Underlying Expectations: Personal experience of being a non-English Speaking Background woman with a disability

A Paper By Lina Pane-Hawkins. Copyright 2000.

My personal experience is similar, I’m sure to many non-English speaking background (NESB) women with disabilities, where there is an underlying expectation of who you are and supposed to be, yet the expectation of falling in love and getting married and having children is just not expected. Why, when your sister or brother has this choice or is expected to carry the name or have children?

I would like to share a part of me that illustrates my experience of being a NESB woman with a disability and how my parents coped with me falling in love and getting married.

I was born in Australia in 1966 of Italian parents. I’m a middle child and quite balanced considering. I never really understood what it meant to be a NESB woman with a disability from a NESB background until my mid 20’s when I found it difficult accessing employment due to having a disability. Then my parent’s had this high expectation of me to achieve beyond their dreams and yet often didn’t expect me to do as well as I have.

My Italian background is very important too be because of its caring, sharing giving nature and the extended family that I have grown up in and still cherish. I recently got married, which in it self should have been a very normal part of life, but not for me. One I married a man with a disability and two he wasn’t Italian, he was Australian. Our courtship, if anything was a challenge. It tested all our boundaries and at one time I was even prepared to leave the home I was brought up in because of the differences.

It’s difficult even today to understand why my parents couldn’t understand my choice. My dad however had the most difficulty, followed by my mum. There was a year and a half of courtship in which he just wouldn’t recognise my husband. He wouldn’t remain in the same room yet in the same house.

Often family celebrations, instead of being joyful occasions would be the total opposite, as I would have to make a choice of whom would stay – this wasn’t verbal. Other family members would also then be “put in a spot of bother”, as they had to choose too. I basically ended up not going to many family occasions unless it was a sibling’s party or first cousin. And my husband and I would meet afterwards or before. I’m amazed at how patient he was with my parents and me. I felt as if I was the ham between two slices of bread. No one really won.

It all then changed when I travelled overseas with my parents. As they didn’t understand English very well, I became their guide to America, where they stayed with relatives for eight weeks. I only stayed for three. It’s during this time that my favourite uncle must have talked some sense into them, because when they cam home my husband was finally invited over to join in our family dinner’s on Wednesday nights. Things then slowly got better, but no t completely or without an argument or two. However we knew that there would be difference and that I wasn’t prepared to back down. They finally then accepted that my husband was going to be the one that I married and take me from them. I think they always assumed that I would remain at home. I’m not sure still today, if it was the disability that caused the inconceivable differences or the different cultures.

With sheer persistence and help from other family members who only wanted to see the peace again, our relationship was accepted. My husband’s side was so different in their response. They were so accepting and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. My brother and sister did not experience this situation. My brother was male, so he couldn’t do anything wrong, as he carried the family name. Expectations placed on women were of marriage and children and this was true for my oldest sister. These expectations were not placed on me, and relationships of any sort were not expected.

Today the story is so different, as there is complete acceptance of our relationship and my husband is treated like a family member. My parents have helped us with setting up the house and my dad, a great handy man, has done so much to make our home physically accessible. My mum even mentions to me that she thinks I’ve done better than my brother and sister because of the equal relationship we have and there is no “cultural expectation” of what we are supposed to be like. My sister, as she was the first born, was brought up the old way, and very stereotyped to what a woman should be and my brother, he was brought up very male and not expected to help with household duties of any sort.

There is one subject though, that I just don’t mention to Mum, which is very taboo. That is, the idea of having children. You just don’t mention it as there is this underlying fear that if we get pregnant, our child would have a disability, yet neither of our disability is genetic, so the chances of having a ‘disabled’ child is the same as it is, for anyone else. We are planning to have children one day soon, so I’m sure it will bring new issues and problems to deal with. We will take that day when it comes with calm and an understanding and it will be okay. My parents will just have to accept our choice. They need to let go and see me as a woman and not a child that they still would like to control.

I’ve illustrated briefly my experience to show how disability and culture work and what this all means when you are a woman. The underlying expectation of what you are supposed to and yet not to do.