Lakshmee Lachhman-Persad on the Intersections of AAPI Identity and Disability

By Lakshmee Lachhman-Persad and Danielle Wu
September 6, 2023

A little over five years ago, digital marketer Lakshmee Lachhman-Persad founded the blog Accessible Travel NYC with her family as a resource for the disabled community to make traveling to the notoriously inaccessible city more feasible and, more importantly, joyful.

Growing up in an Indo-Caribbean American household with non-apparent disabilities and a visibly disabled sister, Lachhman-Persad described an overarching culture of shame when it came to being disabled. “All of these years of shame keeps you isolated, keeps you out of the public eye, keeps you not talking about disability,” she said. “This is especially true for Asian cultures.”

With Accessible Travel NYC, Lachhman-Persad allows for a cultural shift, where disabilities are regarded with pride. As part of Asian American Arts Alliance’s Advisory Committee, Lachhman-Persad offers her expertise in guiding our ongoing conversations about how to become more accessible as an organization.

A4’s Danielle Wu spoke with Lachhman-Persad about Accessible Travel NYC, the intersections of disabled and minority experiences, and what arts institutions in NYC can do better to be more accessible.

Danielle Wu: You are the founder of Accessible Travel NYC, which has been around for over half a decade now. Can you tell us how it started and what you set out to accomplish?

Lakshmee Lachhman-Persad: We set out to defy the societal norms around people with disabilities in public spaces. When I first started this, about five years ago, there wasn’t a lot of visible representation of people with disabilities in travel and tourism. And I myself was the problem. As a travel marketer, I’d never once thought about having a person with a visible disability in any of the campaigns that I worked in, despite having worked in travel and tourism for about 20 years at that time.

It was realizing the impact of having visible representation in marketing and understanding that there’s a whole segment of our population that’s not being talked about. It’s about a quarter of our population, whenever we do any type of tourism marketing.

DW: Is there anything that specifically inspired you to create accessible travel outside of just seeing a lack of representation?

LLP: It’s a personal story. My sister is a person with many visible disabilities, and we lived a very isolated life up until our adulthood. At the back of your head, what you don’t see is what you don’t think about, right? And so growing up culturally, you’re taught there’s just so much shame that’s attached to disabilities. All of these years of shame keeps you isolated, keeps you out of the public eye, keeps you not talking about disability. This is especially true for Asian culture.

Five years ago, we were having a really traumatic time at home. We knew that if we stayed at home, it would be detrimental to us; we needed to be out in community. We needed to be able to see joy and to deal with what we were dealing with.

We live in one of the top destinations in the entire world. Everybody wants to come to New York. We can’t travel far distances with Annie, who’s my disabled sister, but we can enjoy what’s here locally. And so I became very curious as to what tourists do when they come to New York and they’re disabled.

LLP: Through digging, researching, and knocking on doors, I found out about the market segment and the challenges. I read other people’s firsthand experiences of what they’ve encountered.

We created Accessible Travel NYC because for us, finding information was all over the place. Sometimes, it just didn’t make sense. A lot of times, accessible information is buried in the footer of a website; it’s only being talked about from a compliance perspective. So basically, people will tell us that they have a ramp and that you can get through the door. But nothing else that was really human about it.

I had the knowledge and the skill set to create a platform to help travelers that were coming here to be able to plan a trip if they were wheelchair users or needed to understand accessibility from that perspective. With the pandemic, it shifted a little bit, because we weren’t talking just about tourists. At that point, we were talking more about locals. So then my focus shifted a little bit to, “Well, what are local disabled people doing? Is the information getting out to them?” So now the platform is for both tourists and for the locals.

DW: You said something that I would love to touch on as well, because I feel like disabled folks are often viewed from one lens, but I’m interested in the intersection of being both Asian and not able bodied. Can you say more about how race intersects with that?

