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English Language Learners as Linguistically Impaired? Delia Thinks So

By Leonor Coello, Rehabilitation International, New York, NY

Delia Ortega is a 43-year-old woman originally from Ecuador. She was born with a mobility impairment. But it is Delia's difficulty with the English language, not the limited movement in her arms, that she feels is an impediment. According to Delia, "the fact that I can't speak English is what prevents me from working, not my arms."

Delia's story is similar to many other Latinos that immigrate to the Untied States. She came to the United States as an adult. She was already married and had three children. In Ecuador Delia worked as a nurse at the Hospital of the Armed Forces, a position she held for more than 15 years. In the United States the only work she could find was a factory worker or a cashier at a store where the pay was very low.

I met Delia through a peer support and discussion group for disabled Latina women that is part of Proyecto Visión. I was surprised when I met Delia to discover that her disability was very slight, so much so in fact that I had to ask her what her disability was because I did not notice one. Delia responded that she didn't know what her disability was called. She didn't know the medical term for it so she described it to me. She only knew that it is hereditary and she got it from her father who had the same condition.

Delia told me that her daily life consisted of tending to her family and her house. She mentioned that her disability really hadn't gotten in the way of her housework. It only was apparent when she had to carry large or heavy items. At her job as a nurse in the hospital there was only one occasion when her disability became an issue. There was a very important patient in the hospital who noticed that Delia's hands didn't work like the others. He refused to receive services from her. Delia was forced to tell her supervisor why she couldn't help the important patient. It was the first time she told her supervisor about her disability.

When I asked her how it could be that she didn't know anything about her disability she told me that she had only gone to see a doctor about it once. He told Delia he would have to do more tests to diagnose her because her condition was rare. She didn't have medical insurance and because the condition really didn't affect her life very much she didn't go back for additional tests. When she was a little girl, Delia's parents didn't take her to the doctor to find out if her disability could be treated. Delia explained, "Maybe they didn't take me because they didn't have much information about medicine or maybe because they didn't see the value in it or because they gave it little importance."

Today Delia works at McDonald's making the sandwiches. At first it was difficult for Delia to make the sandwiches as quickly as the other workers, but after she got the hang of it she is as fast as the others. Delia has been working at McDonald's for almost two years. She never had to tell her supervisor about her disability because it is not obvious and she is able to do her job.

Delia's disability has not been a barrier for her because she has been able to work around any difficulty is caused. She considers herself a successful person because she works, and is a wife and mother of three. For now English is her biggest barrier. It keeps her from doing what she studied for, what she likes to do and what she was trained to do - be a nurse. Delia has tried to take English classes but she says that with the little time she has between work and home life it is difficult for her to complete her classes. She has started several semesters without completing them. She also says that if she is not able to do English classes now she'll throw her energy and efforts into something else. "It is most important to stay busy and keep moving forward," says Delia.

To close, I asked Delia to give me a few inspirational words for others who may be in a similar situation to her.

"I put my disability aside. I don't surrender to it. For me it is not a barrier. I just thank God that I am alive. If there are other people who feel like me, don't let your disability be a problem, hang in there and keep doing what you're doing. Don't listen to what others tell you if it is negative. I feel happy with my life and my family. I feel complete. I have not let my disability take over me. When I arrive in this country it was very difficult for me to leave my work and it was very hard for me to start looking for new work. I let the stress take over me at first and as a result I had problems with my husband and my children. I was upset that I could not practice my profession in this country because of the language barrier. But with the help and patience of my family I have overcome those worries and have not given up."

My last question was, "You don't know what the name of your disability is or if it has a cure?" She replied, "No, definitely not. But I understand that perhaps with surgery I could recuperate the movement of my arms. If cutting the bone is the solution then I choose not to do it. Really it has not caused a lot of problems and my disability has not been the biggest barrier in my life."