Friday, February 15, 2019

Racism and ableism stack up against black moms, study finds

By Louise Kinross

Last month York University researcher Nazilla Khanlou presented results on a study of black mothers with children with developmental disabilities at the Racialized Maternal Health Conference in Toronto. Her team interviewed seven black mothers and three service providers to learn about the challenges the mothers faced and how these barriers influenced their own health. BLOOM did an interview, by e-mail, with Nazilla and two of her co-researchers—Luz Maria Vasquez and Attia Khan.

BLOOM: Why was the study needed?

Nazilla, Luz, Attia:
According to the literature, racialized mothers of children with developmental disabilities bear a disproportionate burden of stress, illness and health inequities. They are triply marginalized due to factors related to their Black, Latino, Asian or Indigenous backgrounds; their gender; and because they are the main caregiver for their family. Studies associate these factors with poor health outcomes for mothers.

The study was needed because our programs to promote the health and wellbeing of women do not consider the specific experiences and needs of racialized mothers of children with developmental disabilities. Based on our previous studies, we discovered there was a need to reach out to this population to hear their specific perspectives on how society and institutions can support their wellbeing.

BLOOM: How did you define racialized mothers in the study? Were they all immigrant mothers?

Nazilla, Luz, Attia:
We used the term ‘racialized’ to recognize the existence of power imbalances among the population that favour certain groups in our society and disadvantage other segments of the population. Some racialized mothers are immigrants, and others are Canadian.

BLOOM: What kind of questions did you ask in the interviews?

Nazilla, Luz, Attia:
Some examples:

-What is ‘racism’ to you?

-What does a health-care provider or social-service provider need to know about your experiences with racism, and other barriers, to more effectively meet your needs?

-Who do you think can help you to do the things you want to do? (e.g. agencies, family, partner, friends)?

BLOOM: What were the key findings?

Nazilla, Luz, Attia:
In this study we learned that the challenges of mothering children and youth with developmental disabilities increase when mothers are racialized. The added challenges of mothering a child with a developmental disability included the need to provide care around-the-clock, perhaps over a lifetime; financial difficulties; social stigma; being blamed for their child's disability; and lack of social support. On top of that, mothers needed to work extra hard to protect their children from racism and discrimination. 

BLOOM: It sounds like the first barrier they experience is the challenge of getting what their child with disability needs. And the second barrier is the racism they experience in the medical system and the community. Also, I noticed in your study that mothers felt stigmatized by their own families.

Nazilla, Luz, Attia:
Mothers referred to the issue of service access and utilization. They felt they weren't treated equally, because of race, in learning about school and health-care resources. They felt service providers didn't give them adequate information. Some mothers felt service providers were intentionally unhelpful, or were saving those supports for other families.

One said: 'We will not have access to the same services, even the developmental see how they treat the white people different than how they treat the black people. They don't give you the information that's available.'

In regards to their families, some mothers highlighted a lack of support and understanding about the specific needs of their children with developmental disabilities. They also felt socially isolated from their families.

BLOOM: I thought it was interesting that five of the seven mothers interviewed were single. Would we expect this in another population of mothers raising kids with developmental disabilities?

Nazilla, Luz, Attia:
First of all, it’s important to highlight that there is stigma and stereotyping attached to marital status. In light of this, we, as researchers, don’t make assumptions about marital status among the different populations we study. In the context of our study, we understand marital status as an important factor affecting mothers’ health-promotion experiences.

As the mothers explained, lack of support from family members (including partners, husbands, mothers and siblings) is a key social determinant of their and their children’s health and wellbeing. This lack of support intersects with other determinants, such as employment, time, and other resources.

BLOOM: What were the strengths you identified in these moms?

Nazilla, Luz, Attia:
Mothers discussed these strategies they use to cope with racism and discrimination in the context of raising their children:

-They teach their children about the reality of racism and how they have to work ‘twice as hard’ as non-racialized individuals.

-They practise and teach key values to their children like tolerance, respect and understanding. As one mother said: 'I raise my child to respect everybody, because I believe racism starts in somebody's house.'

BLOOM: What did the mothers suggest would help professionals provide better care?

Nazilla, Luz, Attia:
A key suggestion was the need for service providers to be educated about the implications of racism in the lives of the populations they serve.

Service providers should be taught, as part of their professional development, the role that racism plays in limiting health promotion opportunities; that racism intersects with other social determinants of health, such as socioeconomic opportunities; and that stigma and discrimination are part of the everyday experiences of racialized mothers and their children.

In sum, service providers need to understand the negative impact that racism has in the lives of the mothers. Service providers need to be proactive and critical about how their own activities may be directly or indirectly reproducing discrimination or racism.

