By Heaven Begum
Amma gave birth at home. There was a hand generator supplying power for twenty minutes. Flooding would sink the place up to two feet. Water came from a well—contaminated. Bamboo logs were bridges to cross rivers. We farmed chicken and grew rice. And bugs, everywhere.
It is December 1999. From Dhaka to London to NY, Amma arrives with Abba, my two brothers, and me in the womb. Amma remembers falling asleep on a real mattress, a luxury.
The story of my mother is one that has taught me a lot, beginning at a very young age. Like many others, she arrived in America with hopes of a better life and future for herself and family. Soon after, she became bedridden. Diabetic, Amma developed severe chronic fibromyalgia after I was born and struggled to care for herself and us. Her greatest challenge, however, was not dealing with symptoms of her condition but navigating the cold rigidity of society’s institutions, structures and systems towards people like her.
In the months following my parent’s separation and my father’s departure, we struggled. My immigrant, non-English speaking, disabled mother of six and I struggled to learn the world around us. We did not know how to obtain a city bus pass or open a checking account or afford to keep the heat on that winter.
In 2013, my mother was served a summons and complaint to appear in court. Unable to work, Amma lacked a stable source of income and we were facing eviction as a result. We didn’t know our rights or how to defend ourselves but still, we were due in court. We found ourselves navigating countless offices, stacks of paperwork and language absolutely foreign to us for survival. It was in these experiences and circumstances that I was exposed to the significant gaps in accessibility that exist for marginalized communities of color and ability, particularly for those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.
In efforts to secure a source of income, we began the application process for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in 2014. Truthfully, I thought we had caught something of a break, learning of a program specifically meant to help people like my Amma, low-income and disabled. I quickly realized I was wrong when even applying, let alone getting approved, started to feel impossible.
Completing the initial application packet was among one of our biggest hurdles; provided only in English, my mother’s understanding of the questionnaire was very limited and thus was her ability to accurately describe and provide answers. Moreover, a completed application was to include Amma’s full medical history, requiring that she sign off on release forms from every hospital, clinic, or specialist she had visited in the last decade—a daunting task for someone with no means for transportation. Having no car presented yet another barrier as Amma struggled to make it to the medical examination called for by the administration in order to process and proceed with her case.
During the interview stage, Amma struggled to communicate as the administration failed to adequately accommodate her linguistic needs, aimlessly providing Bengali interpreters who spoke entirely different dialects than that of my mother’s. Soon after, when denied after reconsideration and required to attend a hearing for the appeals process, Amma found herself in court yet again with no interpreter.
Though finally approved in 2016, we struggled for nearly three years before this was possible. In these three years, I watched as my mother’s identity as a low-income, disabled immigrant rendered her an outsider kept at the margin. With so little effort put forth to accommodate her unique sociocultural experiences and circumstances, I witnessed the day to day realities faced by individuals who find themselves at the intersection of overlapping marginalized identities. Most importantly, however, I learned first-hand of the importance of advocacy and representation in shaping social outcomes.
In Latin, diversity means ‘turn into one’. With post undergrad plans to pursue a JD and career in law, I seek to dedicate my work to pulling those at the margins in. I only hope that others recognize the need for care in underserved populations in their work and protect those most vulnerable, people like my Amma.
Heaven Begum is a fourth year at UVA majoring in Global Studies with a concentration in the Middle East and South Asia and minoring in American Sign Language and Deaf Culture. She is an executive member of Deafness Education and Awareness for Students (DEAFS), Hoo’s First Look (HFL) and is heavily involved with QuestBridge and the first-generation, low-income student body on grounds. Additionally, she currently tutors ASL and serves as the Student Administrator for the Disabilities Studies Initiative. Following graduation, Heaven plans to attend law school and pursue a career devoted to serving underserved and marginalized communities.