Owning Our Origin Stories: Diversability Founder Tiffany Yu

Jennifer Brown | |

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Diversability founder Tiffany Yu joins the program to reveal her own origin story, and shares her thoughts about the challenges and opportunities that still exist in the 30 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Discover how designing for disability benefits everyone and the intersection of social justice movements. 

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Tiffany’s diversity story (13:00)
  • Why some people with disabilities don’t share their origin stories (15:00)
  • The unemployment rate for persons with disabilities in the U.S. (20:00)
  • How to encourage and normalize sharing of invisible disabilities  (28:00)
  • The impact of COVID-19 on caregivers (33:00)
  • The benefits of designing for disability (38:00)
  • How leaders can create an inclusive environment (43:00)
  • The diversity within the disability community (47:00)
  • The importance of keeping an intersectional lens (53:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Early birds. Thank you. You too. Hi, Marnie. Hello, hello. Welcome. Welcome, Danny. Nice to see you. Hi, Murray. Oh, we see Tiffany. Hey, Tiffany. Welcome, welcome. If you want to unmute yourself and say something, that would probably be-

MURRAY A. MANN: Hi everyone.

TIFFANY YU: Hi everybody.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hello, hello. Hi. Good to see all of you. I know I always say this. I’ve missed you. This is the best we’re going to have for a long time to come, I think, especially as certain states, which all of you are in are rescinding their open orders and rewinding some things. In New York, we just had the tables out on the sidewalks and in the street, and it’s so cute. It’s like there’s these moments that are actually so enjoyable in the midst of this although I’m sure it’s not enjoyable to run a restaurant at all right now, but just to imagine what these businesses are going through, having ordered all their food and then learning that next week they’re not going to be able to do indoor seating. So much, so much, but welcome everybody. I’m so glad you’re here.

As we all join, if you would introduce yourselves in chat, please, who you are, what you’re working on, who you work for, what your job is, are you in transition, do you work for yourself? Please share who you are with us, and we can hold you and support you in lots of different ways. This is an amazing community. There’s lots of networking that happens after this call I’ve heard, which I think is really special, and it’s so neat to know that all of you are looking each other up and setting up calls with each other and even starting businesses and ventures together, which I’ve heard about. It’s just thrilling. So, I’m so glad.

Hi, Chris Pope. Glad to have you. Hello, hello. Terry’s on. There’s too many of you to say hi to, but know that I am noticing your names and welcoming you and hoping that you’ve had a good week and are looking forward to perhaps an extra quiet day this weekend, which I know we all need. I certainly do, but yes, what a time. Oh my goodness. I’m so excited to have Tiffany Yu on. If you all aren’t familiar with Tiffany’s work, we’re going to have a wide-ranging conversation, but she’s an amazing specialist in disabilities and many other identities as well and the whole anniversary, the 30-year anniversary that’s coming up of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA.

So, this is timely to have Tiffany on with us today to discuss. I asked Tiffany even before if you could wave your magic wand and create the best and most effective way to commemorate that 30th anniversary of the ADA, what would organizations do? What would that look like? So, we’re going to get to a question like that, and I would really love as ever to hear in the chat what all of you are planning. What are you working on? How are you commemorating it? I know that actually July is Disabilities Pride Month for the state of New York. I just learned this from Tiffany. I wasn’t sure what the status was.

TIFFANY YU: Just city, unfortunately.

JENNIFER BROWN: City. Oh, only city. Thank you.

TIFFANY YU: The city of New York. New York City.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, you know.

TIFFANY YU: Still matters. Still matters.

JENNIFER BROWN: Because that’s how we roll, but yes. Thank you for that clarification. So, what are other states up to? What’s that progress looking like? Thank you so much. So, everybody that’s joining, we also add our pronouns to our name. So, it’s a practice that we do here. You’ll see on my name in Zoom that I have she/her/hers, which is a way that I demonstrate my allyship to the community of all gender identities and expressions as a cisgender-identified woman whose pronouns are she/her/hers. So, that is why I do that. Easy thing to do in Zoom and sends a really powerful message to those of us who are still closeted, are covering our true identities in the workplace, which is many of us. Welcome, welcome.

Okay, so I think we can get right in, Tiffany, here in a moment. So, Tiffany, we met on a stage at the 3% Conference. Is that right? I think that’s right.

TIFFANY YU: Yes, 2017. 

JENNIFER BROWN: 2017, so the 3% Conference is put on by Kat Gordon, Kat with a K, and it is meant to refer to, I think, the number of woman creative directors in advertising at the time it was created. Is that true, Tiffany? I think that’s right.

TIFFANY YU: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, so it’s a field and a role in a field that has very poor diverse representation, and that’s why she called it the 3% Conference, and it’s just great if you are at all in the creative industries media. She’s doing it virtually this year obviously like all of us are, and really, it’s just such a solid conference. I’ve spoken there, Tiffany, around a panel. I think the panel was about allyship, but I’m not sure, Tiffany, but it was a great convo.

TIFFANY YU: The panel was about covering.

JENNIFER BROWN: Was that covering? Ah, got it. Cool.

TIFFANY YU: Which I know you had spoken on at Tech Inclusion. So, I was very excited to have you on that.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.

TIFFANY YU: I was moderating that panel.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right, and you bring up Tech Inclusion. I want to give Melinda Eppler a shout-out. Melinda Eppler runs Change Catalyst and another good friend of Tiffany’s and mine, has had both of us on her podcast, and runs this conference called Tech Inclusion, which is a really powerful, both a content event but also recruiting event for diverse talent into tech roles. So critical as you all know. An industry that needs a lot of help even though sometimes they act like they don’t because they act like they have it all figured out, but I shouldn’t say they because I know we have some tech folks on here too, but there’s no industry that doesn’t struggle with all this. So, I want to be inclusive of that.