Mothers also suggested we need more service providers with diverse backgrounds; more information about services; more programs and services; and a hotline to support mothers.

BLOOM: You also interviewed three professionals who work with the black community. Were they seeing similar things with their clients that the mothers talked about?

Nazilla, Luz, Attia:
The service providers we interviewed, who were of racialized backgrounds, agreed that racism exists in our society. But often racism is subtle, they said. People don’t outwardly say things, but hold strong beliefs that cause them to treat other people unfairly. Those on the receiving end may not call it racism, but talk about being disrespected or feeling insulted or shunned.

The service providers felt that racism was seen more in public places, like grocery stores and malls, but was less commonly experienced in health care. They believed that lack of socioeconomic resources—such as employment and family support—as well as language barriers, were obstacles to care, or negatively impacted the mothers’ health.

They noted that people are served on first-come first-serve basis, so people who are persistent receive the support they need. They felt diversity in the backgrounds of staff and volunteers and in program activities would help mothers feel welcome and included, and that they are treated fairly. Service providers said that they, and their colleagues, would not treat one person in line differently from another person.

BLOOM: What are next steps for this research?

To transfer our knowledge, including:

-to inform equity-based health-promotion practice policy for racialized mothers of children, youth and young adults with developmental disabilities

-to include on our website an information brief in plain language and one on video. Both will outline the health-promotion framework, and its application to racialized mothers, and other strategies will be recommended.

-to continue to disseminate findings across various venues. For example, we recently presented at the Racialized Maternal Health Conference, and at the LaMarsh Centre for Children and Youth speakers series. We will be presenting a poster at the upcoming Ontario Shores Annual Mental Health Conference.

BLOOM: If a professional takes one thing from this study, what should it be?

Nazilla, Luz, Attia:
They need to reflect on how much they know about racism, and to acknowledge that racialization and racism impacts mothers’ wellbeing through their intersections with gender, privilege and power. Furthermore, they need to be critical about the assumptions or prejudices that inform their own everyday practices, and how they may negatively impact on the racialized populations they serve. Finally, service providers need to be proactive in terms of openly addressing discrimination and racism in the settings where they work.

Service providers told us that one size does not fit all. Programs that don’t really connect or resonate with the community that they’re serving are less likely to succeed. They also believed that programs need to be tailored to specific community needs. For example, they suggested dedicated programs for people who are new to Canada versus people who are born and raised in Canada.

Please watch this fabulous video about the York University study, which was funded by Women's College Hospital's The $15K Challenge. Nazilla holds the Women's Health Research Chair in Mental Health. You can follow her @YorkUOWHC. 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

'I'd like to see siblings treated more like patients'

By Louise Kinross

Victoria Rombos has worked in Holland Bloorview’s Ronald McDonald playroom as an early childhood studies student, then volunteer, and now staff member. But her connection with Holland Bloorview goes way back. Victoria’s younger sister Chrysoula, 19, developed a seizure disorder after having cataract surgery as a toddler. "It was a side effect of the surgery, but I only just found that out," Victoria says. "I thought I knew the story, but I keep finding out more." As a big sister, Victoria is very involved in Chrysoula’s life, so it's fitting that she's spearheading Holland Bloorview's new Sibling Support Program.

BLOOM: How did you get into this field? 

Victoria Rombos: It was because of my sister, mostly. 

BLOOM: How would you describe her?

Victoria Rombos:
I describe her as sassy. She has an intellectual disability and uses a wheelchair and is non-verbal. We’re not entirely sure how much she understands, but I think she understands a lot more than people think. She’ll laugh at things, or pretend to be asleep and then pop open her eyes. She likes music. The Wheels on the Bus was always her song. I get her to play games on the iPad where she touches things and they change colours. I try to paint her nails sometimes, but she moves around too much. Recently she had a three-month stay at Sunnybrook due to pneumonia.

BLOOM: How have you found the move to the adult system?

Victoria Rombos:
My sister is very small, so they were taxiing child-sized equipment back and forth from SickKids. Most of the nurses at Sunnybrook hadn’t encountered people with disability. They really didn’t have a sense of her needs, and my mom was going through the complaint department constantly. Now my sister has a trache, which has been a real learning experience.

BLOOM: Does your sister have home nursing at night?

Victoria Rombos:
Until recently, she only had 12 night nursing hours a week, and my mom had to do everything else at night. We were just given an increase to 24 night hours a week.

BLOOM: That’s still a huge amount of night hours that your mom needs to do. What was it like growing up with a sister with pretty complex needs?

