Skip to main content
In Canada, disability researcher says 'racism is very polite'
Bloom Blog

In Canada, disability researcher says 'racism is very polite'

By Louise Kinross

Sadora Asafaw has worked as a special-needs coordinator in Holland Bloorview's Spiral Garden and as a recreation assistant running programs for the hospital's inpatients. She recently defended her master’s thesis in Environmental Studies at York University: Amplifying the Experiences of Black Youth with Developmental Disabilities and Their Families: At the Margins of Policy and Practice. Sadora did in-person interviews with eight members of four families. The youth with intellectual disability had autism or, in one case, a rare genetic condition. “Racism, socioeconomic status, ableism and gendered inequities produce institutional and systemic barriers that affect the care pathways of black youth and their families,” she writes in the conclusion of her study. We spoke about it.

BLOOM: What was the goal of your study?

Sadora Asafaw: To really hear the experiences of black youth with developmental disabilities and their families. In my research, when working at Holland Bloorview, and in looking at other community organizations, there is very little documented about the experiences of these families.

BLOOM: What do we need to know about the results?

Sadora Asafaw: How intersectional, or interconnected, some of their challenges are. So, for example, financial strain for families of children with disabilities isn’t a surprise. But in my research I learned that black people in Canada earn 75.6 cents on the dollar that non-racialized Canadians earn. I expected the financial strain of disability, but we rarely consider how these families have higher rates of poverty based on racism.

BLOOM: So it’s a double financial whammy.

Sadora Asafaw: For any family raising a child with disabilities, if you have money, you can try to offset some of those challenges. Money helps in your ability to cope with challenges and ease the strain. These families are marginalized by poverty based on racism, in addition to the extra costs of raising a child with disabilities. But I wasn’t able to find anything that looked at both in Canada—that disaggregated families with children with disabilities based on race. Organizations have just started to collect data like that to take a health equity approach.

BLOOM: Another finding was that most services for these families are located in higher-income areas, so not in the families’ own communities.

Sadora Asafaw: That is absolutely true. The families have to travel great distances, and it’s hard if they don’t drive. But another issue related to where the services are located is how these families manage challenging behaviours in their children as they get older and bigger. Almost all of the families told me they had been pushed out of a program in a higher-income neighbourhood, or were no longer welcome, because of their child’s behaviour when they became teens.

When their kids were a lot younger, they looked cute and organizations could accommodate them and their meltdowns. But as they got older, staff reacted with fear to meltdowns. When the youth grew to be six feet tall and black, they felt threatened by his behaviour. Some black families also felt that the policies of the organization were applied more harshly to them, and that staff responses were shaped by racist stereotypes of black males as threatening.

There was also a sense—in programs or at school or even in hospitals—that when a black parent was advocating on their son or daughter’s behalf, staff would tend to doubt or question whether the youth’s behaviour was part of their disability or they were acting out.

BLOOM: I know you also found families felt that their youth with developmental disability didn’t receive the best health care.

Sadora Asafaw: Yes. They explained how their child’s disability resulted in them not getting preventative care, where doctors would help identify potential areas of concern that needed to be worked on, as opposed to acute care. This fit with my research, where I learned that families of youth with disabilities—especially intellectual disabilities—are less likely to get preventative healthcare and health promotion.

BLOOM: There was an interesting quote in your study from a sibling who said her brother was very overweight and developed other symptoms and when the family pressed for answers, they were told he had probably had diabetes for some time and was in crisis.

Sadora Asafaw: When you add race and low income to the mix, preventative care is less likely to happen. If that family were high income and living in a community where they get preventative care, can afford many activities and are more aware of what to look for, it would probably be caught earlier on.

BLOOM: So there often isn’t proper monitoring of these youth for secondary health problems?

Sadora Asafaw: It’s not just monitoring. If a family is told they have to change their eating habits, and they’re living on a low income, what if they can’t afford fruits and vegetables? Or what if the youth throws away food because of texture, but the family can’t afford to pay a behaviour therapist for help, and there’s no community health centre to support the family’s needs? Health promotion may also look different for these families, or require more steps.

BLOOM: I know you talked about the cost and location of programs that were barriers.

Sadora Asafaw: I saw two things. Sometimes there’s an information dump about available services that leaves families feeling overwhelmed. They don’t know what to seek out, or how it may apply to their child.

On the other hand, sometimes workers recommend things that are so incredibly far from where the families live. If you’re working two to three jobs, and the program is on the other side of the city, and you have no transportation, how will you get there? Or families may not know that to get a spot in the summer, they have to register in the winter, so when they call, the program is full.

Enhanced care coordination alone is not going to address the challenges black families experience. We have to understand how intersectional these barriers are: the financial strain, and how that determines where you live, and where you live positions whether you can attend certain programs, and whether you can attend quality programs. We have to understand how a child’s challenging behaviour, and how it may be perceived as a threat, contributes to that family’s experience of isolation and lack of support. We’re talking about racism. And if we’re not confronting that in our policies and programs and practices, these systemic and institutional injustices will persist.

BLOOM: So you’re talking about how these families are marginalized in multiple ways, and how different kinds of discrimination stack up.