So, Tiffany, let’s jump right in to a little bit about your story of origin. I love how you talk about disability origin stories. I love that concept of origin stories. We all have to get very good at telling them. We have to get brave in telling them. We have to be vulnerable, and no pressure of course because it can be a long time before we’re ready to utilize our stories I think as tools for our message and have that objectivity to it all, and I know that you’ve done a ton of work, and our stories of origin often are painful. They’re challenging. They shape us. They enlighten us. They energize us. They show us maybe our purpose.

If mine was coming out, it literally shaped what I would do with my life and what kind of work I would do and what I’m passionate about, and it enabled me to find my purpose, and I know that you believe the same is true for you although you had some other jobs along the way. So, let me just hand over to you, and folks, you can ask questions as we go in the chat, and I’ll keep an eye over here, and if I can intercept with Tiffany as we go, I will, but please, this is a safe space for all of us to share, ask questions, weigh in, talk about what you’re working on in your company relating to this or anything else, but try to keep it tangentially related if you can to our conversation. So, Tiffany, go ahead.

TIFFANY YU: Thanks, Jennifer, and thanks for having me, and it’s great to see everyone joining from all over. I think I saw London in there. I do want to specify that I will come from a very U.S.-centered perspective, so I just want to preface with that. So, again, my name’s Tiffany. My pronouns are she/her. One thing I like to do is I like to visually describe myself if in case there’s anyone on the call who is blind or low vision. So, I’m an Asian woman who is wearing a off-white floral dress and behind me, you can see fake plants and a painting of a flower with a ladybug on it that I proudly painted myself.

JENNIFER BROWN: Tiffany, can you explain why you do that? I just want you to explain what you just did.

TIFFANY YU: Sure. So, what I did was I visually described myself in case there’s anyone on the call who… You may be tending to something else and just listening to the audio, or you may be blind or low vision. So, I have heard from blind people that sometimes they don’t really need a visual description, but from a lot of disability events that I’ve been attending, we’ve always asked everyone to visually describe themselves. 

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so much.

TIFFANY YU: So, before I go into the origin story, I do want to talk about language very briefly. The organization I run is called Diversability, but we are not trying to change the word disability because we believe that disability is an identity, and it is not a good word or a bad word. It’s just a neutral to positive or a neutral to empowering word. So, you will hear me use people with disabilities, so there’s people first language. Oftentimes if people ask like, “What should I do?” I’ll tell them they should default to people with disabilities, people first language, but there is an emerging group of people who are very proud and prefer to use identity first language. 

So, I’m a disabled person. You will hear me use interchangeably both people first language/people with disabilities and identity first language/disabled people. So, now, I will go into why I do the work I do, and what I tell Jennifer is I actually have two origin stories, and the reason why I think in addition to what Jennifer said, the reason why I think origin stories are so important especially within disability is because there is a dehumanization of our lived experience within disability. 

There is a dehumanization of thinking that we shouldn’t work, thinking that we don’t have desire for human connection and wanting to be valuable to society, thinking that we are narrowed to our bodies or our diagnosis, and oftentimes within an HR context, sometimes, it is a check-the-box compliance type of thing. So, as we share our stories, that actually humanizes us. So, I will have what are called two disability origin stories. The first is actually when I became disabled, and then the second is when I became proud or took ownership of my disability identity.

And again, another reason why origin stories are important is that everyone’s stories are different. My story begins when I was nine years old. It was Thanksgiving weekend, holiday here in the U.S., and I was in fourth grade at the time, and I had to drop my mom off at the airport for a business trip. On the way home, my dad actually lost control of the car, single vehicle car accident. He unfortunately passed away, and I acquired a spinal cord injury, which would end up paralyzing my right arm, which is known as a brachial plexus injury. You don’t need to know all the details of that, but the brachial plexus is a series of nerves right in the back of my neck, and they were just torn out like a plug.

I will say some disabled people don’t feel comfortable sharing their origin stories. Like mine, there’s trauma. There’s childhood trauma in there. There’s grief. These are all things that I’m still working through and identities that I still carry with me. I want to bring in intersectionality into here which is, as you can probably tell, I’m Asian, and I am the first-generation daughter of a Taiwanese immigrant and a refugee from the Vietnam war, and within my family, death is very stigmatized. Disability is very stigmatized. Trauma, mental health, anything mental health related is also stigmatized.

So, as a result, there was no collective healing within the family, so I never talked about the car accident after it happened. I used to joke and tell people, “It’s like going to the grocery store,” but now in the pandemic area, going to the grocery store is a big thing now too. So, I never had space to really grieve, number one, grieve, but also really comprehend as a kid what had happened both in my family and to my body, and my mom, because disability was so stigmatized, all she wanted to do was to fix me. So, my childhood and my adolescence then became identified by doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, meeting with surgeons, acupuncture. 

Again, it was really this narrative about fixing, and no one ever asked me, “What do you like to do for fun?” Instead, it was like, “Here’s how to fix your arm.” So, I want to include that framing as well, again, with the dehumanization of the disability experience. So, fast-forward 12 years from nine years old, up until about 21. This is my second origin story, and I’ll make it brief, but I was participating in a program at my university.

