A teal and light teal background with two photos. Photo on the left is Nancy dressed in Hmong clothes. Photo on the right is a golden paper flower statue that Nancy made for her first Hmong shaman altar.

A Series of Essays on Hmong and Disability for Asian American Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month

This blog is originally part of Nancy Yang’s work as a Master’s student at CUNY School of Professional Studies. It is a series of essays on Hmong and disability, and it is an unfinished, ongoing piece of work based on ongoing community conversations in the Hmong disability movement. In what Nancy has written so far, they really focus on the theme of binaries within disability culture, such as the binary of “Western versus traditional” within Hmong disability discourse. Nancy writes from the perspective of a person with lived experience, and they hope to bring a disabled perspective into what is largely a non-disabled-led Hmong disability movement. Nancy Yang is the Education & Program Assistant at Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network

In the midst of psychotic confusion and abstract space, I could hear a thought that wasn’t mine. I always imagined that voice was my late Yawv Txiv (maternal grandfather), someone who always valued education: Zaum no yus lub hlwb tawg lawm, yuav tig tsis tau rov qab (Now that your brain has burst, there’s no turning back.)

A Post Note About the Writing and My Reasoning for the Edits

When I first began working on this series, I was a student in the City University of New York School of Professional Studies’ program for Masters of Arts in Disability Studies. This series has its origins as my final project in the Disability and Diversity course that I took in Fall 2021 with Professor Ruthie-Marie Beckwith. The course, as the name suggests, focuses on disability as a piece of diversity, and diversity in turn a piece of disability. Our final project was to be anything that we students wanted them to be, and of course in my ambition I originally wanted to take up a project that would be much too big for a semester’s worth of work. That original project was to begin the process of creating an information and repository system for all the existing resources on Hmong disability. That dream has not died, for sure. I definitely think it to be a project that I can still take on with other folks doing work in the realm of Hmong disability (such as with United Hmong with Disabilities (UHD)). But after some reflection on my part and a suggestion from Professor Beckwith to make the semester more digestible for myself and contribute to my community instead by writing a series of essays, I took that suggestion–and so became this project on writing a series of essays on Hmong and disability.

Even as the semester’s work became more doable as a series of essays, at the same time a semester was not enough time to capture everything that still needs to be said and done in Hmong disability work. And so I want to recognize that what currently exists in this series of essays is still only a beginning and is a work in progress meant to reflect ongoing community discussions. There is still so much more that this series needs to cover, because there is still so much more that needs to be said about and done in Hmong disability work. For example, at the time that I finished my final project, and at the time that I originally published my work publicly on my blog (janacayng.wordpress.com), UHD’s first ever conference on Hmong disability had not happened yet. The conference took place on Saturday, January 22, 2022, and a post-conference meet and greet took place a month later on Wednesday, February 23, 2022. Now that both the conference and post-conference meet and greet has happened, it’s pretty clear that there are ever more community conversations that this series has not yet touched on. The goal of course is to catch up and to build and write more, but as is the goal of groups such as UHD, I want to make sure that what’s shared is community-informed.

I am also currently in the process of translating what currently exists in this series into the Hmong language, and I want to be clear that the reason for the delay in that process is because I don’t want to try to represent my community when it is still working on developing a collective consciousness around disability and disability justice. My community is complex, multi-faceted, and deserves to be heard in its wholeness, and in recognizing that, I want that translation work to be community-informed as well. One of the biggest issues raised during UHD’s first conference is that the Hmong community is very much lacking in language when it comes to disability, disability justice, and disability issues overall. For example, we don’t even have a Hmong word for disability, and the work to come to a community consensus on what to use hasn’t been done because there isn’t yet a collective of disabled Hmong folks who exist to do that work. Luckily UHD has built momentum to create that collective after its first conference. In addition, in my eagerness to continue building community, I have also created a Facebook group for disabled Hmong folks called “Disabled and HMong”, where that collective is slowly building as well. I only hope that this is the beginning of a fruitful journey, and that we will develop more than just language with one another, that we will develop a community and a culture as well. Until we develop that language, community, and culture, the translation of any of my writing in this series into the Hmong language will be a slow process.

