What’s Up WID: Latinx Disability Community & Access to Education

Ashley Inkumsah:
Hello everyone and welcome back to What’s Up with the World Institute on Disability’s biweekly podcast, where we discuss what’s up in the disability community across the globe. I’m Ashley Inkumsah and I’m so happy to be taking over hosting duties from the incomparable Nicholas Love. Now I’m super excited for you to hear the awesome conversation I had last week with Conchita Hernandez. Conchita is the founder and chair of Mentoring, Engaging and Teaching All Students also known as METAS. Now, METAS is a nonprofit that trains educators in Latin America, who work with blind and low vision students in addition to other disabilities. And she also engages lawmakers and policy discussions about people with disabilities and inclusion. Conchita is also the blind and low vision specialist at the Maryland School of the Blind. She is a woman of very many titles. And lastly, she conducts workshops for educators and professionals in the field of disability and advocacy in the United States and internationally.

Ashley Inkumsah:
Now last week we discussed her experiences as a disabled Latina woman and why blind and low vision students of color deserve access to a quality education. Once again, I am so excited for you to hear our conversation so grab yourself a snack and I hope you enjoy.

Ashley Inkumsah:
I am so happy to have you here today on today’s episode and I’m so enamored with all the work that you’ve done, surrounding of course education and the intersectionality between being Latinx and disabled. How are you doing today? That’s my first question.

Conchita Hernandez:
Thanks. I’m so glad to be here. I feel like there’s so much pressure to be like, oh, I’m good. But I feel like nobody’s really good. It’s a lie we tell ourselves.

Ashley Inkumsah:
Exactly.

Conchita Hernandez:
I think we are all having crises is every day. I would say I’m navigating the crises that are currently happening.

Ashley Inkumsah:
Exactly. And I feel like we’re getting back to some semblance of normal, which makes me feel good and the weather is getting better. I hope for this summer that it’s some semblance of normal in our world. Once again, I am so excited to have you here so we can just jump right into my questions. My first question for you is I know you were born in Mexico and you came to the United States when you were, I believe, five years old, and you grew up in California. I know you’ve also lived in New Jersey, Nebraska, Louisiana and now you’re in the DMV area. How were your experiences, firstly, growing up? And how would you contrast them to being in the United States and the various different states that you’ve lived?

Conchita Hernandez:
Yeah, you’ve definitely done your research.

Ashley Inkumsah:
I come prepared.

Conchita Hernandez:
I’ve lived all over the place. And ultimately I think what it comes down to is resources. When I was born, obviously the ADA wasn’t alive when I was born. I’m sorry, not the ADA, well both actually, the ADA and the IDEA. But in Mexico, there was nothing. My brother who’s also legally blind was already done with grade school by the time we came over and he definitely didn’t get any type of services in school at all. It was just kind of like, you figure it out or you don’t go to school. And 60% of people with disabilities in Mexico are illiterate because of the fact that there really isn’t access to education. Coming to the United States, I think, depending on who you ask, they’ll give you different answers. If you asked my mom, she was like, “Oh, it was amazing. You had services and you had IEPs and you were able to go to the doctor and stuff.”

Conchita Hernandez:
Because her comparison is Mexico where there was nothing. But knowing what I know now about education, about what I should have gotten, I got really basic services because I do have a fair amount of vision, and I had good grades so I got by and I really struggled, but because they were like, “Oh, you’re doing well academically then you don’t really need us.” I didn’t really learn anything in school accommodations wise. I didn’t learn how to travel independently. I always went with somebody every single place that I went to. I had struggled to read and stuff, but I didn’t know how things existed. And I grew up in a small town in Northern California that’s predominantly farm worker families.

Conchita Hernandez:
And so I think there’s a lack of people knowing what resources exist. But then also there’s a lack of explaining it to the communities. The disability rights movement started in California and I never knew about it. I was never introduced to it until I was in college. That’s what ends up happening. Unless you’re college educated, you don’t learn about the disability rights movement about your rights, about being an advocate. And that’s just ridiculous. It’s a huge loss to so many people that are not college educated, that may not speak the language, that don’t get access to the information. And across the United States kind of different places I’ve lived, I’ve seen the same thing over and over. Kind of the people that are marginalized within the communities that they live don’t really have the access to information.

