"My accent should not matter when it comes to getting services for my daughter."

About: Chioma (10)

Age Range: 6 to 13 years

Perspective: Parent

County: Davidson

My name is Onyeka, and I am a mother of a child with autism. My daughter, Chioma, is in the fourth grade and loves to bake, draw, and sing. Despite her disability, she is a very smart young girl who excels in math. Although my four children were born in the United States, I was born in Africa and moved to America when I was four years old. My family and I have lived in Nashville for many years; we consider ourselves American. My experiences as a parent of a child with a disability and an advocate have helped me understand how difficult it is to have a child with disability. Yes, Chioma is a typical kid in many ways, but her needs are different. She does not communicate orally; it is hard and sometimes impossible for others, and even myself, to figure out her wants and needs. Few people understand the challenges we have to face on a daily basis.

What makes the role of parent and advocate even more problematic is when you do not fit the mold of an “American.” Since Chioma entered school, I have had so many problems with getting the services that she is entitled to in order to succeed at school. I think that one of the sources of this difficulty is my accent, my name, and the way that I look. A few years ago, one teacher tried to tell me that she was doing me a favor by letting Chioma come to school. I had to tell the woman, “You assume that because I have an accent that I don’t know what my rights are. I do know what my rights are. You’re not doing her a favor because you’re taking every other child who has a disability. So why is it different for Chioma? Because her name is African, you assume she’s from outside? She’s a citizen! She was born here, so she has just as much right to be on that bus as every other child. For me, you can tell me you won’t give me anything. That’s fine. But for your information, I’m also a citizen of this country.” I have an accent because of the people I grew up with, but that does not make me any less of citizen than anyone else. Other people hear our names and our accents and believe that we are not entitled to receive any assistance. America is all I have ever known! How can people assume that I do not know what I’m talking about just because of the way that I talk? My accent should not matter when it comes to getting services for my daughter. There are laws about education, and schools need to fulfill the legal obligations. By the time Chioma comes out of school, she should be able to read and write. She should be able to get on the bus without me having to stand there and guide her onto the bus. I shouldn’t have to go into school and fight for everything. I shouldn’t have to fight for her to be in a general education classroom or to get speech and language therapy or to have textbooks at school. But I do have to fight because of who I am and because Chioma has a disability.

When I first started having to attend IEP meetings and interact with Chioma’s teachers, I did not know that I could challenge what the teachers were telling me. I didn’t know that I could have a translator if I wanted one. I consider myself lucky that I was able to learn English at an early age because I would not be able to advocate for my daughter without knowing English. A couple of years ago, I had been thinking, “How can parents of children with disabilities be effective advocates for their children if they do not understand what teachers are talking about?” My concern for other immigrant families is that they don’t have support emotionally, in the classroom, or with physical needs like childcare. I tried to start a support group for African families with children with disabilities. I wanted to try to help families know about resources that are available to them and provide training to the families so that they could be better equipped to support their children.

Unfortunately, the support group didn’t work out. The main challenge is the stigma; nobody wants to be identified as having a child with a disability. Even though we’re in a free country, we still have to interact with people from our own communities where the stigma still exists. Immigrant families face an additional challenge because when we come to the United States, we don’t really have any support system because our families are so far away. So we have to work and some of us have to go to school, which leaves little or no time for things like support groups. When I organized the meetings for my group, most of the time, nobody showed up. After a while, I became frustrated because I was putting forth so much effort into this group and even taking my four kids to the meetings because my husband works out of state. My kids were frustrated, too, because they were being dragged to a meeting, and no one was even coming! After trying a few more times, I decided to stop and take a break from the support group. I want to try another time, but for now, the African community is not ready for that.

Even though the support group did not work out, I try to help immigrant families in other ways, like being an advocate for immigrant families of children with disabilities. I want to try to help other families who are adjusting to life in the United States while having to cope with the struggles that entail having a child with a disability. I hope that someday the support group can start again and make a difference in the lives of immigrant families.

Updated on Tuesday, August 20, 2013