Why Nasir Uddin wants to see more opportunities for newcomers with disabilities

CBC Calgary is highlighting the rich heritage and contributions of Asian Calgarians through a series of 10 self-profiles to mark Asian Heritage Month. Here is the latest profile, from Nasir Uddin.

The professional athlete, owner of a subcontracting business is paving the way for newcomers with disabilities

Nasir Uddin represented Canada in the 24th Deaflympics in Brazil this year and also runs his own subcontracting business in Calgary. (Esther Cho Photography/CBC)

May is Asian Heritage Month. To celebrate, CBC Calgary is highlighting the rich heritage and contributions of Asian Calgarians through a series of 10 profiles throughout the month. We welcomed nominations of diverse individuals with different goals and interests, and a common commitment to giving back to the community. Through an internal voting process, CBC Calgary staff selected the Asian Changemakers for 2022 and asked them each to write a self-profile. Here is the latest, from Nasir Uddin:

I am Nasir Uddin. I am originally from Bangladesh and moved to Canada 18 years ago with my wife, a Canadian who was living and teaching in Bangladesh. I was born with hearing abilities, but I became deaf as a child after bouts of both meningitis and typhoid at the ages of six months and two. My parents aren't really sure which one left me deaf, but either one could have. In Bangladesh, I was an athlete — a competitive second level black belt in karate as well as a gym owner. Here in Canada, I am now a drywaller by trade and recently represented Canada in the 24th Deaflympics in Brazil.

It would be difficult for me to choose one identity I connect the most with as I am Bangladeshi, Muslim and a person with disabilities, all three of which have strong influences that shape who I am.

When I first came to Canada, I had limited communication skills. I could read and write a little in English, and while I knew a little ASL, I was not fluent as I had been using the Bengali sign language. I took some English classes at first, but there were limited options for a deaf newcomer, and I had children to look after. My first few jobs were low paying assembly line positions where I worked hard and attended English classes when I could. Not a lot of employers were eager to hire someone with my communication limitations. Eventually I got a job with a drywall subcontractor who told me he decided someone in my situation probably had to work hard for everything he got, so he was willing to take the risk. 

'Moving to a new country that has significant cultural differences is stressful and can seem overwhelming for almost anyone, but having a disability can further isolate you,' Uddin said. (Esther Cho Photography/CBC)

Thirteen years later, after gaining experience with a number of different companies, I own my own subcontracting business and hope that I can change perceptions of what both newcomers and people who are deaf can do. I am also trying my best to provide opportunities, especially experiential opportunities, for deaf newcomers like me. When you are starting out here, it is a struggle to make ends meet, your world is pretty small and even if your basic needs are met, it doesn't mean your quality of life is good. Paying someone's entrance fee and expenses for a sport tournament, or taking a family out to a restaurant so they can all eat out together for the first time, might seem frivolous in the face of their everyday struggles, but it helps to build their connection to the community and add a little levity to the mundane.

I would also add that even though I couldn't communicate very well at first, establishing cultural connections by going to the mosque and frequenting Bengali businesses when I could were so important. With everything around me so new, it was comforting to find familiar rituals and products. We understood each other on a different level and even though we couldn't do much more than exchange pleasantries, there was a connection and I felt a part of the community. 

In Bangladesh, there is a strong sense of community and helping those in need. As a child, even though none of my neighbours had a lot of money or resources, I knew that any home would be open to me if I was in need. We looked out for one another. From my own experience and what others have told me, I think this is pretty common for much of South Asia and probably beyond. Maybe it is because we didn't have a lot, we knew how important sharing was.

I don't really see the influence of my Asian heritage on my life in Canada, but my kids always tell me how much they relate to "desi parent" jokes, so it must be there, I just don't think about it. Sometimes I get frustrated by the treatment of some of our elderly citizens. Our parents and grandparents hold such a place of honour in my culture, and it doesn't always feel the same here. My wife says this makes me a very good son-in-law!

Uddin said the Deaf community in Calgary was amazing when he arrived in the city. (Esther Cho Photography/CBC)

The Deaf and hard of hearing community in Calgary has been amazing. People often assume that sign language is universal, but it isn't. Even though there was so much I didn't know, the community embraced me, pointing me toward resources that others wouldn't know about. As a deaf athlete, the Canadian Deaf Sports Association has granted me opportunities that might not have existed for someone in my situation, such as the opportunity to represent Canada on an international stage and to meet other deaf athletes from all over the world.

In the future, I would like to see more opportunities for newcomers with disabilities. According to the World Health Organization, almost 80 per cent of people who suffer from 'disabling' hearing loss come from low- and middle-income countries, and I assume you would find similar correlations looking at other disabilities. Moving to a new country that has significant cultural differences is stressful and can seem overwhelming for almost anyone, but having a disability can further isolate you and make integration into your new community that much harder, if not impossible. 

Calgary has many programs for newcomers, and they try their best to accommodate individuals with disabilities, but that isn't the focus. I eventually found my way here, but the path was bumpier than it needed to be as even with a loving family, I often felt isolated and unsupported as I was put in programs that really didn't know how to meet my needs. Many things I just had to either figure out on my own, or reach out to the social community I started to build around me.

For people wanting to make a change, I would say change doesn't have to be big to make a difference. Also, your basic needs aren't your only needs, and we all need opportunities to experience and enjoy what our community has to offer.  Those experiences will have an impact on all aspects of our life.

This story was transcribed by Nasir Uddin's wife, Jolene.