Blind social work students on advocacy, intersections and growing up between cultures, with Fatuma Abdi and Jessica Karim

A combined image from photos of Fatuma and Jessica, both smiling. Left: a young black woman wears a red scarf. Right: a young brown woman wears a necklace with a heart pendant.
L: Fatuma Abdi; R: Jessica Karim. Photos/supplied

When Fatuma Abdi was 14, she lost her last family member living with her in her home country of Somalia, and rapidly became an asylum seeker where her mother was based in Norway.

Meanwhile, Jessica Karim was born and raised in New York to Guyanese parents, who immigrated to the US two years before she was born.

Fatuma and Jessica are both blind. While their lives and those of their parents take distinct trajectories across separate continents and cultures, they’re also both social work students. And one of the factors driving that choice of career was their experiences growing up.

Listen to the full conversation or read the transcript.

Fatuma

Fatuma had low vision while growing up in Somalia. She was a tomboy, like football and enjoyed playing rough. At school, bullies called her “four-eyes” on account of her glasses.

Fatuma lived with her grandparents, where her grandmother was very supportive but her grandfather was unhappy on two counts: that she was disabled, and also not a boy. There was a strong sense of cultural shame associated with disability in Somalia. When relatives visited, Fatuma would greet them and then be asked to play elsewhere. They mentioned their hope that Allah would restore Fatuma’s sight, and would offensively refer to her as handicapped.

“I was like, no, I’m not handicapped,” Fatuma says. “Until today, I hate that word.”

Mogadishu was also very unsafe, more so, in Fatuma’s experience, as a blind person with less possibility of spontaneously running away when needed.

At 14, losing her grandmother and then working through the asylum process to join her mother in Norway made for a challenging 2010. Fatuma lived first for a month with a host family who had well-intentioned but unrealistically high expectations for the speed at which she could learn Norwegian. Then she transferred to a camp for under-age (15-18-year-old) asylum seekers. She says the conditions were good and she is genuinely thankful to have learned a lot there culturally, away also from her mother’s tendency towards overprotectiveness.

The group bonded like family, for which it was all the more distressing when some of the teenagers were deported, with no warning and usually at night. The camp involved a mix of learning Norwegian, classes, activities like walks and movies and, importantly for Fatuma, learning to independently use appliances which weren’t used in Somalia like the dishwasher and washing machine.

The transitions didn’t stop there. When Fatuma’s application was approved and she could move in with her mother, the start at a new school came with losing more of her sight. She steadfastly refused to use a cane or learn other blindness skills for about three years, encouraged to do so by her disability assistance teacher at school, but equally discouraged by her mother, who still prays to Allah to restore Fatuma’s sight.

“I don’t want to change, because I have accepted it,” Fatuma says. “But I have also accepted that she’s not going to understand that in a way.”

“But my religion doesn’t have to go against my disability,’ she continues.

“I used to pray to God to give me my site but now I’m like thank God. And I don’t want better than this. I just thank him, the situation and the help I got here in Norway.

Fatuma came around to the benefit of learning more blindness skills, pushing herself to start using a cane and learn Braille in her last two years of school.

Jessica

Having arrived in The states along with much of her Guyanese family as a 19-year-old, Jessica’s mother gave birth to her first daughter at 21.

Jessica grew up surrounded by her grandmother’s cooking—traditional rice dishes and meat curries, patties, pine tarts—and spent a lot of time with her family.

“It’s always been this very interconnected, loving, close-nit community of who we are as Guyanese people,” she says.

Jessica’s parents enrolled her in specialised schools for blind students throughout her entire education. She says that, if she had the choice, she’d have rather been mainstreamed going to school with sighted students, but that looking back, she can understand that her parents probably thought they were doing the best thing they knew to give her the resources to thrive.

‘I think their thought process was, “we’ll put her in a school for the blind because she’ll be safe there.”

She also had to convince her parents that she was capable of moving out to live in dorms at college, and describes the complex dynamics of being a blind daughter of sighted immigrants.

“Being a person that was blind, and them  not knowing the kind of scaffolding and they also did need me to do a lot of the accommodations, kind of professional written stuff professional verbal stuff, due to them being immigrants. So it’s almost like a weird catch 22 if you will, of me, meaning to advocate for myself but also me not really being able to push those boundaries of what I could do.”

Growing up Brown, Jessica didn’t find race figured so prominently as her school was majority people of colour, but some blind people still did make unfounded assumptions that she was white based on her accent.

At college, she was suddenly in an environment which was majority white, and significantly, also surrounded by sighted students for the first time in her life. She reflects on the importance of having friends who can relate.

“My two best friends in the whole world, are both Guyanese and totally blind … As many sided friends as I have, there’s just something hard to describe about going to a best friend who knows exactly, who has walked the walk.”

Social work and intersectionality

For Fatuma, it was her intersectional experiences of advocacy that propelled her towards social work. She battled low expectations at school in Norway, being strongly encouraged to take extra years to finish high-school, and advocating for accommodations like getting her text books in an accessible format on time. She describes interpreting for her mother as well: “I was like my own parent and child at the same time.”

“I have first-hand experience of being a foreigner and also having a disability. I had to check what kind of rights I have, I had to talk to the municipality, the school, you had to fill in some disability forms… It was hard”

For Jessica, going into social work was prompted by a combination of things: her advocacy growing up, friends seeing her as a good listener, and also realising social work was a flexible career path. Flexibility, she points out, becomes extra important when you’re seeking employment as a multiply marginalised person.

In Fatuma’s programme, she says that disability was covered briefly but not in depth, that LGBTQ rights weren’t discussed at all, and that intersectionality wasn’t addressed sufficiently.

In Jessica’s education, she’s taken an oppression and diversity course with an explicit focus on intersectionality, but still notes that learning about disability generally is ad hoc.

Jessica herself speaks openly about her experiences and also has a Youtube channel. But she also feels conflicted about being given numerous speaking opportunities at her school as a blind student of colour.

“It’s hard because … I’m the only totally blind student on my campus, the exposures there but I’m always the one having to do the education.”

She likens disability inclusion to a drivers test.

“You learn these specific things, e.g. person-first language and stuff. But when you get behind the wheel or out in the open, if I’m continuing to attempt to work with this metaphor, you have to kind of go based on needs, and I just don’t think that there is enough exposure to the disabled community for people to learn what those needs are, learn how to interact.”

She’d like social workers to do their own research around disability, ask respectful questions and take on board the responses.

And what would Fatuma like to see social workers do better, which she herself didn’t experience growing up?

“Listen to the client… don’t suggest what works, let them talk.”

“When I had meetings with the social workers, they did a lot of the talking, and I didn’t get to say my needs. … Listen and be open to other suggestions than yours. I think that’s the main thing”

By Áine Kelly-Costello

Blind freelance writer/journalist and campaigner from aotearoa NZ.

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