by Kamna Shastri
How do you navigate a support system for people with disabilities when you don’t know English? The compounding circumstances of having a disability, or caring for a loved one with a disability, while also struggling to master an American standard of English creates a unique need for multicultural families. As it is, the reams of paperwork, bureaucracy, and agencies that make up the maze of social services are already convoluted even if one knows English and has few barriers to access.
Open Doors for Multicultural Families (ODMF) has been dedicated to filling this service gap through a cultural brokerage model and systems-change approach. The organization was founded in 2009 by Ginger Kwan, whose vision was to see all “culturally and linguistically diverse individuals with developmental/intellectual disabilities and their families thrive in an inclusive society of their own design.” Since its founding, ODMF has helped connect over a thousand individuals and families with tailored support and language access. Kwan now serves as the organization’s executive director.
Kwan has three children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. She says her son has been the inspiration to push ahead in this work. Through her own life as an immigrant raising a child with a disability, Kwan noticed that there were other families like hers who struggled to receive the culturally competent support they needed to provide the best network of care for their loved ones. For the last 12 years, running ODMF has been a deeply personal endeavor for Kwan as well as many of her staff who are also personally connected to the issues the organization addresses.
One of the biggest barriers families must navigate for their loved ones with disabilities is the school system. In addition, access to housing, employment, and other social services are also important focus areas that can be challenging to navigate. Going through the administrative processes to make sure one is qualified for these services and securing accommodations is daunting.
“The families we serve are not on the same playing field as other families when they are familiar with the mainstream system — or I would say our American education system and our social service system,” said Kwan.
Though our current societal framework doesn’t tend to support or recognize the contributions of disabled people, Kwan says her staff know the importance of an inclusive society that recognizes people with disabilities as valuable contributors to our communities.
“I need to do better,” said Kwan. “And for me, my son has always been the greatest teacher that I can ever have.”
ODMF has several programs and target areas, from advocacy and civic engagement education for their members to housing assistance, youth job training, special education clinics, and a number of resources that cater to the intersecting needs of multicultural families. The organization’s 47 staff members service clients in at least 20 different languages including Spanish, Vietnamese, Somali, Tigrinya, Korean, Arabic, and many other languages.
Values are at the heart of ODMF’s network of care centered around cultural competence and communal care. Reciprocal relationships and a community where parents and families can mentor one another are core to the organization’s mission. In other words, ODMF is illustrative of how it takes a village to nurture thriving individuals.
One of the first grants ODMF received was from the Seattle Foundation’s Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) program. Through N2N, Kwan was able to avail herself of mentoring and a supportive cohort of leaders, all of whom helped her develop the programs and structure for what is now a full-fledged organization. In the process of directing an organization with a wide scope of issues, Kwan has learned that trial and error is important in meeting people where they are.
“We always have to be true to what the community needs are and have to be very persistent and very courageous [and] to have honest conversation with many funders,” she said.
Over the years, Kwan has seen the work of ODMF play out in three tiers. The first one is direct, where individuals and families are immediately impacted by how staff support them in gaining access to education, social services, housing, employment, and more with a cultural sensitivity.
For example, the impact of COVID-19 on educational services for students with disabilities this past year was grave. Many families rely on Individualized Education Programs (IEP) to make sure that their child’s education meets their unique needs. But with schools closed and many IEP in limbo, families needed support finding an alternative. ODMF’s youth program lead Mahado Abdi has worked with families to create Continuous Learning Plans that can help students with disabilities continue learning and working on their individualized plans even when school is closed or remote.
The second level considers how the organization itself can continually improve and change its approach to meet the community’s needs, “which means we have to continue to listen to them.”
“We have to create a system to get feedback from them, and we have to be willing to open our mind and find any possibilities to support their needs,” said Kwan.
The final piece has a wide reach with strong advocacy and policy goals. “Too often we’re not set up to meet the underserved population — the most vulnerable population,” said Kwan. Part of systems-change work includes teaching individuals with disabilities how to become strong self-advocates and how to engage with allies, policy makers, and others with a shared vision to actually create policies that remove the barriers that push people with disabilities to the margins of our social and economic systems.
“How can policymakers incorporate all of these unheard-of voices to the table to address the inequity, the disparities, and change the policy in a way that is set by people and for people?”
Over the past five years, ODMF was a key advocate for HB 1130, which would make language access mandatory in all public schools. After four years of advocating, Gov. Jay Inslee signed the bill into law in 2019. The bill mandates that schools provide interpreters for non-English speakers as well as materials in several languages — a shift that can greatly help families navigate the complex systems they have to interact with when advocating for their loved ones.
The Legacy of Inclusion
In a video profiling Kwan’s work, the founder says that she has seen firsthand how having a caring, encouraging community to champion youth with disabilities like her son makes the utmost difference in developing self-esteem, confidence, and an enriching life. Many of the youth who go through ODMF’s youth program graduate high school, move on to college, or take on jobs, and some even return to work at ODMF.
The driving value behind ODMF’s work is that every person has a potential to thrive, and inequitable access to resources is the reason many people with disabilities must battle marginalization.
“For many of us who are parents or individuals who have disabilities, I think what we want is … to have a society that truly values us,” said Kwan. “We will not be judged or be discriminated [against] because of our limitation in some area. We all want to be valued. We all want to have our voices heard.”
Every day, Kwan and her staff bring these values to their work to deconstruct the narrow confines of our society into one that is more inclusive of all languages, cultures, and abilities.
This is the fifth of a series of articles sponsored by the Seattle Foundation in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Neighbor to Neighbor program investing in grassroots organizations working for racial equity in South Seattle, White Center, and Kent. For more information, please visit the N2N webpage.
Kamna Shastri is a Seattle-based writer and media creative with a love for place-based community storytelling and journalism that centers personal narrative, identity, and social justice. Her print work has appeared in The Seattle Globalist, Real Change, The International Examiner and her audio work on KUOW, KEXP, and KBCS. More of her stuff at www.kamnashastri.wordpress.com. Twitter: @KShastri2, IG: ms_kamna.
📸 Featured Image: Photo from Open Doors for Multicultural Families’ Annual Family Event, August 10, 2019. Photo courtesy of ODMF.
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