I went to Georgetown where they asked us to cut out slices of a pie based on how important our social identities were to us. So, our sexual orientation, age, gender, race, et cetera, and disability was one of those slices, and it was actually the first time I’d ever seen disability as part of an identities pie, and the way I had grown up was always that my disability was a medical diagnosis, and in a healthcare context, that framing makes sense, but I never viewed it in terms of an identity-based model.

So, that was the beginning of me really starting to learn about what it meant to be proud of my disability identity, and sometimes, and maybe you can see my hand or you can’t, but I’ll normally wear a splint, and I actually had someone, and I had someone write the word proud on my splint to remind myself that I can’t believe, like number one, someone didn’t make it out of the car accident unfortunately, but then number two, if you look at people who do who have experienced childhood trauma, which again, when we talk about covering is something I can hide. It’s something I can cover, but I think about people who have experienced things like that and what they do with their lives, and I just feel really proud.

So, a lot of the work I do today is really around how can you be disabled and well? How can you be strong and courageous and brave and powerful in your disability narrative? So, with July being the 30th anniversary of the ADA, I think that if it took me over 20 years, or if it took me over a decade to really come to terms with how I wanted to own my disability story, I’m wondering how non-disabled people, how long it may take them to be able to see what I see now, right? 

We still have a little bit of a ways to go or a long ways to go in terms of actually realizing what the ADA was meant to be because there is still so much social stigma. I’ll end there. I’ll also say that I started my career in finance. I worked at Goldman. I worked on the banking side, and then I worked in recruiting, and I have had a lot of different jobs since then and have seen it from both sides. So, either working as a disabled employee and what they did to really make me feel like I was seen in those environments but then also being on the other side now of seeing all of you on this call, eager to learn more about what you can do to be better around disability inclusion within your own organizations.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so much, Tiffany. You’re getting a lot of love and appreciation in chat, and one thing I think… Mira said it best. Your story is powerful on its own, and the delivery and education embedded is extremely powerful as well. You’re teaching us. Your origin story is teaching us, and it’s incredible how you’ve been able to weave that together, and I think that’s the most beautiful way to use our stories is to fit in the education along the way, and people remember that you and I were talking about… There’s a couple new reports out about the business case for disability. 

There’s research from Accenture, and you and I were saying, “Gosh, but sometimes, it’s just tough to read through all the numbers. We just need a story,” and thought papers are heavy on the data and light on the way that you just taught us, and I would argue some of us will retain more, like just listening to you share.

TIFFANY YU: Yes, so I do want to share some data in case anyone is interested. 

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, please.

TIFFANY YU: So, the first is that the unemployment rate for disabled Americans or Americans with disabilities who are of employable age has been hovering around 70 to 80% since the passage of the ADA, and you can carve the numbers. If you look at Department of Labor, you can carve the numbers in different ways but either way, it’s still bad. I mean, the fact that it has been hovering around 70% for decades even with a law that prevents discrimination against disabled people means that there’s more work to be done. That’s the first stat. That’s the sad stat.

Now, I want to share some business case stats. There’s an Accenture report that came out in 2018, and I will share the high level… The high level is that companies that hire for disability have 28% higher revenue, double the net income, and 30% higher economic profit margin, and this was done over a four-year period. We don’t have that much data, but they perform that much better than their peers who haven’t prioritized disability inclusion in terms of their hiring practices.

So, that’s the first, and then the other is a report that was done by return on disability, which is this really great research firm, and this is the other thing is for years, we just haven’t had research. So, disability was always framed as a social good or the moral case, but now we actually have numbers. You will be more profitable if you hire disabled people. So, now, if we turn to the consumer side, and I will find where the highlighted number is, but the number is that globally people with disabilities control around $1.2 trillion in annual disposable income, and if you add their friends and family, that number becomes $8 trillion in annual disposable income, and there is a question. Are veterans in that number?

So, if a veteran is identifying themselves as disabled, then they will be included in that number, and Jennifer and I, we did chat a little bit about how there is a lot of fear around disclosure as well and what’s interesting is even if I look at my own work experience, I actually never disclosed that I had a disability because on the one hand, I can pass as a non-disabled person if I’m wearing long sleeves, and also, I have learned how to use technology the same way that non-disabled people do.

So, yeah, I think there’s complexity, and there are a lot of people who have invisible disabilities as well. I believe the majority of disabilities are invisible and because of how much stigma people with visible disabilities receive, then that is reinforcing to people who have invisible disabilities that they don’t want to, in Jennifer’s words, come out as being disabled, which is part of the reason why I wear a splint that has the word proud on it because I want you to ask me around this visible marker, and I want to invite you to have this conversation with me because I know not everyone is at the same place in their own journey.

JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent. Thank you. I get the question a lot. How do we encourage the sharing and the normalization of invisible disabilities? Do you have thoughts on that? It’s a persistent thing, and I think being LGBTQ, remember, 50% of us are still closeted in the workplace. So, these two communities have a lot in common in terms of disclosure and fear and a lack of psychological safety or sufficient, I suppose, protections. What would that feel like for me to trust my company enough and my employer enough to disclose things that I know won’t be utilized against me? I mean, fundamentally, even though we may work for award-winning companies, we still may stay silent and which hurts all of us because then I think we can’t adequately obviously quantify the size of our community. So, what would you say?

TIFFANY YU: Yeah, I think that’s a great question, and I also didn’t identify myself as disabled until 2009, and the car accident was in 1997. So, I had my own journey of coming into my disability identity, and you will meet a lot of other disabled people who also don’t identify as disabled because again, we’re coming back to people seeing disability as a bad thing, people seeing the word disability as a bad word. So, how do we combat it? I think the media campaign is a different thing, but within organizations, I think it really comes down to leadership.

