Small changes could close communication and cultural gaps for people from refugee backgrounds who need disability support

Persons with disabilities and their family members from non-English speaking refugee backgrounds face language and communication barriers when trying to access services, including the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

Some of these obstacles are encountered by all migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds. But the problems of this group are further compounded by services that operate in isolation and fail to recognize diversity.

In a corner : English programs for migrant adults who do not systematically adapt to the handicap. In the other: services for people with disabilities that do not necessarily recognize or address cultural and language barriers. This means that many people with disabilities and their family members from refugee backgrounds are excluded from the support they need or cannot easily access it.



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What are the obstacles ?

In a number of projects over the past five years, we have partnered with refugee and disability support services in Victoria and New South Wales, as well as academics at UNSW Sydney. We spoke with more than 50 people with disabilities and their family members from Syrian and Iraqi refugees about their experiences accessing services like the NDIS.

A lack of English skills was universally identified as a significant barrier.

People with disabilities and their family members from refugee backgrounds, many of whom have lived in Australia for up to 10 years, may have little spoken or written English.

People with disabilities report that migrant adult English programs are too fast-paced and sessions are too short to meet the needs of their disability. “Girgis” (assumed name), is deaf and suffers from an acquired brain injury. He arrived in Australia as a refugee from Syria five years ago. Girgis explained:

I don’t know English. English is too difficult for me. I fell [when I was young] and I hurt my head in the back of my head which means I can’t learn much anymore and studying would be too hard for me.

‘Hana’, who takes care of a mentally handicapped adult son, also arrived from Syria five years ago. She told us :

My English is not good because I did not go to school [to learn English] because I’m stuck at home with [my son] all the time.

When limited English meets the system

Having limited English is compounded by a complex system of health and disability services that does not have enough performers. People with disabilities and their family members are often confused about what the NDIS is and how they can access it. Disability researcher and advocate Mahmoud Murad noted:

We [people with disability from refugee backgrounds] need time to understand. It took me two or three years to understand what NDIS meant.

“Farid”, a physically handicapped man who arrived in Australia four years ago, described the punctuality with which he heard about the NDIS.

No one told me I was supposed to register with the NDIS until they made me an artificial organ in the hospital a doctor said “how you not registered nearby [NDIS]’?

People want clear, concise information about the system in their own language. They want to be supported by someone who speaks their language through the process of applying for and getting disability support.

Refugees from non-English speaking backgrounds are confused about the NDIS.
Nasan Esber, Author provided


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Specific gaps in communication and culture

A major obstacle people encounter when trying to get information about the NDIS and other services is that they cannot search websites using languages ​​other than English.

Many organizations, including the NDIS, post information online in Arabic (and other languages), but to find that information people need to be able to search using English words.

Disability service providers do not know how to accommodate people with disabilities and their family members who do not speak English.

And service providers largely ignore the often traumatic experiences of people from refugee backgrounds. Moreover, they are not informed of the cultural stigma around the disability experienced by this group. Cultural stigma against people with disabilities can mean that people do not seek out or use disability services.

“Ajmal” told us:

I mean, we left our country and got displaced and lost all our homes, and we’ll find careless people [disability service provider] employees who don’t feel your feelings.



Read more: When is a condition “chronic” and when is it a “disability”? The definition can determine the support you get


Start with a bilingual workforce

Refugee Services are the first point of contact for people from refugee backgrounds.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Australian Government’s introduction of a health exemption which exempted people applying for humanitarian visas from being assessed routine healthcare costs as part of their application.

The waiver meant that people with disabilities could come to Australia as refugees for the first time. Some refugee services have responded by employing disability specialist staff work alongside bilingual workers.

Similarly, the disability sector could build a bilingual workforce and promote its services in languages ​​other than English. To improve access to information, NDIS and disability service provider websites should include information in languages ​​other than English and should facilitate searches of sites in multiple languages.

NDIS plans must always be translated into the person’s language, which often only happens if people know they should ask for it.

These simple changes would make a huge difference for people with disabilities and their family members from non-English speaking refugee and migrant backgrounds.

About Geraldine Higgins

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