Disabled Americans: Not Only Immigrants

Disabled Americans: Not Only Immigrants

Disabled Americans: Not Only Immigrants

The DICE (Disability, Immigrant Integration and Engagement) conference comes to San Diego this weekend to celebrate the contributions of the disabled and immigrants to society.

From making robots to installing kitchen appliances to physics calculations, those with disabilities and immigrant status and culture excel in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, at a higher rate than the general population, while those without the same backgrounds struggle to find employment. Researchers at Harvard University have recently brought a solution to the problem of underrepresentation in STEM fields in favor of globalization: there are more than 25 million foreign-born Americans holding STEM-related degrees, but for many of them, it has taken them decades to find a job.

The reverse is true for those of us born in America: low rates of unemployment and underemployment are far more common among immigrants than in Americans born here. The persistence of large educational gaps between immigrants and non-immigrants reflects something distinct, and significant, about the U.S. system of education.

The skyrocketing political discussion of immigration from “new” places like Pakistan and China in the last year or so has brought this issue to the fore, and prodded many Americans to re-examine what we know about the fate of immigrants, how immigration policy affects American society, and what is being left behind.

But a very important question about the well-being of the immigrant population and the success of our institutions is still, up to this day, poorly researched and understood. For all the focus on ways to benefit the people who come to this country, we still don’t know a whole lot about how immigrants themselves fare – what their homes and families think about how immigrants are doing here, what their occupations are, and what they have received in return. In short, the picture of immigrants and their communities is more nuanced than originally imagined.

One of the most comprehensive studies of immigrant students’ success and well-being to date comes from Lisa Fiddler’s research. Using data from a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the study notes that early childhood and middle school integration can have a long-lasting effect on immigrant students’ academic success. It is the adjustment to a new school system, and the process of putting down roots after a long time living abroad, that should be of greatest interest to policymakers.

In short, without help from the community, it’s possible that a student who has gone through all of these changing “influences” will have less well-rounded, less successful lives. Integration is an area where an almost unbroken line can be drawn: there’s no gap at kindergarten, where school-to-home and school-to-work integration go hand in hand, and then there’s no “math” gap at secondary school. People who cannot achieve all of these things in grades one, two and three have much less chance to overcome the toughest educational hurdles at the end of the school years.

While plenty of research notes how important early childhood and early education is, it’s the second wave of work that helps bring the global reality of a globalized world to life. Harsh ethnic or cultural norms are the naysayers in these fights – but there is evidence that the cost of dissonance can be real – and some surprising similarities. Immigrants might have inherent skill sets, from languages to educational pedagogy, from grit to entrepreneurship. Foreign languages and dual educations are helpful, too. But what matters most to most of us as parents and as Americans is that our kids have someone who gives them a fair shake, and by this, I mean a fair shake in terms of citizenship, in terms of education, and in terms of pay-offs when they finish school and graduate from college.

As we celebrate the contributions that both immigrants and people with disabilities make to our society, let’s recognize that not only are immigrants and disabled Americans valuable, but that to thrive in a free society, we all need to get beyond well-meaning, but misplaced, concerns about perceived racism or white privilege.

To borrow once again from Disney’s The Lion King, “there’s no place like home.”

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