I would love to see more top-level leaders talk about the mental health aspect of this pandemic. That’s a good place to start because we all have mental health, and I think just by opening up a little bit of that vulnerability is really powerful. If I look at companies that I think… So, I started my career at Goldman Sachs, and Lloyd Blankfein who was the CEO at the time I believe was diagnosed with lupus somewhere along that journey, and there were articles that were written, and he had spoken a little bit about it.

Then Gary Cohn who was the president of Goldman Sachs at the time is dyslexic, and there, I think he was featured in a book about that and his story and things like that, and for me as an analyst of this… I don’t even know how many people work there. To see the CEO and the president identify with these identities and acknowledge that they had them, I think made me feel like I had permission, and I will say that the origins of the creation of Diversability actually came from my experience of working at Goldman because at the time, Goldman had an employee resource group for employees with disabilities, and they were really excited when I was an intern to come and talk to me and connect me with a lot of different senior leaders who have disabilities throughout the organization, and I think ultimately… I talk about this a lot too.

We just want to be seen. I think about that word, like maybe I’ll get… I was thinking of getting the word proud tattooed on my paralyzed arm, but maybe I should get the word seen because the reason why I’m pausing is I’m just thinking about what it feels like to really be seen. It really just touches you in your heart, and that’s the touchy feely part of it, but when we bring that back into organizations, if I’m a disabled person and I go in, and you can apply this to other identities as well, and I don’t see anyone who looks like me, then I just feel I’m a tack-on, right?

This is why I have a problem with the word inclusion because inclusion, as some of us understand it, is I’m just inviting you in, but you need to assimilate to whatever we’ve already created here versus how can we co-create something together that I know I had to say in building? So, I also worked at Bloomberg, and one of the proudest things that I did while I was there was I co-founded Bloomberg’s employee resource group for employees with disabilities, and again, I was like lowly analyst level, somewhat entry-ish level and working with the chief diversity officer to help envision what this employee resource group could look like, and I just felt like that access… Yeah, and I see people here be proud.

Our group was originally called Be Able, but then we switched it to Abilities Community instead, but yeah. I mean, I think there are just so many different opportunities to help people be seen, and I don’t know if that’s entirely a tactical way to answer that question, but I think that I really need… So, people often come to me, like you ask me about the ADA. My wish list for the ADA is let’s remove sub-minimum wage. It is still legal to pay disabled people below minimum wage. Goodwill does that, and I think Goodwill is… Anyway, I can’t shop at Goodwill because I don’t want to support any organizations that think that it’s okay to pay people below minimum wage, but I understand why something like that was implemented decades ago because instead of 70%, it was probably closer to 90 or 100% of unemployment and disability.

But I think when we still have those dynamics existing, it makes it hard for disabled people to believe that we can get work and be paid what we’re worth. Oh, sorry. So, the reason why I brought that up is because if I could tell anyone here if they wanted to do anything to recognize ADA 30, it would be for your leadership to come up with a commitment to hiring disabled people, which I know is a very big ask, but if we want to change these numbers, I really need you to hire people with disabilities, and if you’re like, “I don’t know where to find people with disabilities,” there’s a great organization called Getting Hired. There’s another great organization called Flexibility. 

A friend of mine has started something called Chronically Capable, which for people who have chronic illnesses, you can go and find part-time work or flexible hours. So, I don’t want to hear that it’s hard to find talent because we have so many organizations who are working in the disability employment space or sign on as a partner of Lime Connect. Yeah, and Jennifer’s doing a great job. If you add me on Linkedin and mention that you were on this call, or I can send these to Jen as well, but yes. That’s my dream.

I think we really need to change these disability employment numbers because… This is why employment is important, and I’m pretty sure you guys all know this, but employment is where you spend most of your time. It’s where you feel like you are contributing to the society. It’s where you feel valued within an organization. It’s where you feel seen within an organization. It’s where you create your relationships, and it’s also where you make money. 

If you strip that away, now, I as a disabled person am not rooted in community. This is what we’re trying to do at Diversability. I don’t have stable income, or I’m dependent on public benefits, and again, I will also say that that some people who have more severe needs will be dependent on public benefits, and that’s okay. I don’t feel like I’m contributing. I don’t feel valued, which then contributes to my mental health. Anyway, there’s this whole trickle-down impact. So, yeah, and Disabled List is a great one as well that was created by Liz Jackson who’s a really incredible disability advocate and who works in the design space.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Tiffany, and you can see everybody’s jamming over here. This is awesome.

TIFFANY YU: I know, and I’ve been bad at following the chat.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s okay.

TIFFANY YU: There’s a lot.

JENNIFER BROWN: There’s a lot really.

TIFFANY YU: It’s a great chat.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know it is. It’s one of the best things about this call. I love it. I sit with these chats, and I want to reread them and just digest. So, let me keep… Oh, go ahead. Go ahead.

TIFFANY YU: Go ahead. Oh, I was going to say I did just read a comment from Leela who wrote about she had a sign. She saw a sign at a Black Lives Matter march that says, “It’s okay to look at me. Disability is not contagious,” and I really love the quote from Harry Winston that says, “People will stare, make it worth their while,” and now, I internalize that quote because I know they’re going to look at my arm, and I’m also a petite woman. So, either way, you may look, right? This is more for me as an advocate, but it’s like I know you’re going to stare, so how do I want to respond and do I want to use that as an invitation again to have a conversation?

JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Tiffany. That’s excellent. I would like to back up, speaking of statistics, and let’s talk about the pandemic world and then the movement for black lives we’re in and the many identity… Speaking of being seen, how do we have the bandwidth to walk and chew gum at the same time with all communities that are covering, that are struggling to feel seen, that are struggling with similar issues, like we can’t find any people from the demographic, struggling with pay gap. I mean, a lot of this is shared, and we’ve successfully moved through… different functions, different identities, right? 

Then in March and April, we were talking a lot about caregivers. We were talking a lot about parenting, mental health. Then we were talking about AAPI Hate a lot I think in the April time frame and as this all developed, and then George Floyd happened and Pride of course at the same time. So, I would love you to, first of all, take us back to what was so important to know about how people with disabilities differentially experienced the crisis from a healthcare perspective, employment… anything you can share that’s most important for us to know to put the context historically around that, and then I would say the second harder question.

You knew I was going to ask you this, is how do we parse and keep the focus on multiple streams and multiple identities at once? Because the media doesn’t help us. The media moves on. I was noticing and so were you that it’s like, “Well, where are the headlines about AAPI racism right now?” We know it’s still going on, but now something else has come, and something else will come, and it just goes like this, and yet, our job on this call is to keep many things top of mind, and we also know that our audiences are overwhelmed because of a lot of this already.

So, we have to pick our spots and understanding that, but at the same time, we need to ensure that all kinds of identities feel valued on a consistent basis too. So, I guess I would love your thoughts on that challenge as it continues-

TIFFANY YU: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: If its possible to do this.

TIFFANY YU: I’m just laughing because I’m like, “You may not like my answer,” but I like my answer-

JENNIFER BROWN: Then do it.

TIFFANY YU: … which is I think if you center on disability, you will actually touch on all other identities, and this is what I try to do in my work because again, so there’s something called the curb cut effect, which was created by Ed Roberts, and it was this idea that he was a wheelchair user and I think wanted to be able to access the campus around Berkeley, which is where he was a student at school. If I didn’t get the story right, someone can correct me, but as a result, they ended up putting in curb cuts into the sidewalk, and as a result, people who have luggage with wheels, moms with strollers, delivery men who are wheeling around packages, movers, can now all use the curb cuts.

So, again, this is where designing for disability, and that’s a physical thing, but if you bring it back into the programs that you’re designing, like I love the fact that you have captions on here, right? Because we don’t know. Someone who is deaf could show up on this call or someone who’s hard of hearing or someone who’s a non-native English speaker who prefers to view captions in order to understand and internalize what’s happening. 

So, I think that there are a lot of benefits to designing for disability because the way I think about doing things is if we design for our most… And remember, again, due to other social and systemic factors, more black and brown people are disabled than other races due to other systemic factors. For Pride, I did some research around how much of the trans and LGB community identify as disabled, and the number’s around a quarter to a third, and if you want that research, you can head to Diversability’s page on instagram because that’s where I cited it.

But yeah, and someone actually included a link here to stock images that include people with disabilities. Again, it’s this whole idea of being seen, but you asked two questions there. So, one is, how can we make sure that all intersecting communities feel seen and then number two, what is happening with the pandemic? Honestly, I feel like the pandemic is an avalanche of bad news, which is why I’m so excited to be able to recognize and celebrate that we are reaching the 30th anniversary of the ADA because I just need some good news right now.

So, if I look at how this pandemic has impacted the disability community, it has literally been in every single aspect. The communication of shelter-in-place was not accessible. There were deaf people who were punished, penalized, because no one told them, and some cities would do the loud sirens or loud announcements saying that quarantine or lockdown was happening and in other places around the world. If you’re deaf, you’re not going to get that message. So, inaccessibility of notices. This was way at the beginning. 

Then as we moved further on, as we were attempting to flatten the curve, then we come into this issue of care rationing. If I go in, if I end up contracting COVID, and my situation is serious enough, and there’s a limited availability of beds, all people are going to see on paper is that my arm is paralyzed. I have a mental health condition for my childhood trauma, and they may deem me as being lower. They call it lower quality of life, and I feel like I’m living my best life, but on paper, again, this whole idea that disability is a bad word, that being disabled is a bad experience, and I guess my thinking and again another way people can help celebrate and commemorate ADA 30 and this part of the work I do is we need to over-course-correct on the other side now of showing like kick ass.

I wish that Gary Cohn and Lloyd Blankfein, again, who are these executives at Goldman, could be more outspoken disability advocates, but I also remember that they were running a Fortune 100 company, and again, it’s like this push and pull between you need to do your job, and this is often what I felt when I was working in the corporate world of me doing my job, but then my job in finance would have nothing to do with disability and then wearing all these other identities that I was being pulled into based on my lived experience, expertise, right? Some people will call it emotional labor as well, free emotional labor.

So, it’s like, “Okay, you’re asking me, as a disabled person, you may have hired me to fill some quota, but I need to kick ass in my job once I’m there,” right? So, I know I’m telling everyone here to hire disabled people, but it’s like you’re not going to keep that disabled person unless they do a kick-ass job, right? I don’t know for a lot to occur, so I’m going to say unless they do a really great job, and yeah, and someone is actually mentioning the CEO Action tour, and I don’t know if people are familiar with it, but CEO Action is a… It’s a community of CEOs that was led by the CEO of PwC Americas to get CEOs to commit to diversity and inclusion, and I know this is recorded, but I did mention this to them.