Conchita Hernandez:
And so a question I get a lot is like, “Oh, can you tell us more about how communities of color are more ableist?” And I’m like, “No.” We’re no more ableist. Everybody’s ableist. It’s just we have less access to information. We have less access to resources. And when you have all these panels on college campuses, we’re not a part of them. We don’t even know you exist. It’s not that we’re apparently more ableist, it’s that we’re just not getting the resources and the information that you’re sharing with us. And you’re not even thinking of us when you’re creating these resources. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve seen it over and over again and really seeing my privilege as like, I’m very highly educated. I speak English well, I know about these resources. I’m definitely an advocate and stuff, but it’s kind of this, there are so many more people that we’re not reaching that we really need to.

Ashley Inkumsah:
I feel like it’s safe to say that literally every single country across the globe has been touched by toxic masculinity and misogyny. And in Latin America, the concept of machismo is so heavily imbued and ingrained into the culture and it only further marginalizes people with disabilities. I feel like they contribute to that ableist ideology. Would you agree with that? What were your experiences growing up as a Latin American with a disability? What were your experiences with that?

Conchita Hernandez:
Yeah, so I think absolutely like machismo absolutely intersects right with disability. And so my brother being blind, he had a lot of opportunities that I was never allowed to have. I never learned how to do some basic things, like ride a bike. And for him it was like, “Oh, let him do it. Let him explore it. If something happens to him, it’s okay.” But to me it was like, “Oh no, you’re going to get hurt. Don’t do that.” And so there was very different expectations about what we were supposed to be doing and not doing. And so a lot of those things kind of intersect and come together. But then at the same time, some of those things, not that machismo it’s very bad and very negative, but community structures are actually what help us continue to thrive in our communities.

Conchita Hernandez:
Because there’s a lack of services and supports within our communities, then our communities become the supports and become support systems. In Mexico or in other places, because there isn’t that assistance, then families take care of the relative and they become that support system. And so sometimes when you come to United States, it translates over to oh, the family is super overprotective and they don’t let the person be independent or whatever, but you kind of really have to understand the context that that was what helped the person thrive and survive because they had that support system. And so it’s really difficult to kind of move away from that. And even just, we hear a lot in the disability rights movement, this idea of being independent. It’s a person who is a white male, they’re expected to be this very independent, pull yourself up by your bootstraps type of mentality.

Conchita Hernandez:
But in our communities, able bodied people aren’t that way. We all create community in order to support each other, whether you have a disability or don’t a disability. And so how do we use that strength that communities of color bring where they have community and incorporate it? Instead of being like, oh, your family’s holding you back. I hear that so much where people are like, oh, we’re trying to help them be independent, but their family doesn’t let them. And I’m like, but because you’re not incorporating the family into the teaching, you’re just trying to teach to that individual.

Conchita Hernandez:
I actually, through my nonprofit, we do trainings and one of the trainings that we did was in Texas, in collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind of Texas. And we brought in Spanish speakers who were blind, who don’t have access to services either because they’re undocumented or they speak Spanish. And one of the things that was really important is we brought their families and we were like, we’re going to offer the training, not just to you, but to your whole family. And so we offered free hotel and free food for the whole weekend. And we saw the transformation that that made with the family being able to understand, oh, okay, this is how it’s happening. And then seeing that they have a role in that path of their family member. Whereas when we look at it individually, they really see it as, oh, you’re trying to set me aside and I want to support them, but I can’t now because you’re telling me they have to be independent.

Conchita Hernandez:
Taking that family support and saying, “You are a part of it. Not only are you a part of it, but you’re vital to your family member being a part of the community and this is how you can support them.” And that really shifts people’s way of thinking. And then it really has positive outcomes because then the whole family is on board. And we saw a huge transformations with family being like, oh, I now know how I can explicitly support my family member. Instead of being seen as a hindrance to their independence, I’m now a support system because that’s what they want. They want to support their family members.