Victoria Rombos:
It was really interesting. I only felt super different sometimes. The public school I went to had the Wayne Avenue preschool in it, so Chrysoula went there when I was in Grade 2. I remember when I asked the principal why my sister’s birthday wasn’t included in the announcements, like my birthday was. I used to like pulling the wagons with the kids in the preschool and I would get my friends to come and help. Since then, Chrysoula has gone to a segregated school, which works best for her.

I definitely feel isolated from other people sometimes, that I've had experiences that are different from my peers. I feel I would have benefited from knowing there were other kids who had a sib like me. In 2016, I sat on Holland Bloorview’s sibling panel. It was the first thing I’d done as a sib. I remember talking with Michelle Char, who was also on the panel, and being so surprised that she got it. She knew what a suction machine is.

When I was younger, I thought my parents liked my sister better than me because they spent more time with her. I was a little resentful, but I was a really empathetic kid. When kids with disabilities were picked on at my school I would tell people off. I had a lot of family support when my sister was in hospital, and would spend time with my grandmother and other relatives.

BLOOM: So your early experiences with your sister in the health care system influenced your career choice?

Victoria Rombos:
Yes. I always wanted to work with kids with disabilities. Initially I wanted to be a teacher. I was interested in a special-education degree at the University of Toronto, but in my last year of high school they changed the requirements to include statistics and the highest math. That wasn’t happening! So I looked at the next closest thing, which was the program at Ryerson.

BLOOM: What ages does the early childhood studies program cover?

Victoria Rombos:
Zero to five.

BLOOM: What’s a typical day like in the playroom for you?

Victoria Rombos:
As it’s a drop-in, we never know what to expect. If there’s a clinic, we often get three to five kids in the morning, and then afternoons are typically a bit busier. We work with kids who are clients and their siblings.

BLOOM: What are the joys of the job?

Victoria Rombos:
I like seeing the relief on parents’ faces when they realize they can take a break, or drop off all their coats. Sometimes parents will talk to me about something I can relate to, because I grew up with my sister. I like that I have that relatable sense. The kids are the most entertaining part. I like the different reactions they have, and when they ask lots of questions, or tell you about their favourite movie or what they've done that day.

BLOOM: What is the greatest challenge?

Victoria Rombos:
Sometimes kids will ask a lot of questions of other kids who have disabilities, but without a filter. Sometimes we need to reroute those questions.

BLOOM: You’re running a new support program we offer for siblings aged seven to 18. How does it work?

Victoria Rombos:
The sibling program shadows the family workshops that Melissa Ngo runs. They happen at the same time. We wanted to have a holistic family approach, so parents could go to the education workshop, while sibs come to our program, and patients go to the playroom.

There are official sibling programs in the U.K. and the U.S., but not in Canada. I’ve been getting inspiration from looking at those official programs, and then asking our siblings what they’d like to see.

I integrate things about siblings into relational games we play. One is called the spider’s web. One child holds a ball of yarn and says something about themselves, and if what they say relates to another child, that child puts up their hand and gets thrown the ball. It allows you to see how we’re all connected.

I may bring up a disability-related topic when I hold the yarn, like ‘my sister doesn’t talk,’ and see how many other kids relate to that. Another successful one is to ask what they like about their sibling, or what bugs them about their sibling. A child might say ‘I don’t like the sound of my brother’s CPAP machine.'

BLOOM: Why is this program important?

Victoria Rombos:
If a child goes to a school that doesn’t have a lot of students with disabilities, or goes to a different school from their brother or sister, it’s important to meet other kids like them, and feel less isolated. Some kids may need to vent about something they feel is unfair in their family, and find another sibling who feels that way. It helps children feel less alone.

BLOOM: What do you think is most misunderstood about siblings?

Victoria Rombos:
Even now, there’s a lot of stuff my friends don’t get. They may talk about the future when their siblings will have kids. My sister won’t have children, and it’s not in a bad way, but it’s a newer thing I’m dealing with. We really need to destigmatize disabilities. Even some people in my family will say hi to my sister, but they don’t know how to really approach her. When you have a disability and you can’t speak, a lot of people discount you. They need to realize there’s a personality there.

BLOOM: Do you currently live at home with your sister?

Victoria Rombos:
Yes. I’m not in a super rush to move out. I feel like I’m needed there. I would rather stay home and help my parents. Chrysoula was going to school five days a week, but since she got her trache, she needs a nurse. So my mom was told she can only go to school three days a week.

BLOOM: That’s terrible! There seem to be so many situations we’re hearing about where children with disabilities are not able to attend regular school hours, for all kinds of reasons.

Victoria Rombos:
It’s not a good situation for my sister or my mother.