So, they asked me if I could help out with their campaign, and I looked at the tour, and it was called Check Your Blind Spots. So, what’s interesting is the word blind spot is used a lot within DEI spaces, but it’s actually offensive to the disability community because “check your blind spots” is used as a way to signal ignorance. So, if we’re talking about driving a car and actually talking about a blind spot where you literally cannot see, that’s what blind spot means literally, but now we’ve turned it into this other phrase where blind spot means ignorance, which is disempowering to the disability community.

So, I think also just thinking about how we’re using language as well is really important, which is like every single time we use words like with regard to Black Lives Matter, I had a couple friends saying, “Your silence in this conversation is deafening,” and I want to validate the experience that the black person who said that was feeling in that moment, and then I pulled them aside. Actually, this was a learning for me. I then responded, and I said, “Would it be possible to not use disability terms as bad words?” He’s like, “I’m not going to apologize for my language,” but then he and I actually had a conversation offline where he understood where I was coming from, and I understood where he was coming from.

This is an example of call-in versus call-out culture because I’m also learning that when someone is hurting, this is not where Tiffany, disability advocate, polices her language or polices his language. That is a conversation that can happen behind closed doors rather than derail an entire conversation around language, even though I know that’s actually just what I did when someone mentioned the CEO action campaign, but it’s like if you are a DEI champion, think about your language, and think about how you talk about disability. I am not suffering from my paralysis. I have not overcome my disability. I checked, and my arm is still paralyzed.

I’m not struggling with my disability. So, I’m living with. So, yeah, Stella Young has a great TED Talk called I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much, or something along those lines talking about inspiration porn, but this is where the overindexing on the positive stories is important too. Again, it’s thinking about the humanizing and the difference between inspiration porn and a positive message. So, it is not inspiring that I had a job, but it is inspiring that I went through a really traumatic car accident and can now show up on this call and talk about it, but what inspiration actually is is an inspiration to act.

So, if you are inspired by anything you heard on this call, tell me what your action is, and you can put it into the chat, and I hope your action is that you will get your company to commit to hiring disabled people because I’ve also heard there was one company, a very large tech company, and then I’ll stop talking, so Jennifer can ask questions, but a very large tech company really wanted to increase their disability hiring. So, what they did was anyone who met the minimum qualifications and identified as having a disability would… They would put them through the interview process. 

They mentioned on this panel that they interviewed 600 disabled candidates, and zero of them got hired. So, people are applying. Some unconscious bias, things, stigma, discrimination, attitudes is happening in that interview process that is then not allowing that person the opportunity to have a job where they will feel valued and seen and have an income where they can live with dignity. I’m just laughing at myself because I feel like I’m-

JENNIFER BROWN: We’re smiling and appreciating this, and you even gave me a very specific example of the kinds of things that derail and trigger the bias that makes that happen. It’s the transition into back to work is something you and I were talking about, and I asked you what is that going to look like and what flexibility do we need to make sure we’re allocating to certain communities, like as we go through this, whatever this transition looks like, and you said, “It’s going to be longer for people with disabilities.” So, yeah, do you want to elaborate on that? I know it’s still developing what that’s going to look like.

TIFFANY YU: Yeah, I’ll touch on two things, and Jennifer, I can’t remember if you and I already chatted about this, but one of the one of the really powerful things that I think has come out of moving to a virtual-first environment is that now we’re asking everyone what their accommodations are, or I’m noticing that people within companies because people may have toddlers at home. They may need to homeschool their kids. They may have a pet that’s just barking really loudly in the background, or they may be deaf and need captioning, or they may be blind and need someone to visually describe what’s happening on a screen. All of those are accommodations.

And again, this is where we see the curb cut effect happening is for those of us who are event organizers or are in the DEI space, we would always include that question like, “Do you need any accommodations or do you have any access needs?” Now, everyone does. So, we’re like, “Is your internet fast or not?” I mean, that’s even an access… Or, “Have you downloaded Zoom?” So, I think that again, and this is where the curb cut effect. So, before, we were only asking it for disabled people, and now, we’re asking it for everyone because now, we’re in a pandemic environment, and I made a joke the other day where I talked about how as people who are designing things should put a pandemic lens onto whatever they’re designing to say, “If we get put into a situation where everyone is caught in their homes, does this product still work? Does this service still work?”

I think for a lot of event organizers, a pandemic lens may have been important to allow us to help pivot more quickly, but yeah. In terms of the timeline, I think Jennifer had asked me if I had heard about anything within our community around people with disabilities returning to work and how they’re navigating that, and I interviewed someone on my podcast who works with homeless communities or people experiencing homelessness, and he talked about how the start and end points for different communities in a pandemic is different, and he had done a lot of research around how different communities are impacted by pandemics.

So, the start date may have been… Even if you look at how geographically our countries rolled out shelter-in-place, the U.S. was the last on our timeline, and even as Europe, countries in Europe are opening up again. We’re still caught in our first wave. Even as our cities are reopening, we’re still not even out of the first wave. People, Memorial Day, even with July 4th coming up, I think those are adding additional layers, but I think in turn, what it’s making me think about again is the fact that we are always an afterthought. What breaks my heart, and I acknowledge… I have a lot of privilege within my community because I did work at Goldman. 

You can never take Goldman and Bloomberg off my resume, and oftentimes, what I will tell people is sometimes a person with a disability, a potential employee, needs someone to take a chance on them. I think we’re always looked at in terms of a liability or fear. Hiring anyone, you’re taking on some risk. Then when you add different access, needs or disability, there’s another layer of potential things to think about, but I’m just honestly… I mean, looking back to 2009, which is when I got that job, I’m grateful that they took a risk on me. 