If anyone crosses paths with the original version of this series found on my blog, they will notice that I used different language to refer to “Hmong”. The original title of this series was “A Series of Essays on HMoob and Disability”, and in all my references to Hmong people in the series, I used the term “HMoob”. For those who are new to the Hmong people, language, and culture, I want to explain the reasoning behind that original language choice. But also for those who are Hmong or are more familiar with Hmong people, language and culture, I want to explain the reasoning for changing everything that was “HMoob” back to “Hmong”.

The majority of Hmong people who can read and write in Hmong use the Hmong Romanized Popular Alphabet (RPA) writing system. In the Hmong RPA writing system, double vowels such as “ee” or “aa” or “oo” are pronounced with the “ng” sound at the end. In addition, in the Hmong RPA writing system, there are ending consonants that denote the tone of each syllable. Those consonants can be “b”, “m”, “j”, “v”, “nothing”, “s”, “g”, and “d”. So it happens that the way you spell “Hmong” in Hmong RPA writing is “H m o o b”.

I originally chose to use the Hmong RPA spelling of Hmong, “H m o o b”, because I wanted to honor the Hmong people, culture, and language. To be honest, this choice was made with some uncertainty, as the Hmong RPA writing system is a colonized writing system, created and brought to the Hmong people by French missionaries in the 1950’s. Switching back to the English spelling “H m o n g” in my series is not necessarily made to reject the colonized writing system, and is neither to embrace the English spelling of “Hmong”. I think any currently existing writing system for the Hmong language has a note of not really being what best represents Hmong people and culture. We have a long history of being an oral culture, and before our oral history there are tales of our original written language being lost long ago due to our people being persecuted for centuries.

I chose to return to the English spelling of “Hmong” to make my writing more accessible. In the past year or two of becoming a user of screen readers, I recognize now that screen readers are not going to read “Hmoob” as “Hmong” even if they are supposed to be pronounced the same. Creating a program that can identify and read Hmong RPA writing is a project that some unknown person will hopefully take on in the future, but right now as things are, screen readers cannot identify and read Hmong RPA writing. And so my choice to return to the spelling “H m o n g” is to make the writing accessible to people who use screen readers, and to make sure that the writing doesn’t confuse anyone who may use a screen reader.

Now, you’ll also notice that I capitalize the “M” in my original denotation of Hmong, to be “HMoob”. That was a choice tied to a cultural phenomenon happening more frequently in the Hmong community these days. I made a Facebook post about it in mid-February 2022:

Something that [some] HMong people know but that should be explicitly named so everyone knows: The reason more folks are capitalizing the “M” when they say “HMong” is to recognize the different dialects of the HMong language. Specifically, the capitalizing of the “M” is to recognize the Green Mong/Moob Lees dialect, which is too often ignored just because it is the minority dialect. Moob Lees/Green Mong folks do not pronounce the “H” in “Hmong/Hmoob” like the majority White Hmong/Hmoob Dawb folks do. They say “Mong/Moob”. Using “HMong” with a capitalized “M” when we refer to all of us is a way to honor that, yes, Mong people are part of our community too. I really hope that more folks begin to incorporate this intentional spelling into their practice.

I chose to capitalize the “M” in my original writing to honor the most marginalized and forgotten in my community. Naturally, that is what any justice-minded Hmong person aims to do. But as I was working on accessibility of my writing, I realized again that varying spellings of “Hmong” are not accessible for people who use screen readers. While “HMong” and “HMoob”  with the capital “M” are more inclusive of Green Mong folks, at the same time the screen reading of the terms are confusing and inaccessible. They are read as “H, Mong” or “H, Moob”, even if they are supposed to be read as “Hmong”.

It only made sense for me to use “Hmong” if I was to center accessibility in my work. I have also returned to using “Hmong” in any of my writing beyond this series, to center accessibility throughout anything that I do. Again, until there is a program out there that can identify and read Hmong RPA writing, I will use the English spelling that screen readers can recognize and correctly pronounce.

Lastly, you will also notice that I insert some Hmong words and phrases in Hmong RPA writing throughout this series. In recognizing as well that there is no screen reader that can identify and read Hmong RPA writing, I have decided to include English translations after each insert of Hmong RPA writing, which were not present there before.

Thank you for taking your time to read what I have of this series of essays so far.

Left: Nancy Yang dressed in Hmong clothes. Right: a golden paper flower statue that Nancy made for her first Hmong shaman altar.