BLOOM: If you could change one thing about how we support siblings, what would it be?

Victoria Rombos:
Siblings tend to fall into a gap. We have different programs and events for parents. I’d like to see siblings treated more like patients, like they’re important, and not a side thing. We go through a lot of emotional stuff. I remember the first time they intubated my sister and how upset and emotional my parents became. That's when I realized how serious this was, compared to her other hospitalizations. 
When you see that it’s traumatizing.

To find out more about Holland Bloorview's Sibling Support Program, e-mail To refer your child, fill out this form. The program is funded through our foundation's No Boundaries program. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

'I'm calling attention to the whiteness' of health care

By Louise Kinross

Sarah Jama is a co-founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario. She has a long history of disability rights and anti-racism activism. While studying at McMaster University, Sarah headed the National Educational Association of Disabled Students for a two-year term. She also founded Maccess—the first peer-run service for students with disabilities at McMaster. This Wednesday Feb. 6, Sarah is speaking on Moving Toward A Disability Justice Revolution at Hart House at the University of Toronto. I learned a lot about her work through this video of a talk she gave last year called We All Deserve the Right to Life.

BLOOM: In your video, you talk about how you learned at age four that as a black, disabled girl, you didn’t have the same right to bodily autonomy as others. This happened here, at what was then the Hugh MacMillan Rehab Centre, when you came for your first physiotherapy appointment.

Sarah Jama:
I was saying ‘No, I don’t want to do this,’ and they started to stretch my leg and my mom was freaking out, because she didn’t understand why it was painful. They asked her to leave the room, in order for the physio to continue, and she watched behind a two-way mirror, because she didn't want to get a coffee as they suggested.

When I talk about navigating the medical system with an immigrant family, a lot of times, without meaning to, people in medical positions play the role of the expert: ‘We know what’s best, therefore these things over time will be the best for your daughter.’ When the parent, or the person, isn’t seen to be the expert, there’s a lack of communication.

BLOOM: You said you and your mother were both in tears. Another time, when you were a teen, doctors wanted you to have a surgery. You didn’t want to have it, because it would mean you wouldn’t graduate on time with your peers. You had also had the same surgery at age 12, and it didn’t give you the result you expected.

Sarah Jama:
 The surgery, from my perspective, was an aesthetic one. It didn’t work the way I thought it would when I was 12. And it took four months for me to be fully rehabilitated. The surgeon looked at my mom like she was absurd in supporting me in my right to say no.

I talk about how these kinds of interactions, over time, can influence someone’s perception of bodily autonomy—that it means not having a say over certain areas of your life. Some people are viewed as experts over racialized bodies, which is dangerous when coupled with a lack of cultural competency.

An example is the criminalization of black and indigenous folks with invisible disabilities. Soliman Faqiri and Abdirahman Abdi and so many others with autism or schizophrenia have been killed by those meant to serve and protect, because being a person of colour, while having invisible disabilities, gets you perceived as being violent.

Our education system fails people with disabilities. In high school, I was given a spare in place of physical education. The school, at the time, didn’t have proper supports to support me in physical education. But that meant that I missed a lot of the sexual health education that’s taught.

We know from Statistics Canada that 82 per cent of women with disabilities will be assaulted once in their life in Canada. Sexual violence and education aren't linked at all, but we're missing key information on how to protect ourselves. The more I talk about how I missed out on that education, other people with disabilities tell me that they missed it, too.

When I’m talking about disability justice as a means to tackle forms of oppression, I’m coming at it from an intersectional perspective. The leadership, the people in positions of power, don’t reflect the disability community itself.

Within that, I’m calling attention to the whiteness of the structures that prevent people with disabilities from diverse backgrounds from being able to participate in all facets of education and health care, or result in them being perceived as violent.

BLOOM: You are the founder of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario. What is the purpose of that network?

Sarah Jama:
Our vision is to create a world where people with disabilities are free to be. Our mission is to build a just and accessible Ontario where people with disabilities have personal and political agency, can thrive and foster community, and can build the power, capacity and skills needed to hold people, communities and institutions responsible for the spaces that they create.

BLOOM: What needs to change?

Sarah Jama:
The problems are structural. The conversations around accessibility today are stuck in the ‘90s. We talk about people needing access so we can expend our economic purchasing power. There aren’t enough conversations around how people with disabilities who move through our education, medical and prison systems have a right to equity in these spaces, and how racialized people with disabilities navigate these spaces differently.

Another structural change that needs to occur is in our provincial and federal budgeting. A lot of funding goes towards children with disabilities. That funding becomes minuscule in adulthood. It’s as though people with disabilities don’t exist in our adulthood—we disappear.