Ashley Inkumsah:
Absolutely. I think, and within marginalized communities and especially within people of color, that sense of community, there are strength in numbers. When we unite, when we assist each other, because like you said, there is such a lack of assistance where there should be. Sometimes we really have to lean on each other and lean on our families. That’s completely true. As an educator, I’m wondering, and an advocate whose work centers around disability inclusion for the blind and low vision Latinx community, I’m wondering why is access to education for disabled immigrant students so important to you?

Conchita Hernandez:
I think access to information is so important because that’s what allowed me to kind of come to my own and just kind of be who I am. But also so many educational opportunities are denied to multiply marginalized students. There’s so much obstacles in education, not even higher education. K through 12 education for students with disabilities. And there’s so much inherent racism in education in K through 12 that when you’re both a student of color and disabled, there’s definitely a lot of barriers that you have to work through in order to succeed. A lot of people are like, oh, you’re so smart. And I’m like, the thing is, I’m not. There’s no such thing as being smart. I have friends who I went to high school with that are way brighter than I am that have way better ideas, that are brilliant, but they never had the opportunity because they were seen as being bad behavior because they had so much energy and it was never addressed or they didn’t do their homework. And research shows that homework is actually just a measure of your socioeconomic status. It actually doesn’t do much other than that.

Conchita Hernandez:
We’re marginalizing students in multiple ways and preventing them from reaching their education. I’m not saying every single student needs to go to college, but I’m saying we need to remove the barriers that exist, that don’t let students advance in their education so that they can, if they wanted to, graduate high school, if they wanted to, go onto higher education. What does that look like for our communities? I’m getting a doctorate in special education and I have super struggled in my program to get basic things such as accessible materials and accessible books. And I’m somebody who’s highly educated and I’m an advocate. And I still am like, I could have gained two degrees with all of the extra effort I have to do to navigate my program. And it’s just additional labor that you have on top of already kind of what everybody else has in going through school.

Conchita Hernandez:
And I really think it’s kind of the way of education will liberate us. You’re not going to be less discriminated against because you have more education or you’re not less likely to be a victim of police brutality because you have more education. It’s not going to liberate us from these social issues, but we should have the opportunity like everybody else to be able to navigate through them easily, without all the barriers existing.

Ashley Inkumsah:
I totally agree. I think we live in a world where access and while privileged really affords a lot of people opportunities that a lot of people can’t get. Education shouldn’t be a barrier for people who don’t have privilege. Everyone should be able to have an education. You’re totally right too, education will not save you. I always hate when people are like, so-and-so was a doctor, they shouldn’t have been killed by the police or something like that. It shouldn’t matter what someone’s education level is. Human life is a human life. Definitely I think education is important, but obviously it’s not going to save someone, but it’s an important thing to have access to.

Conchita Hernandez:
Absolutely. And I am light skinned and it has been a privilege for me. An example, when I was in high school, I took AP courses and I was never questioned why it was in the courses. It was just like, okay. And the majority of the people in the courses were white. It was the high school I attended was half Mexican, half white. And mainly the kids, there was a couple of kids of color, very few kids that were in those AP courses. But I was accepted. I was never questioned as to why I was there. Whereas my sister who is brown, she can’t pass the way I can pass, was always questioned by teachers. When she would go, because you had to go turn in a form and when she would have to go turn in her form her teachers would be like, “Are you sure this is the right class for you? Is this the class? Are you sure you can keep up?” And she’s one of the examples that she’s way brighter than me. She has so many great ideas, but yet her place was always questioned and mine wasn’t it.

Conchita Hernandez:
And so I think being cognizant of the fact that my light skin was absolutely a privilege in kind of my education. And when you look at, I’m friends with a lot of people in the Latinx community in higher education, a lot of us are light skinned. And so we’re systematically the ones making it through. And it’s ridiculous really, but we can’t deny that it did give us a privilege, enabled to advance in education.