The Beginning of the Series: My Thought Process and Goals for this Work

I want to preface this series of essays with some thoughts. An offering as to my thought process through working on this project, as well as my hopes for what this project can contribute to discourse surrounding Hmong and disability.

When originally coming up with this project idea for my Disability and Diversity course, I had the thought that I don’t want to make any sweeping generalizations about the Hmong community. I also had the thought that I cannot just write as though my thoughts and ideas come from a vacuum. I cannot pretend that other Hmong people and disability justice advocates didn’t contribute to why I think about Hmong and disability the way that I do.

I don’t claim to represent or be an expert on Hmong and disability topics. I am writing simply from my own personal experience, which is a mixture of lived experience with madness and psychiatric institutionalization; being Hmong and queer; trauma stemming from racism, queerphobia, sanism, and ableism; advocacy work within the Hmong community in the capacities of academia as well as in Hmong domestic violence and sexual assault (DV/SA) and youth work; my own personal research and building through the years on the topics of ableism, sanism, and disability justice; my partcipation in discussions with the Hmong community surrounding disability through avenues such as Facebook (with the group SAWV, or with friends and family) and the first Hmong disability conference planning committee with United Hmong with Disabilities; and lastly, my experiences with other disability justice advocates outside of the Hmong community (for I truly believe in the power of cross-movement building and solidarity, a principle of disability justice).

I have many people to thank for the thoughts that I have and where I am at and am going with them. In actuality I would probably have to thank every single being that I have ever come to know. If you know me directly, then this is me thanking you. Even if we barely know each other, have bad blood, or are no longer in each other’s lives.

If there is anything I have to say that is a definite sweeping generalization about Hmong and disability, it is that the Hmong community is learning and growing. I may make some statements in my essays that are critical of where we are at. But I say what I say out of love and a passionate desire for our collective liberation. So I also say what I say knowing that the community is taking its time to learn and grow in the realm of disability and disability justice. My statements and thoughts are not set in stone and can and probably will change as we grow in this movement.

My hope is that these essays enhance the discourse that already exists in Hmong and disability by pushing us towards the movement for disability justice. I know I am just one voice among many, but I hope others see value in my voice just as I see value in others. I hope these essays bring us closer together and make us think hard about how to work towards collective liberation for all disabled and abled folks in our community. I hope that these essays don’t only stir thoughts in us all, but also bring action. And most of all, as I share my thoughts as a mad and neurodivergent psych survivor, I hope that we really take on the leadership of the most impacted, a vital principle of disability justice, and let disabled Hmong folks take the mic. Even if it takes time for disabled Hmong folks to share and abled Hmong folks are impatient.

A teal and light teal background with two pictures. Picture on the right is Nancy in short teal and black hair with sunglasses and Hmong dangling earrings. Picture on the left is a drawing of the picture on the right, drawn by Nancy's sibling.
Nancy Yang

An Introduction to Me

Content Warning: ableism, abuse and control over a disabled person’s agency

I always introduce myself to people with my identities first. My bios always start the same way too. “I’m a mad neurodivergent queer Hmong psych survivor.” But what does that even mean? How do I even start to make sense of my intersectionality?

Right away I think of my experience as a shaman. As ib tug neeg txawj neeb, someone who knows how to communicate with spirits. In one of my discussion threads in my psych film class this semester, my professor brought up the book “Surfacing Up” and how it’s mentioned in there that the way a person is treated in their madness relies strongly on who attends to them first–a psychiatrist or a medicine man. I’ve never read the book, but as someone who is part of a shaman community, I can attest to that there is so much truth in that statement.

However, I want to move beyond the binary. While getting to be a Hmong shaman is affirming in some ways, and being in psych wards has not necessarily been affirming in others, I still have to say that no matter what I have gone through, not once has anyone ever stopped to ask me, “Nancy, what do you think?”

Everything in the past eight years of this journey has been a whirlwind of just doing whatever someone else thinks is best for me. In this journey, that has meant agreeing to take medications to please my doctors, choosing to stop medications to please my mom and other shamans, being blamed for relapse because of stopping meds, being blamed for relapse because of not practicing my shamanism enough. All of it, over and over again. And I’m just tired.