And again, it’s like I had all the minimum qualifications, capable of job. My work product was excellent. I was ranked in the top bucket of my class like, “Can you tell me that the only job I can get is to be a barista at a coffee shop?” Those were the narratives I was given as I was growing up. It’s like, “Oh, you have a disability? Have you looked into this program to learn how to become a janitor or learn how to do housekeeping services?” Then those are great jobs, but there are other things that I want to do, and then what was interesting about me working at Goldman was that after that, I did so many informational interviews for other students with disabilities because they just never knew that they could have jobs like that.

They were like, “Could I work in finance?” I was like, “Well, do you like spreadsheets?” First of all, some people will not like spreadsheets. Anyway, I’m going on a tangent, but the starting and end point will be different. So, the reason why I went on that tangent is that, again, I feel like disabled people are an afterthought, and as cities are prematurely reopening, and people are prematurely returning to office spaces, again, for our own safety, we are staying home, right? Many of us are immunocompromised, and is it right that a population of people, like the recommendation is just to stay home as cities start reopening and stuff like that?

I mean, I think there’s something that doesn’t feel fair and just to me in that particular situation, but at least my understanding for me personally is that I’m going to stay home and take as many precautions as possible until there is a vaccine, which we don’t know if there’s going to be in the next year or two, and for a community that is very familiar with what social isolation feels like, and now all of you have felt it too, it sucks. It is really hard to feel so alone. So, I’m grateful. Again, this is where technology is playing a role in terms of being an equalizer that we can all use technology to stay connected with people, but I mean, there’s also a digital divide within the disability community. 

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that the disability community is very diverse. We are always never thought about, and no one is intentionally trying to just exclude, or I would like to hope so. It’s just that we’re so out of sight, out of mind even in the context of this pandemic as cities are reopening. Disability community’s out of sight, out of mind because we are staying home to stay safe, and if we’re not out there, then people aren’t thinking about our needs. 

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s a conundrum. Thank you for explaining all that. That was so helpful, Tiffany. There’s a couple questions I wanted to make sure we got to. One is about as a person with varying invisible disabilities, I’ve been asked time and again to ask for accommodations. What can organizations do to not place the burden of ideation and culture change on folks like myself who need the additional support?

TIFFANY YU: That is a great and tricky question because I have a paralyzed arm, oh, and I learned this recently. So, in the U.S., there are 27,000 people who can’t use one of their arms, but then there are maybe 27 million who have temporary arm or hand or wrist things and can’t use one of their arms, and then there’s eight million who are situationally… what’s called situationally disabled, which means in a certain situation, like maybe it’s a mom holding their kid who can’t use one of their arms. But the reason why I brought that up is because I have met a lot of people who have similar injuries or also can’t use one of their arms, and the way they live their lives are very different from how I live my life.

So, I have a lot of people asking me about one-handed keyboards, which I have never used. I have a lot of people asking me about how to use their phone with one hand or what things I turn on in terms of access on my iPhone, and I don’t use any. I guess I’ll say on the plus and the minus side. So, on the minus side, you will know what your needs are, and unfortunately, that does place a little bit of pressure on to you to be able to vocalize what you need. So, as an example, for me coming onto a call and visually describing myself and then having a blind person tell me, “I actually didn’t need you to do that.” In that case, I was doing it as a blanket thing, but then the person who was on the call, who would have appreciated that accommodation actually didn’t really want it.

So, it’s hard again to… We often talk about designing for one to design for all, and kudos to you for being in that organization. I hope you stay for a long time and are very vocal and visible within the organization because I think that the more… You have power within your organization just by the fact that you’re employed there, and I would often tell people that my advocacy is… sorry. My presence is my advocacy, which some people have said, “Your success is your activism.” So, that’s the minus side, which is because you know what your needs are, you are the one who has to vocalize them, but the plus side of that is that there are other people who probably did not feel comfortable vocalizing their needs, and now, you’ve helped them as well.

I guess my other hope is that once that is implemented, and again, unfortunately, took a little bit of work for you to help implement that culture change is you get more people who have invisible illnesses or invisible disabilities coming into that organization because they know that the organization was accommodating enough to listen to you and to implement that, and now to do that for everyone else who wants to come into that organization.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. That was awesome. I could keep asking you questions, but I would love to just give voice to folks in the virtual room. Would anybody like to ask Tiffany a question or share a comment or an insight? Feel free to unmute yourself. 

TIFFANY YU: I feel like I’ll have to read the chat afterward because there’s so many good things in here.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. You said… Go ahead.

MURRAY A. MANN: Yeah.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hey, Murray.

MURRAY A. MANN: I’d like to talk about disclosure. It was very difficult for me when I had a hidden disability, and it wasn’t until I had a visible disability and became a wheelchair user then I realized that I should have disclosed much earlier, and disclosure is something that we need to support in many ways, and literally, I’ve coached two people this week about disclosure, helping people do the inner work, and one of them was my goddaughter, and she texted me during this call that not only disclosing her disability because her employer was questioning her work with some issues, and she gave me permission to share this that not only were they in shock, and initially before they had this conversation, they are now… Initially, they wanted to honor her privacy and only disclose on a limited basis.

She has chosen to disclose to everybody because of what Tiffany said at the beginning of this call. It’s humanizing. It lets people understand. When people see me in a wheelchair, they’re already trying to figure out how to work… successfully accommodate me and work with me. Her team and her organization didn’t. One of the things that came out of it is that they are actually going to talk about this with their whole organization about disclosure, about disability, and embed this in their organization. 

