kendi talks about how racism has rained down on all of us—and therefore, how can any of us not be racist? It is nobody’s fault if we hold views that might be considered racist. We need to disempower the word ‘racist,’ not take offense at it, offer ourselves some grace, and learn to see where we might be wrong sometimes. Now let’s link that to a consideration of ableism – also endemic in our society. How are we unknowingly engaging in the use of ableist language? Have you checked yourself for able-bodied privilege? And how do racism and ableism intersect in our views of the Asian American community? As Dr. Kendi says, “It is pretty apparent to me that one cannot be anti-racist while still being ableist…I think for many people who are indeed striving to be anti-racist they may not realize the ways in which they’re still being prevented from moving along on this journey due to their unacknowledged or unrecognized ableism, or the ways in which they’re in denial (2021).
  2. If you are unfamiliar with Asian American communities, educate yourselves about the diversity of Asian American cultures. Learning about cultures different than your own is vital to being an anti-racist practitioner. And this includes learning about how disability is framed in these communities.
  3. If you are non-Asian American, consider how much you live in the dominant society world. Ask: Can I expand my horizons to include more Asian American friends in a non-tokenistic way, including disabled friends? Can I begin to seek out businesses owned by Asian American people, for example? Can I notice the ways in which my world is devoid of Asian Americans and/or disabled people and how that shapes and influences personal comfort as experienced by those communities? Can I learn about prominent disabled Asian American role models?
  4. Learning the truth about the racist, Anti-Asian American and ableist history of our country, which is all well-documented.
  5. Above all else, actDo something and don’t wait around for others to do the work. It is one thing to think good thoughts, it is another thing to do good works. As the scholar Dr. bell hooks once said “what we do is more important than what we say or what we say we believe.”

Central to your accomplishments of these tasks will be reviewing The Asian Americans with Disabilities Resources Guide (AADI, 2022). With guidance on engaging in advocacy specifically for this community, highlighting disabled Asian American changemakers leading the fight against ableism, explaining how to make your practice more accessible, and how to engage in positive allyship (including how this can go off track!), this multifaceted resource is a goldmine. Let’s all do better for the Asian American disability community! Spread the word!


Abrams, Z. (2019). Countering stereotypes about Asian Americans. American Psychological Association.

Asian Americans with Disabilities Initiative (AADI), (2022). The Asian Americans with Disabilities Resource Guide

Bureau of Labor Statistics, (2021). Persons with a disability: Labor force characteristics – 2020.

Collins, P. H., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality. Polity Press.

Courtney-Long, E.A., Romano, S.D., Carroll, D.D. et al. (2017). Socioeconomic Factors at the Intersection of Race and Ethnicity Influencing Health Risks for People with Disabilities. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. 4: 213.

Cramer, E., Choi, Y., & Ross, A. (2017). Race, Culture & Abuse of Persons with Disabilities. Virginia Commonwealth University VCU Scholars Compass Social Work Publications.

Harrell, E. (2021). Crime against persons with disabilities: 2009-2019: Statistical tables. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Kendi, I. X. (2021). Ableism and racism: Roots of the same tree. Be Antiracist

Lee, A. (2020). The hardest part of being disabled is being ignored. Rooted in Rights.

National Council on Disability (NCD) (2017). Highlighting Disability / Poverty Connection, NCD Urges Congress to Alter Federal Policies that Disadvantage People with Disabilities,living%20in%20long%2Dterm%20poverty

PR Network, (2022). Recognizing Asian Americans With Disabilities in Honor of AAPI Heritage Month. Cision

Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner. Temple Smith.

Schön, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. Jossey-Bass.

Slayter, E. (2009). Intimate partner violence against women with disabilities: Implications for disability service system case management practice. Journal of Maltreatment, Aggression and Trauma. 18(2), 182-199.

Yoshihama, M., Dabby, C. & Luo, S. (2020). Facts and stats report: Domestic violence in Asian and Pacific Islander homes, 2020. Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence.

[1] In this essay, the author uses primarily identity-first disability language with person-first disability language where secondary sources used it originally. In keeping with the American Psychological Association’s guidelines, I acknowledge that different members of the disability community may have different choices about how they wish to be referred to, see a discussion here:  Additionally, when I speak of disability culture, it is inclusive of neurodivergence, chronic illness, chronic pain, mental illness, madness, etc.

[2]The intersectionality framework, named by Kimberlé Crenshaw, and linked to Anna J.H. Cooper and W.E.B. Du Bois, can be considered an “analytic tool” as well as a “way of understanding and analyzing the complexity in the world, in people, and in human experience” (Collins & Bilge, 2016, p. 11). Intersectionality considers “social inequality, power, relationality, social context, complexity, and social justice” (Collins & Bilge, 2016, p. 53).