As a mad neurodivergent queer Hmong psych survivor, I find that power lies all too much in the systems around me to define who I get to be, what I get to do, and how much I’m worth. The mental health industrial complex makes me out to be just a consumer, insignificant and worthless if I’m not compliant. Hmong patriarchy codes me as a woman, and worse yet as “just a daughter” whose voice is meaningless in comparison to the married Hmong men in my life. And Hmong heteropatriarchy erases my existence as a queer person altogether, making it near impossible for me to practice my shamanism in queer ways.

I have so much bitterness in me for these things that I can’t change. But me being the justice-driven person that I am, I still have hope. In searching for ways to enact change, I have been so grateful to find people and spaces that have been affirming. For a queer Hmong shaman, finding affirming people and spaces is hard enough as it is, but I know it’s possible because I’ve found myself there before. I still gush at the experience I had with having another queer Hmong person saib neeb for me, or watch me do a shaman ceremony, this past spring. It was the first time I truly felt like thaum kuv ua neeb muaj leej twg fwm kuv, that when they watched me, they respected me. And luag fwm kuv tiag tiag, they truly respected me–my whole self, not just the parts they “agree” with.

I’m also starting to become part of very affirming transformative spaces, such as Loud ‘N Unchained Theater Company and Sweet Water Liberation Lab’s Unchained Disability Justice & Care Group. I’m so grateful for the love and wisdom that spaces like these have to share. It’s these people and spaces that I want to continue creating, for me, for the people I love, and for future generations.

Who I am is more than what others will say I am. I want to celebrate my intersectionality for how it brings me into the world and gives me a nuanced understanding of the people and world around me. As I continue to be a mad neurodivergent queer Hmong psych survivor, I want to center one of the core principles of disability justice: recognizing wholeness. I am a whole person with my traumas, joys, lived experience and all. No one moment defines my experience, and yet a single moment of my life can say a lot. And so I will continue to shine light on the mad neurodivergent queer Hmong psych survivor experience in the ways that I can.

A teal and light teal background with a photo in the middle. The photo is of Nancy's Hmong shaman altar. There are white and gold bowls with incense in them, white bowls and cups with water in them, white plates with candles on them, and two plates with white daisies on them.
Nancy Yang’s Hmong shaman altar.

Western vs Traditional as Medical Model vs Hmong Shamanism: A Challenge to the Binary

Content Warning: ableism within Western medical model thinking, ableism in Hmong cultural practices

There’s an ongoing narrative in the Hmong American community about “navigating two worlds”. If you are Hmong American, and arguably if you are any immigrant or refugee ethnic minority in the States, you know what I’m talking about. Many folks will say that they grew up trying to navigate between being Hmong and being American. For example, Hmong Americans who grew up in the United States school system will say that they struggled with having to be American at school and then Hmong when they came home. In other specific examples, I think of the Hmong Facebook influencer Dr. Calvin Yang, otherwise known as Dictumdose, who published a video in November 2019 about Hmong funerals. He begins the video with talking about the struggle of juggling two cultures and lacking Hmong language proficiency, and then leads to why that gave him a hard time fulfilling traditional Hmong funeral roles. And then as Dictumdose usually does, he did a demonstration of a traditional Hmong funeral role to help other Hmong Americans out there who struggle in this same way. There are 38,000 views and over 1,400 reactions on this video–a clear indication that the narrative of juggling two cultures is a common one in the Hmong American community.

This “two world” narrative happens within Hmong discourse on health and disability too. In the context of health and disability in the Hmong community, the language people will use is navigating the “Western perspective” versus the “traditional Hmong perspective”. Take, for example, the classic book about a Hmong American disabled person and her family by Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and The Collision of Two Cultures. The title itself uses the approach of a binary within Hmong disability discourse. But that’s a book written by a white woman about Hmong Americans. Examples of the “Western perspective” and “traditional Hmong perspective” Hmong disability binary from Hmong Americans themselves might be from Serge C. Lee’s chapter in 2004 on Hmong Americans’ “changing views on disability” in Francis K. O. Yuen’s book, International Perspectives on Disability Services : The Same but Different, or Maichou Lor et al.’s published work in 2016 on Hmong perspectives on health (“Western or Traditional Healers?”). 

