Small changes could bridge communication and culture gaps for people from refugee backgrounds who need disability support
People with disabilities and their family members with non-English speaking refugee backgrounds meet Language and communication barriers when trying to access services, including the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
Some of these barriers are experienced by all migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds. However, this group’s problems are exacerbated by services that operate in isolation and do not recognize diversity.
In a corner: English programs for adult migrants that are not routinely suitable for disabilities. On the other hand: Disability services that do not necessarily recognize or address cultural and language barriers. This means that many people with disabilities and refugee family members are excluded from, or do not have easy access to, the support they need.
Read more: Young women’s memoirs on migration, dispossession and Australian “unbelonging” beg to be heard
What are the barriers?
We have partnered with refugee and disabled services in Victoria and New South Wales and academics at UNSW Sydney on a number of projects over the past five years. We spoke to over 50 people with disabilities and family members from Syrian and Iraqi refugee backgrounds about their experiences of accessing services like the NDIS.
A lack of English proficiency was generally identified as a major barrier.
People with disabilities and family members from a refugee background, many of whom have lived in Australia for up to 10 years, may have limited ability to speak or write English.
People with disabilities report that English programs for adult migrants are too fast-moving and sessions too short to meet their disability needs. “Girgis” (name changed) is deaf and has an acquired brain injury. He came to Australia five years ago as a refugee from Syria. Girgis explained:
I can not speak English. English is too difficult for me. I had a fall [when I was young] and I hurt the back of my head which means I can’t study much anymore and studying would be too hard for me.
“Hana”, who takes care of an adult son with a mental handicap, also came from Syria five years ago. She told us:
My English is not good because I didn’t go to school [to learn English] ‘Cause I’m stuck at home [my son] the whole time.
When limited English meets the system
Limited English is compounded by a complex disability and healthcare system does not have enough interpreters. People with disabilities and family members are often confused about what NDIS is and how to access it. Mahmoud Murad, researcher and advocate for the disabled, remarked:
we [people with disability from refugee backgrounds] need time to understand. It took me two or three years to understand what NDIS means.
‘Farid’, a man with a physical disability who came to Australia four years ago, described the ad hoc nature in which he found out about the NDIS.
No one told me to register with the NDIS until a doctor told me after they made an artificial organ for me at the hospital, “You are not registered with the NDIS [NDIS]’?
People want clear and concise information about the system in their own language. They want the support of someone who speaks their language during the process of applying for and receiving disability benefits.
Read more: Digital Inequality: Why Can I Enter Your Building – But Your Website Shows Me the Door?
Specific communication and culture gaps
A major obstacle people encounter when trying to get information through the NDIS and other services is the inability to browse websites in languages other than English.
Many organizations, including the NDIS, publish information online in Arabic (and other languages), but to find this information people need to be able to search using English words.
Disability service providers lack awareness of how to accommodate people with disabilities and family members who do not speak English.
And the often traumatic experiences of people with a refugee background are largely unknown to the service providers. In addition, they are not informed about the cultural stigma around the disability experienced by this group. The cultural stigma of disability can mean that people do not seek or use disability services.
“Ajmal” told us:
I mean we left our country and got expelled and lost all our homes and we’re going to find some negligent ones [disability service provider] Employees who don’t feel your feelings.
Read more: When is an illness “chronic” and when is it a “disability”? The definition can determine the support you receive
Start with a bilingual workforce
The refugee aid is the first point of contact for people with a refugee background.
This year marks ten years since the Australian Government introduced a health waiver exempted humanitarian visa applicants from assessing ongoing healthcare costs as part of their application.
The waiver meant that people with disabilities could come to Australia as refugees for the first time. Some refugee aid services responded by hiring them Personnel with disability expertise to work with bilingual employees.
Likewise, the disability sector could develop a bilingual workforce and advertise their services in languages other than English. To improve access to information, NDIS and Disability Service Provider websites must contain information in languages other than English and allow site searches in multiple languages.
NDIS plans routinely need to be translated into the person’s language, this is often not done unless people know they need to ask for it.
These simple changes would make a world of difference for people with disabilities and family members with non-English speaking refugee and migrant backgrounds.