Ashley Inkumsah:
Absolutely. And it shouldn’t be that way. I think it’s like that for really every industry, whether it’s the music industry or the television industry or whatever industry, you typically see the lighter skinned people who are placed at the vanguard where you would think Brazil, a country like Brazil, that’s majority darker skinned people, you would not know that if you turned on your TV. You think of Brazilians of being very lighter skinned and it’s a problem.

Conchita Hernandez:
If you watch a Mexican telenovela, you’d think every Mexican was blonde and blue eyed because all of the people on the shows are white. It’s a huge issue.

Ashley Inkumsah:
Yeah, it really is. It really is. I’m going to pivot to my next question is how do we begin to kind of rectify the disparities in education that exists for immigrants, low income people with disabilities?

Conchita Hernandez:
That is so complex. There’s multiple ways of doing that. I think the Department of Education tries. There’s certain data that states have to turn in to the federal government on disproportionality. And they’re supposed to turn in that data and then write up reports on how they remedy it. But the thing is you have the same people writing the reports on the remedies that have been in those positions forever. And it’s the same white women, white men who are in those positions, were not really being tasked to be creative about how to do it. Were not really bringing in who are experts on race in schools. It’s kind of same people being like, oh yeah, we’re going to hire someone to do professional development. We’re going to do somebody who’s going to do this.

Conchita Hernandez:
There’s two groups of people. There’s one group of people that is the most important change is done through legislation and that’s how we make things happen. And there’s another group of people that is the most important change is through advocacy and protesting and that is how we make it happen. And I really think both are vital to each other and they can’t exist by themselves. We need people who are actively working on legislation to make sure that good legislation is in place and that it’s moving forward and that it’s systematically creating change because unfortunately people don’t do stuff unless you legislate it. Students with disabilities didn’t have a choice of education until it was mandatedly legislated and even now we still have issues with it. But then we also needed the people who are speaking out and being really outspoken about issues on the ground, on the street and being advocates to push it through the other end because they get the attention that people who work legislatively just cannot and both are really crucial to each other.

Conchita Hernandez:
If we allowed students with disabilities of color to advance in our educational system, they could be these leaders holding these positions that have innovative ideas. People with innovative ideas need to be part of conversation. Because it’s not just like, oh, we have these people who are diverse, but what does that look like in practice? Do they have different experiences? Different people coming to the table and saying, “Hey, what about this?” In a way that nobody had thought of. And we really need people that have lived experience to be part of the conversation. There’s so many times where I’m the only person with a disability talking about students with disability. What important decisions are being made? And that’s just, why are we still doing this? But because we’re not letting those students with disabilities advance into positions where they can be making these decisions and then we don’t hire them. And then we don’t provide them with accommodations once they’re at the workplace.

Conchita Hernandez:
It’s a very complex thing, but there’s multiple ways that we need to be addressing these issues. And one of those ways is also teaching kids in K through 12 education about disability rights and about disability justice. And that will teach the educators because they have to teach the content. I never even knew there was a disability rights movement until I was in college. We need to be starting kids young so that they’re exposed to these issues and so that sometimes people ask me, “What’s the most important thing you wish a person with a disability or a student with a disability knew?” And I said, “For me, it’s that you’re perfect just the way you are.”

Conchita Hernandez:
I think so much when we’re going through school, it’s all about a deficit model of, oh, you’re not doing this correctly. Or you can’t do this or you can’t do that. And so being able to be like, I’m perfect, just the way I am. I just need to do things a little bit differently or I need to have accommodations or I need to have positive role models who I know that I can do things. That was a really long answer to your question.

Ashley Inkumsah:
No, that was a very comprehensive answer, I would say. That was an amazing answer. And like you said, it’s an issue that it can’t be unpacked, in one answer. It’s an issue that definitely is going to take a long time to address and to rectify for sure. That was a great answer. And I guess my next question is even beyond the school setting, why is it so important for us as a collective to eradicate racism, xenophobia and ableism that affects multiple marginalized people? Why is that so important?