This narrative of a binary is a common one. And within Hmong and disability discourse it is such a typical conversation. I want to challenge this binary and give more nuance to the larger discussion on Hmong and disability.

First of all, we need to understand what Hmong American folks really mean when they talk about a binary in the context of disability. From my observations and understanding, what Hmong American folks really mean when they say “Western perspective” in the context of disability, they are really talking about the Western medical model of disability. And when Hmong American folks say “traditional Hmong perspective”, they are really talking about Hmong shamanism and herbal medicine. Maichou Lor et al.’s 2016 article Western or Traditional Healers? Understanding Decision Making in the Hmong Population in the Western Journal of Nursing Research is a perfect highlight of what I’m talking about here. When introducing their work Lor et al. convey “Western or Traditional Healers” as exactly Western medical model vs Hmong shamanism and herbal medicine. When talking about “Western” perspectives, they immediately refer to western medicine, and when talking about “Traditional Healers”, they immediately refer to shamanism.

The conflict in the community is that some will say one perspective is better, others will say that the other is best, and some others will say that we need a mixture of both. Those who trust medical professionals and punitive systems will push for the Western medical model. Hmong elders or shamans may push HMoob shamanism and herbal medicines. Younger Hmong parents may have their own idea of both and push that. At the end of the day, it is the abled people in disabled Hmong people’s lives who always have an opinion on what is better.

I argue that the issue is not deciding between the binary. The issue is the binary itself. It is discourse led by abled people, and it erases disabled Hmong folk’s experiences, agency, and self-determination altogether. Let me explain from my experiences and observations how both sides of the binary fall short, even when people try to use them together.

The medical model of disability states that disability is strictly a medical issue, something to be cured, fixed, rehabilitated. The model is known to be individualistic, wherein if an ill or disabled person does not seek a cure that they are at fault. For according to the model, medicine has all the answers and if an ill or disabled person doesn’t use that avenue then clearly they don’t know what’s best for their own well-being.

This isn’t me throwing shade onto the medical model. I know it can be helpful for some people, such as folks in the chronic pain/illness community. What I do want to say though, is that I have seen all too many Hmong professionals and leaders fall under this perspective and push it onto the rest of the Hmong community. A huge example is within the Hmong community’s movement for mental health, with community movements such as Project Ntshav Ntuj that try to include everybody in the Hmong community but consider professionals such as psychiatrists, psychologists, and doctors to be the experts to listen to on mental health topics like suicide. Another example is within the Hmong and disability community’s building conversations around autism that focus on autistic Hmong children from the perspective of allistic Hmong adults and Hmong ABA professionals, with groups opening up such as the four recently-created UA TAU Facebook support groups by two Hmong ABA professionals (none of which include a group just for autistic Hmong folks). The Hmong community naturally follows the leadership of people within the community who have credentials, and in these examples, Hmong professionals who have earned formal degrees are the ones leading the conversation. There are many issues with this, with the main issue being that Hmong professionalism aims to mimic white professionalism.

Mimicking white professionalism means that Hmong professionals and leaders idealize white systems, which are traditionally punitive. Hmong professionals and leaders are going into systems such as the mental health industrial complex, the medical industrial complex, the police and prison industrial complex, without an analysis of how these systems are harmful. These systems function through the medical model of disability, and so Hmong professionals and leaders who aim to mimic white professionalism only understand disability through this lens. I know that Hmong professionals and leaders are compassionate and have good intentions to give back to and help the Hmong community. But that is the exact reason that they push the medical model onto the Hmong community not realizing that it can also mean harm.

Hmong professionals and leaders may ask, “How is finding a cure for an illness or disability a harmful thing?” Let me get into that. The harmful thing about a disability narrative that always seeks a cure, is that disabled folks don’t get the chance to just be people. And beyond that, other existing models such as the social model of disability can inform us that it is actually society that disables us, not our impairments. Only pushing for a medical model can be limiting because it doesn’t recognize the ways that ableism is a contributing factor to the challenges that disabled people face. Medical model thinking being pushed onto Hmong disabled folks is harmful particularly because of the ableism of how abled Hmong folks never give disabled Hmong folks the opportunity to dictate their experiences for themselves. What if a disabled Hmong person doesn’t want to be cured? Can’t we love people for who they are, and not for what we want them to be?

