EL PASO – Oscar Lozoya, a blind graduate student at the University of Texas at El Paso, says he realized early in his life that the attitude toward disabled people in Mexico where he grew up is generally very negative, forcing many to hide their disabilities.
“The feeling most people in our [Mexican] society have towards disabled people is that of pity, not of deep human compassion, but one of negative feelings,” Lozoya said. “In Mexico, it is hard to get a true count of how many disabled people there are, because disabled people and their families will hide it, so they won’t have to live with that stigma.”
Four international students at the University of Texas at El Paso shared their experiences of living with a disability in their country of origin at a meeting entitled “Global perspectives on access for people with diverse abilities.” The panel discussion examined how persons with disabilities are treated in different cultures, by governments and because of their social standing.
Afraid of being stigmatized, Lozoya, who is engaged in interdisciplinary studies at UTEP, did not seek out government or social help for his blindness. While special education is available in the Mexican education system, Lozoya said he believes it harms the students more than it helps them.
“Special education in Mexico tends to stigmatize people more than it helps. I look back in my life and I didn’t receive any help, and to me that was a better choice because I didn’t have to deal with stigma and relegation,” Lozoya said.
Lozoya said most services for the disabled in Mexico are provided by charities since the government does little to aid people with disabilities.
“In Mexico and by extension many other Latin American countries…relate disable with exclusion in our society. There is not much help from the government,” Lozoya said. “Most of the services that disabled people receive in Mexico are provide by non-profit organizations.”
For Samia Gramida, environmental sciences graduate student, growing up disabled in Libya was a much different experience than Lozoya had in Mexico.
“It is different from each person, but most of the Libyan people are respectful to people with disability and it comes from their culture passed on from the older generation,” Gramida said. “So the way disabled people are treated is more because of the culture than because of the what the government does.” Gramida said people that suffer from mental disabilities are not treated as well as those with physical disabilities in Libya.
“In Libya, the physically disabled are treated better than those that suffer from mental disabilities,” Gramida said. “In the past, people with mental disabilities were treated very bad. They treated them as if something was very wrong with them. Recently, it has been getting better, but they are still treated very different.”
While Australia may be perceived as a more progressive country compared to Libya and Mexico, Vikki Steeneveld, a foreign exchange student studying social work, said the access to disability services is a very difficult process.
“In Australia, there is an expectation that the government will provide services and everything is hunky-dory,” Steeneveld said. “But when it comes down to practice, it is a very difficult process to get the services you need and because of all the measurements you need to prove to get approved to get them.”
While the way other cultures treat disabled people may seem harsh to Americans, Corene Seymour, a social work graduate student, said that in U.S. society views on disabled people are still negative.
“There is still a lot of bias and a lot of false idea here. America has a long way to go to totally include everyone in to their education system,” Seymour said.
Growing in Native American culture, Seymour said she was accepted for who she was and never felt different at home. The first time Seymour faced the stigma that many people in the U.S. have about disabled students was when started to attend public schools.
“As a Native American and being raised in that culture, I didn’t even really know I had a problem until I started school,” Seymour said. “It wasn’t until I started school that I felt I had a problem. I felt normal at home, it was society that deemed me disabled, not my culture.”
Although the experiences of these four students varies, one common theme was the main support they had from their families throughout their lives. While some of them were scared to seek out aid, the support they received from their families helped them overcome any obstacles they faced.
“Family is very important and is the essential elements for a disabled person,” Lozoya said. “Throughout the misconceptions, the stigmas, the lack of support in society, a family is there to help you look for the available services, but more importantly they are there to give you emotional support.”
As Steeneveld continues her education at UTEP, she hopes that she can continue to help inform people of the struggles disabled people face and help eliminated the stigmas that hurt them.
“The misinformation and misconceptions are the barriers and limitations that exist in our society and theses are the core of the problem,” Steeneveld said. “More information needs to go out to inform people of what it means to be disabled and how it can’t prevent people from having a successful life.”