Sadora Asafaw: Yes. And if clinicians don’t hear about this from families, it may be because English is a second language for parents. Or maybe they’re from Canada and they’re afraid of encounters with doctors or teachers or other persons of authority. They don’t feel safe to voice their concerns through traditional reporting methods. They know that part of an organization’s protocol for their child’s escalating behaviour is to call the police. Writing a complaint doesn’t work for these families because it leaves them feeling more vulnerable to being penalized.

BLOOM: Something that really stood out for me in your study was when a mother talked about how she’d rather her son beat her up than call 911 for help, because police would treat him like a criminal. “They would handcuff my boy…make him freak out all the more and then because they’re going to go and take the situation out of my hands, because they’re probably gonna [say] ‘Well, you called us!...’ He doesn’t have language to speak and unless I know what cop is coming to my door…Nope! Not gonna go there.”

Sadora Asafaw: I hear about situations like that a lot. CBC just released a report that looked at deadly encounters and how black people are more likely than any other racial group to be a victim. But no one has dug deep to look at how this informs these families’ care pathways. You see how black, indigenous and other people of colour continue to be left out. We have to address all kinds of marginalization for these families when developing and promoting programs.

The South Asian Autism Awareness Centre has done some incredible and important work, but they’re doing it with very little funding and great demands. Families go there because they trust them and they’re able to meet people in their community.

BLOOM: So you’re talking about targeting care to different communities?

Sadora Asafaw: First we need to hear from those communities and understand what’s not working. Maybe we can work with local organizations that are culturally based. Sometimes faith plays a big role, so perhaps working with local churches or mosques or other sources of support. If service providers aren’t hearing from black families and aren’t seeing them in their programs and services, you have to ask why? What is a barrier? What leads these families not to feel comfortable?

We need to do more outreach to families that aren’t engaged. You know that saying in the disability community ‘Nothing about us without us?’ It applies to black folks and other indigenous populations. It’s not that we don’t know what to do. It’s that we’re not given the financial resources to develop the programs and the physical space to do it in.

People think that culture isolates everyone, and is why organizations can’t reach certain populations. But too often that’s used as a scapegoat to explain why families of diverse backgrounds are not coming to a program.

Families tell me they know right away when they walk into a place when they don’t feel welcome. In Canada, racism is very polite. You can go to a program and still feel pushed out through the words they’re using, or the way they selectively decide to apply policy, or in realizing that you don’t have the right words to apply for a service. How many people in the program look like your family? How many decision-makers look like your family?

How many black families begin a program and then don’t go back? It’s not just important how someone enters a program, but how they exit. Part of it may be that they’re protecting their own safety. When you don’t do something in the manner that the person in authority likes, you’re afraid about how they may respond. Maybe they will call children’s aid. Black families are far more likely to have their children removed by CAS than other racial groups.

It’s the same thing with the mother who didn’t want to call police when her child has a violent meltdown. She’d rather the child take it out on her, because she knows existing options won’t help her family.

BLOOM: What did families tell you things would look like in their ideal world?

Sadora Asafaw: One would be having a specialized centre or hub that is working to support specific ethnoracial groups with the needs and struggles they have. It would build community capacity of black and other racialized families, so they can gather community input along with the best evidence to inform their programs. It’s not that everyone there has to be black, but you would hope to see more people who look like you and are working towards the same goal.

When parents talk about support groups, they say they couldn’t relate to what was talked about in traditional groups, because their parenting challenges were different based on their ethnoracial background. I don’t know of any place in Toronto that looks at the specific needs of black families with youth with developmental disabilities.

The reason I focused on black families was that they experience some of the most difficult challenges, and are often afraid for their survival. They’re afraid they might not survive certain encounters when it comes to their safety. What would an organization look like where they could aspire to more, and feel they can participate and really belong?

BLOOM: I know we’ve begun to collect health equity data from families.

Sadora Asafaw: If someone calls a code white [for potential violence], is data collected on that? That might show biases within staff, or a way to better manage situations in future. Look at where certain groups are being served in the organization. Some families come directly from SickKids for rehab. But what about community programs?

Maybe the reason a community program is not diverse is because it’s not easy to get to. Holland Bloorview is in a high-income area where homes go for millions of dollars. Perhaps many of the people attending a program live in close proximity to Bloorview.

Look at the duration that families stay with a program. If families don’t feel comfortable, they won’t stay. What about families who are discharged from a program because the organization felt it couldn’t support them? Are there higher rates of black families discharged from programs, because too many codes were being called for their child?

The other thing I didn’t spend too much time on, but that some of the families touched on, was to recognize some of the similarities between black families and black workers in healthcare.

Black staff in this sector tend to be personal support workers or nursing staff. They’re frontline, not in managerial positions. They’re often in contract positions, so their roles are somewhat precarious. It may be very difficult for them to share their experiences of racism, given the politeness that accompanies it in Canada. If they’re constantly advocating for families who have experienced something they perceive to be different or unfair, they may be viewed as a troublemaker.

If you have less developmental pediatricians that are black, less occupational therapists that are black, less scientists that are black, you have less black people for staff to look to for mentorship and leadership. It’s great that there are a lot of black workers in frontline health positions. But you need to see them in management and leadership positions. Otherwise it can make it very difficult for black workers to voice their concerns or opinions or perspectives.