In our society, the needs of people with disabilities are often unacknowledged, or even ignored.
Emily Ladau ’13, disability advocate, writer, blogger and author of Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally (September 2021), is out to change that. As she stated, “People seem to think that disability history and laws protecting the rights of the disability community started and stopped with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but there’s such a rich history before and after that, and we just don’t talk about it enough. There’s so much that has been done, but we’ve got more work to do.”
Ladau has taken on this crusade since graduating from Adelphi. She has spoken in front of audiences across the nation, from the United States Department of Education to the United Nations, and her op-eds have appeared in The New York Times, HuffPost and CNN, among others. Her book was included on National Public Radio’s 2021 “Books We Love” list, and also appeared on Booklist Editors’ Choice for 2021. She also currently serves as a member of the Adelphi University Board of Trustees.
Here, she tells us about her first book, her role as a trustee and her work as a disability advocate.
What does a disability advocate do?
For me, advocacy is about storytelling and creating connection, and a disability advocate is someone who draws upon their life experiences to push for rights and justice for the disability community. I believe that by sharing our stories, we can foster honest discussion about disability, and that’s how we’ll create a more inclusive world.
Is that part of why you wrote Demystifying Disability? Did it come from that place of advocacy and storytelling and wanting to create connection?
My book is not meant to be the definitive guide on disability, it’s meant to be a starting point to open up the conversation, to share a little bit of my story as well as stories from other disabled people. There are more than a billion disabled people worldwide, and I am only one person; I have one experience. [The aim of my book is] to bridge the gaps in knowledge that I think keep people from even engaging around disability because they’re afraid they’ll say or do the wrong thing. I want to remove that fear. I want people to recognize that disability is not a bad thing or something to be afraid of, it’s just a part of the human experience.
In your book, you talk about how people who want to be allies should not see themselves as “helping” disabled People. Can you expand on this?
There’s a commonly held belief that people without disabilities should offer help to disabled people, because we’re so often perceived as helpless. But I encourage people to recognize that nondisabled people might need help with things as well, and that doesn’t make them weak or pitiful. It makes them human. It’s the same for someone with a disability. Are you inclined to help them because you see them as tragic? Are you helping them because you think it makes you a good person? Or are you lending support because we are all human beings who should be helping one another out?
What does it mean to be on Adelphi’s board of trustees?
Adelphi is really where I came into my own as a disabled woman, and I don’t take that for granted. I wanted to give back, and I wanted to contribute to making Adelphi the kind of place where as many people as possible have an experience like I had, where they feel that no matter what their identity is, there is a place for them on this campus.
Adelphi has been making a very conscious effort to try to increase the diversity that’s represented among their leadership. In any conversation that the board has, I know I am not only welcome, but encouraged to ask, “How are we going to meaningfully include people with disabilities? How can we continue our commitment to focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion?” That is really a key part of serving on the board—helping foster the kind of community that everyone who is part of the Adelphi community deserves.
Can you speak to the challenges of COVID-19 and what people should know about the challenges of being disabled during this time?
Disabled people, especially disabled people of color and disabled people who live in poor or rural communities, are at a much higher risk of COVID. It is a very scary time to be at higher risk, to be immunocompromised, to be disabled, because you have to fight harder for people to recognize that your life has value. How do we protect the lives of disabled people, and even though we shouldn’t have to, how do we remind people that they are worthy, like anybody else?
What would you say to people who are opposed to safety mandates such as getting vaccinated and wearing a mask?
I’m a big believer in the interconnectedness of human beings. If you’re struggling to look outside yourself, I ask you to take another good, hard look and to ask yourself: If you were the one who was disabled or immunocompromised or high risk, if you held multiple marginalized identities, would you not want the same level of courtesy and respect for your life, for your airspace?
Should people with disabilities, visible or invisible, disclose their disability to an employer?
It’s a deeply personal choice. I am obviously wholeheartedly in favor of embracing your disability and being open about it, but that’s come from years of actively practicing pride in who I am, and I’ve shaped a career and an identity around that. My advice is to be proud of who you are, but I understand if you don’t disclose immediately. That being said, don’t avoid disclosing at the risk of not getting the support you need to be successful.
Do you have any advice for students with disabilities?
Be unapologetically yourself and advocate for what you need to thrive. There are resources on campus, like the Student Access Office, the Student Counseling Center, the Sensory Room. Use those resources! Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and engage. You belong. You are part of the Adelphi community.