Conchita Hernandez:
I think what people don’t realize is that very few people feel fully welcome and fully themselves in spaces. And that tends to be white, straight men. They can show up fully how they are to any space and not feel any which way about it. Everything is defaulted to their needs, to their wants, to who they are. And they don’t feel like, is this a place I can fully be myself? And so it’s very liberating when you have those spaces that you can have. And for some communities, it’s very minimal spaces. A lot of people can not fully in their work place, be fully who they are. They can’t talk about a lot of these issues with their families. I feel like, definitely in the Latinx community, these issues are not talked about enough. And so I think being fully able to show up in spaces and be yourself is something that a lot of people take for granted that so many communities just cannot do. Not because we don’t want to, but because there’s real repercussions when we do.

Conchita Hernandez:
And also, we should want to live in a society that’s just an accepting of all people. And we have a long way to go for that. Especially when we have a country that was built on these issues. We were a country built on racism, built on ableism, built on marginalizing folks. It’s not as simple as like, oh, there’s a couple of racist people or there’s a couple of ableist people. We’re all really racist and really ableist. And how do we dismantle that and learn to do differently so that we can have a better society for our children and everyone we live in? And there’s a lot of other reasons that are very, you can sell more products to people that are very capitalist and stuff. We’re a huge population. People with disabilities are one fourth of the population. And so when companies don’t make things accessible or cater to us they’re hugely missing out. But above that, it’s just having everybody feel like they’re welcome everywhere they go I think it’s just so important.

Ashley Inkumsah:
Yeah. I think specifically, for the disabled population, sometimes it’s hard for people who are not disabled to kind of relate to that, but having a disability is the one thing that could happen to literally anybody and will probably happen too, because everyone’s going to get older at some point in their life. And this is exactly why it’s so important for us to come together and unite around the cause of disability justice and disability rights. And allyship is so important. It’s so important to have people who are non-disabled alongside the disabled community. And even beyond that, people with disabilities deserve to be valued, loved, respected, accommodated, et cetera, et cetera. It really shouldn’t be as difficult as it is, but it’s just a human rights thing. It’s just it’s a justice thing. It’s a rights thing. People with disabilities just deserve to be valued, just like people who are non-disabled do. What would you say is your driving force to do the work that you do? What inspires you? Why did you choose to be an educator? And what are your aspirations for the future?

Conchita Hernandez:
I would say community for me, for sure. Community is kind of what drives me and what gives me energy and gets me excited. When it’s building community, it’s not I’m not building my platform so that I can be popular, important or educated, but rather the work that I do, how does it serve my community? And how does it improve the lives of other children who are currently in school so that they can do all of these things? I think for me, it’s definitely kind of the driving force is my community. I’m doing my doctorate and I’m planning when I graduate to do a huge party. And that’s what I look forward to when I can’t finish, I’m like, oh, how am I going to get this done? It’s definitely I’m going to have a huge party where everyone’s invited and that’s just what keeps me going. And I feel like that that’s kind of what drives me, just having that connection to my community and being able to make a difference that’s bigger than myself.

Ashley Inkumsah:
Absolutely. I love that. Are there any projects that you’re actively working on that you would like to discuss? And where can our audience find you on social media? Where can they keep up with you?

Conchita Hernandez:
Yeah. I feel like Twitter is probably the best place where you can find me, I’m Conchita HDZ and we can share it, I guess, however, the podcast is being shared. Something I’m working on, through my nonprofit METAS, we’ve been for the last year, really providing resources and information to Spanish speaking communities around blindness and disability. And we’ve really created a big network of folks across the world is really what’s happened during the pandemic where people didn’t have resources even before the pandemic. But now we were able to connect and share information and resources and we’re planning some really exciting events coming up that are not super public yet. I can’t exactly tell you but we’re really, really excited about kind of the work that we’re doing and the families that we’re reaching. And a lot of the families that we work with are in Latin America and they don’t have IDA or ADA. And so what are ways that we can share with them on how they can educate their schools to let their students attend school with them or try to advocate to pass some legislation that doesn’t necessarily exist where they’re at.