While pushing for the Western medical model of disability may not be the answer in the Hmong and disability community, I don’t believe pushing for other Western models is the answer either. “Model” language in general can be limiting in that it doesn’t recognize the wholeness and multifacetedness of the disability experience, much less the disability experience of ethnic minorities such as Hmong Americans. I don’t think it useful to try to funnel Hmong American experiences of disability through Western models, when we have our own ways of knowing and being to begin with.

And that leads me to “traditional Hmong perspectives” of disability, otherwise known as Hmong shamanism and herbal medicine. Obviously as a Hmong shaman myself, I have a lot of experience in this realm. At the same time, I have my criticisms.

A teal and light teal background with two photos. Photo on the right is of two red and white strings that Nancy made to tie on people for protection. Photo on the left is of Nancy wearing a red and white string around their neck that someone tied onto them for protection. Nancy's red and white string also has a triangle pouch with herbs in it to enhance protection.
Red and white strings that Nancy made to tie on people for protection

When it comes to Hmong shamanism and disability, the practice is pretty much just using spiritual practices to try to find answers. That can mean finding a shaman who can ua neeb saib, or do a ceremony to search for a spiritual reason for an illness or disability; having a community member ua khawv koob, or use black magic to cure; having a trusted person xuab hlua and khi rau yus txhais tes los sis ncaj pas los kau taw, or make a string (usually red, or red and white) and tie it around your wrist, neck or ankle for protection; or even for some, searching for a xij fwb, or shaman teacher, because the unexplained illness or disability means that they have spiritual gifts. Herbal medicine is often used in conjunction with Hmong shamanism, and that can include making teas out of various plants to drink, using certain plants to ward away bad spirits, and even making a special herbal water to bathe in to wash away illness. I can imagine that for many disabled Hmong folks, all of these things within Hmong shamanism and herbal medicine have happened to them and more. For me, it has been all of this and more.

In the realm of disability and Hmong shamanism and herbal medicine, I think of a video by The Arc Minnesota featuring two Hmong disabled folks, Houa Moua and Erica Yang. At one point in the video, Houa talks about how their parents used to make them bathe in a bathtub full of water and herbs, so that their legs would become “strong again”. And Erica talks about how their parents would always take them to the shaman they knew, so they could find a cure for their learning disability. Both Houa and Erica express how these things that their families made them do, did a number on their self-esteem.

I want to highlight that. That in Hmong families’ good intentions to help a disabled family member through Hmong shaman and herbal medicine practices, they often forget about and ignore the feelings and agency of the disabled person. The narrative becomes trying to find a cure or a fix at all costs–which is scary because it just becomes the medical model but in a Hmong spiritual way.

It is heavy on my heart that even in my practice as a shaman, I have perpetuated this narrative of finding a cure at all costs. I regret the time I told a family member with my status as a shaman that they must practice as a shaman too or else their newly disabled partner would never get better. I resent the people who have pressured me to practice as a shaman or else face a relapse in madness and lack of support for non-compliance, and I want to recognize from this moment forward that I will never do the same to another person again.

I should make it clear that the practice of Hmong shamanism and herbal medicine itself is not an issue. Just like the medical model is useful for some disabled folks, Hmong shamanism and herbal medicine is helpful for some disabled Hmong folks as well. I can think of some folks, for example Billy Lor from Hey Billy, who heavily practice Hmong shamanism as shamans because it has helped them to handle symptoms that white folks would consider to be signs of schizophrenia. The issue I am identifying is that within the Hmong community that pushes for Hmong shamanism and herbal medicine, there tends to be the constant search and push for a cure mixed with speaking for disabled Hmong folks, rather than giving them the mic.

This is the theme with both sides of the binary. And the Hmong folks who search for both medical and spiritual fixes for illness and disability fall into this theme as well: speaking over and for disabled Hmong folks and choosing for them. With addressing disabled Hmong children from the perspective of abled Hmong adults being a dominant narrative that I’ve seen within the Hmong and disability community, I really think that as a community we need to re-evaluate the way that we value actual disabled people and their voices.

I’m sure many Hmong folks reading this are wondering about a piece that I haven’t touched on yet in this conversation. Hmong Christianity and disability. I think this sits in a very interesting place and is actually pretty pertinent to the binary that I’m talking about. Of course Christianity isn’t something that I practice, however I have enough experience of it in my life (the supremacy of Christianity and Christian hegemony are real) to have an idea of how it fits into the Hmong disability binary narrative.