The lack of education created for people with disabilities needs to be addressed. How are we training young people in the history of disability justice? Where do you learn this? I had to do a lot of self-learning about how disability rights came to be.

Systemically, I was taught that when you have a problem, there are systems in place to support you. For example, if you have a problem in school, you go to 'student accessibility services.' But what do you do when that system doesn’t work for you? The conversation around justice and rights is not happening in our education system. 

The important thing for young people with disabilities to know is that you don't have to resign yourself to using the structures in place.

We're the largest minority in the world: we fit every religion, race and geographical location. Someone with a disability who experiences structural issues should understand that not being able to navigate spaces easily is tied to root causes. People with disabilities don’t fit the common understanding of productivity, so we are least likely to have a system in place that fits us, especially if we’re seen as not being able to contribute back.

I was able to push my university to allocate $30,000 to fix elevators that were broken. I also created Maccess, which is an organization run by students with disabilities for students with disabilities. At Maccess, students taught self-advocacy skills and had peer supports in place.

BLOOM: Something I valued in your video was that you talked about the rights of people with all kinds of disabilities—including people with intellectual disabilities and mental illness. I often see people with one type of disability distancing themselves from people with other types.

Sarah Jama:
I think it has a lot to do with funding levels. Autism Ontario is funded one way, the Ontario Federation for Cerebral Palsy is funded another, and all of these groups end up competing for support, fracturing community instead of building it.

Disability organizations aren't built to be part of a greater community that collaborates. The way to combat that, 100 per cent, is for everyone to come together and acknowledge that we're part of a larger community that historically has been left out of many parts of society.

We're also part of an ever-growing community. One of the leading causes of disability is old age, so everyone at some point will experience it. The sooner we come together to build a community that fits all people with disabilities, the sooner we’ll have a world that fits everyone.

BLOOM: You talk about how people in our culture confuse the rights of people with disabilities with their value to the economy.

Sarah Jama:
I think that’s a faulty and harmful argument. So many people with disabilities can’t work, and do they have the right to exist then, if they can’t contribute? It’s similar to the way seniors are treated. Once they age out of the workforce, they're seen of as disposable.

We see conversations in the public media now about the right to assisted suicide. What about the rights to supports during life? Why does more funding go toward prenatal screening of Down syndrome—and I’m pro-choice—but not toward supports for adults with Down syndrome? The issue lies with institutions  pre-deciding where someone can access support. Who really deserves life, and who has the right to exist?

You have to earn your value, or you’re a burden on society. Couple that with youth with disabilities not knowing about their rights, or that there’s a community of people who have fought for their rights, and by the time they turn 18, depending on their capacity, they struggle with self-esteem, with having community and with understanding their worth. They don’t know that it’s their right to have help and support.

BLOOM: I liked the way you question our culture’s obsession with independence.

Sarah Jama:
We’re obsessed with the idea that you’re worth more if you don’t need anybody. It’s a strange cultural phenomenon that doesn’t make sense. No one is truly independent from anyone else.

Mia Mingus has written a lot about interdependency, and how we should be able to go to our communities and find supports, and not see it as a loss of autonomy, but moving toward a larger collective of potential.

For example, nobody tends to be able to survive without going to a grocery store. But that food comes from a farmer. You didn’t package that food and put it in the grocery store. You’re dependent on the structures that are in place, and the community that puts that grocery store in place. We need to teach kids that we all sort of rely on each other, and that’s okay.

BLOOM: I noticed you're working with the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board to create curriculum to address anti-black racism. Is this something we need to work on with staff and families in children’s rehab?

Sarah Jama:
Yes, I think so. I’ve created a black youth mentorship program for 40 black youth that meets monthly at Sir John A MacDonald Secondary School in Hamilton to talk about their worth and the way to navigate society and the supports in place for them.

On Feb. 12 we have Robyn Maynard coming to speak with them. She wrote Policing Black Lives, which is an acclaimed book on the history of policing in Canada. We also have Sandy Hudson coming, who is one of the founders of Black Lives Matter in Canada. On Feb. 25, the same youth will be meeting with black elected officials at Queen’s Park to talk about being black and navigating politics.

BLOOM: What advice would you give parents raising kids with a wide variety of disabilities?

Sarah Jama:
As much as possible, have conversations around the history of disability in Canada, and how we got to a point where we have a federal piece of legislation. Who are the movers and shakers in our communities? 
What provincial legislation do we have? What communities have pushed for the rights of people with disabilities to exist equally and freely? It’s important for kids to grow up knowing that there’s a community, because a lot of us internalize our experiences.