Addressing cultural, language barriers that hinder health equity

Many people from refugee, immigrant, and migrant communities experience significant logistical barriers to COVID-19 vaccination. That’s where Disability Rights Michigan has stepped in to increase access.
The Burma Center recently hosted a vibrant cultural heritage event, drawing attention to the diverse traditions and entrepreneurial spirit within the Battle Creek community. 

The highlight of the event included a traditional Burmese fashion show and a contest for small businesses, offering them a chance to win funding for expansion. In addition to celebrating culture and supporting local businesses, the event also featured a COVID-19 vaccination clinic, aiming to make health care more accessible to this underserved population.

In Michigan, many individuals from refugee, immigrant, and migrant communities face significant challenges in accessing preventive health care services, including COVID-19 vaccinations. Disability Rights Michigan (DRM) has been at the forefront of efforts to bridge this gap by integrating vaccination clinics into community events.

Tamela PhillipsDisability Rights Michigan holds a COVID-19 clinic at the Burma Center.

Tamela Phillips, a DRM vaccine advocate, highlights the importance of this strategy.

“We work closely with organizations across the state that support these communities, providing translators to ensure everyone has access to the information and services they need,” Phillips explains. 

“The clinic offered the opportunity for vaccination access and information to be shared with another group of people that may not have received it due to the language barrier.  It was nice to be able to reach out.”
Several dialects were spoken at the event, reflecting the linguistic diversity of the attendees.

Taylor ScamehornPriscilla Lal
“We are a very small community in Battle Creek,” says Priscilla Lal, program manager at the Burma Center in Springfield, outside of Battle Creek. The nonprofit supports the Burmese community in a variety of ways, including housing, job opportunities, assisting with medical appointments, and finding other resources. 

“They needed help with phone calls and navigating a new country and culture and doing small, essential, everyday things,” says Lal. “Language access is still a big part of everything that we do here and is still impacted a lot.”

Taylor ScamehornTranslator Kyu Senia

Addressing language barriers

Michigan's demographic statistics reveal that while English is the primary language for over 91% of residents, a significant portion of the population speaks other languages, including Spanish, Arabic, and various Asian languages. This linguistic diversity necessitates tailored approaches to health care outreach.

DRM's collaboration with the Burma Center has included multiple COVID-19 clinics, with the latest one held on May 18. “The turnout was pretty good,” Lal notes.

Taylor ScamehornNurse Teresa Crawford and DRM's Tamela Phillips at the Burma Center COVID-19 clinic.

On Michigan's east side, DRM has partnered with Global Detroit to support immigrant populations with limited English proficiency. Destine Brown, Global Detroit’s social cohesion program manager, emphasized the impact of these efforts. 

“DRM has joined us at community resource fairs and festivals, providing mobile clinics and crucial information,” Brown said.
Global DetroitDestine Brown
The partnership has been instrumental in overcoming barriers to health care access. “People needed that extra step where someone could explain and answer their questions,” Brown says. 

Often, people didn't even have information about vaccinations. Pairing the information with an incentive made it an easy decision.

“Some of the feedback we heard is that folks were happy that they were able to get this service on a weekend because sometimes they can't take off work or they don't have the time during the week to make it to these places,” Brown says. “There was also no documentation required, which can be a barrier for some immigrants in obtaining services.”

Working with Kristen Milefchik, a DRM vaccine advocate, has changed how the nonprofit selects venues for events.

“We had a challenge come up where we invited them to a local school, and they didn't have ramps or elevators, making it difficult for people who use wheelchairs or older folks with mobility issues,” Brown says. 

She says that experience helped the group think more inclusively during project planning.

Global DetroitDRM holds a COVID-19 clinic at a Global Detroit resource fair.

Help from ‘trusted connector’

In Detroit’s Banglatown neighborhood, DRM works with Rezaul Chowdhury, a community engagement specialist with Global Detroit. Chowdhury, who serves as a trusted connector within the Bangladeshi immigrant community, played a key role at the vaccination clinic by providing translation services and encouraging participation. 
Global DetroitRezaul Chowdhury
“I explained the vaccination process and the incentives, and people were happy to line up and get vaccinated,” Chowdhury said.

As a “trusted connector,” he is out in the community helping small business owners and community members navigate matters big and small to help them get the resources they need and deserve. 

Chowdhury worked as a translator and Bangla speaker at the clinic.

“I was a resource for a lot of people who showed up. Some of them are not very interested or sometimes they are going to learn about what it is about. If they were struggling to understand, I jumped in and translated,” says Chowdhury. “I explained they were giving vaccinations and they were giving gift cards. They were happy to participate, and they lined up. We did a lot of vaccines.”

The collaborative efforts of organizations like DRM, the Burma Center, and Global Detroit illustrate the power of community-based approaches in addressing public health challenges and supporting immigrant and refugee populations. By combining cultural celebrations with essential services, these initiatives ensure that more people can access the resources they need to thrive.

Photos by Taylor Scamehorn and Tamela Phillips, and courtesy of Global Detroit.

Disability Inclusion is a series exploring the state of Michigan’s growing disability community. It is made possible through a partnership with Disability Rights Michigan.
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