Hmong folks who practice Christianity sit in an interesting place in this conversation particularly because they approach illness and disability using both sides of the binary. Christianity is very much historically intricately intertwined with Western medicine, and Hmong folks who practice Christianity endorse Western medical model thinking just by nature of being Christians. However, we have to remember that Christianity is a religion and that because of that, spirituality is still a huge part of what Christians see as part of healing. Hmong Christians, therefore, may naturally use both Western medicine and a different version of Hmong spirituality to seek cures or fixes for illness or disability.

At first glance it may seem that using both sides of the binary like this may be useful, but as I said before, the issue still stands when using both sides. The binary has been created in a way that both sides only interact with each other to further erase disabled Hmong folks and their experiences. The goal is only ever to find a way to address disability, not to allow disabled Hmong folks space to exist and speak for themselves. We can see that erasure clearly in how throwing Hmong Christianity into the mix only further complicates–but doesn’t solve–the issue of the binary. 

When it comes to disability, Hmong Christians and their use of both Western medical model thinking and spirituality is actually not too distant from Hmong folks who practice shamanism. I say this because I have heard time and time again of stories of Hmong folks and their families who convert from Hmong shamanism to Hmong Christianity–or consider converting, as my mom did–while in the process of trying to find a cure or fix for an illness or disability. And the opposite where Hmong folks convert from Christinaity to shamanism for reasons of finding a cure is just as common.

Conversion is not the only way that Hmong Christianity and Hmong shamanism interact with each other: they can co-exist within a Hmong family or Hmong person in a spectrum of ways. In my time as a shaman I have met other Hmong shamans who practice while acknowledging Jesus Christ as a spirit that exists. For example, one shaman I met had an altar that included Jesus Christ somewhere on it. I have also known Hmong Christians to still practice some pieces of Hmong shamanism, or else seek Hmong shamans for support.

But again, throwing Hmong Christianity into the mix complicates but doesn’t solve the issue of the binary. It’s not surprising at all that Erica in the The Arc Minnesota YouTube video touches on that mixture of two religions and how they inform each other when it comes to disability. As disabled Hmong folks, it’s easy to see that it’s just another binary within Hmong discourse (Christinaity vs. shamanism) interacting with the disability binary (Western medical model vs. Hmong shamanism) to try to dictate our lives for us. We know that when it comes to Hmong and disability, all these binaries are just used to try to find a cure or a fix at all costs, erasing and defining disabled Hmong folks’s experiences carelessly in the process.

I hope it’s clear when I say, again, that the issue is not Hmong Christianity itself. Like all the other approaches I’ve touched on, Hmong Christianity definitely benefits some folks. The issue is in how it is weaponized, not in how it exists.

How do we move beyond binary thinking and open up spaces for disabled Hmong folks to live and define their experiences for themselves? I think it’s pretty simple. We drop the binary and actually listen to disabled Hmong folks and their perspective and understanding of their own experiences. We stop having discussions about disability in the Hmong community led only by professionals and experts, and start having discussions and a movement that is led by disabled Hmong folks. As the saying goes, nothing about us without us.

This shouldn’t be a radical notion, but for some reason it is. Leadership of the most impacted is a disability justice principle that I think some if not all Hmong folks can understand. We need to extend this to our understanding of the Hmong disability community and movement. Disabled Hmong folks know their experiences the best. They are the experts of their lives. Let them define their experiences for themselves without the noise and chatter of abled Hmong folks’s opinions.

And lastly but not least, don’t take what you’ve learned here just to weaponize it against disabled Hmong folks and police them. Whether or not their personal narratives use parts of a binary right now is irrelevant because having the opportunity to break binaries in the first place is already breaking the binary. We speak in binaries only because the systems we grew up in taught us that that’s the only way to exist. Let disabled Hmong folks break that curse in their own way. It is paternalistic and ableist for abled Hmong folks to assume they know better.

Nancy Yang, mad queer HMoob womxn, wearing short teal hair and black sunglasses and white tanktop.
by Nancy Yang, Education & Program Assistant, Autistic Women & Nonbinary Network

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