Intern Insights: Sajja

SajjaI grew up in the small developing country of Nepal where opportunities for individuals with a disability are very limited. Living in a patriarchal country, being blind and female forced me to encounter twice as many barriers from a young age. When I attended school in Nepal, I did not have a disability office to assist me, and people did not expect me to graduate high school. Children did not want to play with me because my disability was viewed as abnormal. Even my family members were embarrassed of me, and the prospect of a romantic relationship did not exist. Additionally, I was not hired by companies, in spite of being well qualified for jobs, simply because I was blind.

Since moving to the United States seven years ago, some of these barriers have decreased significantly, but many remain the same. As a blind person, I encounter microaggression in the forms of avoidance and dismissal everywhere in my daily life – school, work and in the field. Some people accept me for who I am while others have a difficult time. It is because of my lifetime experience of stigmatization, exclusion and discrimination that I am inspired to become a social worker and give voices to those whose voices are not heard.

Since I have always been interested in a profession that helps others, my practicum at Helping Hands Hawaii (HHH) allows me to work with individuals who strive to make life a little easier for people going through hard times. One of the main factors that led me to HHH is my understanding of what it feels like for consumers to experience struggles and challenges in their lives. While we may have different diagnoses or issues, behavioral health clients and I both deal with frustrations due to barriers caused by preconceptions, judgement and bias.

During my practicum, my disability has presented unique challenges when working with clients one-on-one. It often prompts them to focus on me rather than their own challenges, and I have a difficult time redirecting the conversation back to them. Some clients are genuinely curious about how a blind person functions and have a lot of questions. Others feel so sorry for me that they are unable to look past my disability to see me as someone who can help them. Some clients have even expressed that they feel better about themselves and their conditions after meeting with me. They recognize that they do not require as many accommodations as I do when going about their daily lives. Sometimes I struggle with how they perceive me, but, since my ultimate goal is to help, I try not to let it bother me too much. If my ability, or disability, gives clients hope in their lives, then I have performed my role as a social worker.

Another challenge I have experienced is being unable to use my sight to set the tone of a session and encourage consumers to engage in discussion. Sometimes case managers comment on a consumer’s appearance to create a friendly environment, such as “Think you need a haircut?” “Why is your foot so swollen?” or “Is that a new shirt?” Because I cannot rely on visual cues, I have to work extra hard to build rapport with consumers, using only their voices and the things they say to gauge their emotions.

If a client is reluctant to talk, then I respect their wishes. But otherwise my sessions with consumers are highly verbal with few moments of silence. Sometimes I feel pressured to keep the conversation going because I do not want to miss out on anything the client is trying to communicate. I want to make optimal use of the time I have with them, so I diligently focus on keeping the consumer talking in hopes that the session will leave them feeling uplifted.

As I continue with my practicum, I hope to learn and grow as a social worker. Being able to adapt to different challenges will give me the experience to create a fruitful career as well as foster my strength and capability as an individual.

Sajja is doing a practicum in the Behavioral Health Division as a requirement for her Masters of Social Work at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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