Refugee Council of Australia
Young boy with hearing aid sitting with family

Barriers and exclusions: The support needs of newly arrived refugees with a disability

Stigma carried over from country of origin

Commonly, people from refugee backgrounds with a disability have experienced stigma in their country of origin. Lived experiences shape perceptions of disability.

The stigma or conceptualisation of disability that people carry from their country of origin often “deflects most attempts” by staff to link individuals with a disability services or supports. There is a “gap in knowledge” in our current disability service systems about cultural values associated with disability.

This hinders service providers’ and policy makers’ understanding of how equitable disability service provision can be achieved, and how levels of access can be improved.

Cultural myths, stigma and shame surrounding disability create significant barriers for refugees with disability, or their families, in seeking support. Negative perceptions of disability and stigma lead to discrimination and social exclusion, which limit access and opportunities to participate in the wider community.

In the aforementioned survey conducted by Julie King et al., a respondent from Sub-Saharan Africa had encountered perceptions of disability as “witchcraft”, and a “multigenerational curse”. In the Middle East, disability was linked with associated feelings of “shame”, as described by another respondent, “they see them as a burden, as someone who is useless”. In parts of South and Southeast Asia, disability is seen as “karma” for “bad deeds” in a past life.

Stigma and negative experiences of disability in a person’s country of origin is a recurring theme in existing literature. Stigma associated with a disability carried over from the country of origin can lead to the individual and their family further isolating themselves in the Australian community, feeling cautious about seeking assistance, feeling shame, and having lowered expectations based on previous experiences of disability services.

As a result of this stigma, there is a lack of experience in accessing and utilising disability services and many humanitarian entrants would be hesitant to identify themselves as having a disability. It is essential that cultural attitudes are taken into consideration when formulating strategies to increase the use of disability services by people of refugee backgrounds.

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