LLP: So what we should clarify too as we go through these questions is that while my sister tends to represent people with visible disabilities, I also have non-apparent disabilities: hearing loss, vertigo, and chronic pain. I’m quite reliant on the same ramps and elevators that she is, due to the chronic pain. And so when we advocate, we advocate for both visible and non-apparent disabilities. There’s just so much shame that’s attached to the disability that if we don’t talk about the non-apparent, nobody would ever know why I’m also disabled and that this is what a disabled body looks like.

Religion plays a role in how we see ourselves and how we frame our narrative. We grew up in a Hindu household, and so it’s our practicing religion. One of the things that you hear about often in Hinduism is karma: you reap what you sow. We also believe in reincarnation. One of the things that was thought earlier is that if you’ve done something bad in your past life, a disability is what you deal with in your future lives. And, of course, that that shapes our perception, too, of how we are as individuals. That is part of how our Asian background intermingles with our disabled identities.

And Hindus aren’t the only ones that talk about disability as something that’s evil and bad. When you look at Biblical scriptures as well, it describes people who are cursed with or afflicted with; usually those curses are an affliction because they’re not “Godly.” It’s usually a disability.

“Out of that 25% of the population who are disabled, I think about 70% of them are non-apparent so they would look like people like me.”
—Lakshmee Lachhman-Persad
DW: Thank you, because I think sometimes when we talk about disability, yes, it’s stigmatized, but we don’t know where exactly it comes from.

LLP: I’ll tell you some more about where it comes from. It comes from the fact that ever since you were born, the normal is usually dictated by the media. If we don’t fit into what the norm is, then there’s automatic shame that’s associated. So from childhood onwards, people would always ask us, “What’s wrong with your sister?” That is the medical model of disability: “Something is wrong with that person, and they need to be fixed.”

And then the other way in which disabilities are viewed is from a charitable models’ perspective, and that is because of the many systemic barriers in laws, rules, and regulations that hinder a person with a disability from earning a proper income. And so they’re often reliant on charitable causes.

Back to the media, when you think about fundraising ads for cancer or any other disability, they happen more often late at night. They would pick a visibly disabled person and the story line would elicit a lot of sympathy and pity for the person who has the disability, so that audiences would open up their pockets to make that donation. Those models of disability don’t focus on the person. It focuses on other things. It presents more barriers than looking at disabled people as just a natural part of human diversity.

DW: You’ve mentioned a few common misunderstandings about disability so far. Were there other common misunderstandings that most people would not know?
LLP: I think a big part of disability that’s not known is that while about 25% of the population here in the US is disabled, a lot of people would tend to say, “I don’t see a lot of disabled people. What are you talking about? Why don’t I see more wheelchairs on the street?” And that’s a misconception that it’s only wheelchair users or people with mobility devices that have disabilities. Out of that 25% of the population who are disabled, I think about 70% of them are non-apparent so they would look like people like me.
DW: I also want to relate it to arts organizations. Do you feel like there is something specific to our audience and arts organizations that we would need to know?

LLP: I think that disability needs to be an ongoing conversation. I think there’s a lot of education that needs to be done around disabilities. I think our community, the Asian community, doesn’t necessarily want to address and acknowledge that disability is an identity that is okay to be proud of and that there really should be no shame about it. It is just what it is. It’s a part of us.

That was probably generalizing it from an older generational way of thinking. I can’t say for sure where the newer generation is. Because of the pandemic, a lot of folks, including our Asian community, started talking about mental health and mental well-being. That is one way of changing the conversation: start with mental health, mental well being, having open conversations about it, and then understanding that the other things like blindness, deafness, physical disabilities, things like speech impairments and neurodiversity all fall under the same umbrella that deserves equal attention.

[July 26] is actually [the anniversary of] ADA 33, the 33rd year since the Americans with Disability Act has passed. It’s a piece of legislation that has given us our civil rights to be even considered full human beings by getting our accessibility needs met. And we’re still far away from that promise. This is why I’m always very mindful of what an organization is doing for the community. I think it’s important that it goes both ways.

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