Conchita Hernandez:
And then we’ve also had having community help build. We’ve had great partnerships with different people, but in a university in Mexico, they really wanted to partner with us. And their students have been creating amazing videos for us where any parent, wherever they are, can create tactile materials for their students, with the materials they already have at home. We have a ton of videos on characters in books, or how to teach your child how to count with this you can make at home. It’s just been a really, really exciting kind of people’s creativity and how it’s built on kind of all of us coming together and trying to support each other and seeing the needs that we have. The nonprofit’s called METAS, M-E-T-A-S and you all can find us on Facebook is probably the best place. We always share information on there. But yeah, that’s kind of the exciting thing going on I guess.

Ashley Inkumsah:
That is amazing. I can’t wait to find out what the events are that are upcoming and all the exciting things that you’re working on. Once again, I am just so enamored with all the amazing work that you’re doing and you’re just such an inspiration really for the entire disability advocacy community. It was just so wonderful to chat with you today. I really appreciate it. Is there any closing thoughts that you’d like to leave our audience with?

Conchita Hernandez:
Thank you so much for having me. It’s always fun to just kind of have a conversation and think things out loud with people. And I think the kind of, I was thinking about when we kind of first started talking about kind of the whole idea of coming back to normal and what does that look like for people with disabilities. When pre-COVID we weren’t normal, like we have so many barriers and so many things that we were asking for accommodations that all of a sudden you can do because of COVID that you told us you never could do. Working from home, I was definitely denied at that before and all of a sudden, oh, you can do it now. Just so many things that people with disabilities don’t have. At my university, they finally put a bunch of books electronically and they’re like, oh, it’s because of COVID.

Conchita Hernandez:
And I’m like, so are you going to continue this after COVID? Because it’s the only way I can access the materials. I just really hope that people, I hope we don’t go back to normal. I hope we take the lessons that we’ve learned from COVID and really apply them to real world and stop pretending people disabilities don’t exist and really take what we’ve learned and apply it and continue to provide accommodations for people, continue to provide all of these great things that came about during the pandemic that we can continue to do that. And then we can continue to build community based on what we did because of COVID how so many people came together and supported each other and fought for each other and spoke up for each other. How can we continue to do that in a post COVID world in a way that we had never done and that we were forced to do in the last year. I guess that’s my hope for all of us as communities and as people kind of moving forward.

Ashley Inkumsah:
Yeah. Yeah, definitely I think instead of building back better, we need to build forward better. That’s what I’ve been saying is that you don’t want to go back to before, we want to build forwards. We want to take what we’ve learned from the past year and go forward. That’s definitely the trajectory that I hope that we’re going to be on.

Ashley Inkumsah:
It was such a pleasure to speak with Conchita and I really admire all the work that she’s doing to ensure that blind students of color have access to an education. Too many times, disabled students are not even given so much as an opportunity to thrive and to flourish in the school system, especially those who are of color. And we already know that even beyond the school system, the world is just not built for disabled people. And I feel that people with disabilities spend so much time trying to navigate a world that was literally not built for them and we need more people like Conchita who are fighting to make the world navigate to accommodate people with disabilities, honestly. It’s so amazing that Conchita has parlayed her own lived experiences into fighting for inclusion and for access for the Latinx disabled community. It’s truly amazing and something to marvel at, for sure.

Ashley Inkumsah:
Now, thank you all so, so much for tuning in, you can find transcripts in American sign language interpretations for today’s episode and all of our past episodes on our website at http://www.wid.org/whats-up-wid. That’s W-H-A-T-S hyphen U-P hyphen W-I-D. And to paraphrase the words of our wonderful Nicholas Love and one of our founders at Roberts, we need to get out there and change the old attitudes so we can build forward better. Thank you so, so much once again.

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