So, what we can do to coach and support people with disabilities is absolutely key. It’s their decision, but at that level of support, I wish I had it, and my disability was on set three decades ago. So, that’s just one thing I wanted to share in our D&I community, and by the way, I actually had to sue to return to work, and I was in a DEI role and in a DEI-centric organization. So, while things have changed, we need to drive the change, and that’s what I wanted to share, and this has been a very emotional and powerful session for me. 

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Murray. Thank you. 

TIFFANY YU: Thanks for sharing. 

JENNIFER BROWN: Other voices?

CHRIS POPE: Hi. I had a question that came in really early. I was just wondering. I know that we’ve talked about the diversity within the disability community, and I was just wondering how things are handled differently in the community. So, if you have a physical disability versus a mental health disability versus like a neurodiversity disability, and if there is differences in how people interact with those different categories, and then I think I added later… I don’t know if addiction would fall under one of those, or if that falls in disability. So, that was my question.

TIFFANY YU: Yeah, that’s a great question. I will say one of the things that the Black Lives Matter movement has really made me reflect on is racism and ableism that does exist within our own community. So, there is a hierarchy of disability, people who don’t have cognitive disabilities appear at the top and are the most vocal and seen, and then people who have prosthetics or the bionic things. The way it looks, right? It’s like there’s a hierarchy of how your disability looks, and the access needs are different, and I remember I was listening to a museum talk about how they were thinking about accessibility, and they had tactile, like bumps on the ground for people who were blind, and then they had an exhibit in their bathrooms that was all these different colors but for people who were on the autism spectrum, like that was not accessible for them.

So, it was like here is an experiential environment that may be accessible to some people and may not be accessible to others. An example I often use is there’s a company called E-one, and they have designed a watch that is tactile. So, it means that I can touch the face of the watch, and it’ll have magnetic balls on it. That will tell me what the time is, but I don’t know how to put on the watch with one hand. So, the watch was not designed for me, but it was designed for blind people, and I’m okay with that.

They still got my money, and I still bought the watch. So, then, I could talk about design. Again, I will say I think just acknowledging that we’re all learning, and I have been called out before by not including certain communities within my definition of disability, and I think what’s interesting is I do have categories under my definition of disability and people fit under there who don’t identify as disabled. Again, thinking that disability is a bad word. I did see a question that came in here, and I know we’re running short on time, around the intersections of other identities, and we have racism within the disability community, unfortunately. 

That is something that I am trying to do and again, when I think about what your next action item is, I often tell people to think about where your sphere of influence is. So, for me, if I’m thinking about Black Lives Matter, my sphere of influence is the disability community. How can I talk about Black Lives Matter in a way that is going to resonate with the disability community? So, anyway, so a lot of the work I’m doing is how can we uplift black and brown disabled voices even in the stuff that we’re sharing or who we’re highlighting? Then, again, a large part of the community’s queer.

So, the Disability Rights movement has unfortunately not done a great job of including other intersecting identities, and there’s an emerging movement called Disability Justice that was started by Stacey Park Milbern who unfortunately passed away during this pandemic, and Mia Mingus to come together and really create a movement that was led by queer, BIPOC, disabled people and share our stories and how we are part of the movement in that way, which I know wasn’t your direct question, but I did see someone else ask it, but yes, and then people with intellectual and developmental disabilities I find oftentimes are working in a different silo of advocacy work, and yeah, I still haven’t quite figured out how to bring everyone together.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s honest. That’s honest, Tiffany, but I know Pride. Pride has never been so intersectional as it was this year because of what was happening, and we did exactly the same thing centering on voices that aren’t heard from, that aren’t centered, centering on the most marginalized and then benefiting everyone and that concept. I think the queer community took a quantum leap in its own understanding of its own inclusion issues and its need for greater inclusion, and I don’t think we’ll ever go back, I think, and that’s been going for a while, but definitely, you saw a very different kind of Pride this year, and it’s funny enough we didn’t see the rainbow capitalism of the big Pride march, but in New York here, we had the Queer Liberation March, which was the side march that was the anti-capitalism march that is getting back to the activism roots, much more diverse.

So, really, it’s been such a time of these discoveries for a lot of us, and I think these doors that we’ve opened, we need to keep them propped open, right? We don’t want to go back because we’ve learned so much about who wasn’t included, and we as communities can’t go back to that place before. Thank you everyone. This was incredible. We’re going to compile a list of links. I think I saw Veronica commit to that on my team, but Tiffany, I wonder. I know you’re available. Maybe you would even be willing to do a post for this group, and I can share it out as well with resources or anything that you feel you want to elaborate on that we didn’t have time to do.

I know this group would really love it, and clearly, you’ve got a lot of new fans. So, Diversability is where to find you and your work and on your mailing list, and you have a podcast, I believe.

TIFFANY YU: I do have a podcast. The podcast isn’t disability-specific, and right now, honestly, most of what we’re talking about is racism, anti-black racism I should specify, and the work that’s being done there, but I did share a list. Sorry. The podcast is called TIFFANY & YU, spelled Y-U. Anyone else enjoys that pun as much as I do. I did include a list in here to something called adaanniversary.org, and there are a lot of resources on there and potentially maybe some suggestions of how your organizations can come out with public statements in support of the ADA. 

There’s hashtags. There’s content. I mean, they even have a logo. Even just acknowledgement, bare bones, if you want to do something for the ADA. Just to acknowledge at the ADA because we need people to see it and yesterday, I posted that this month is the 30th anniversary of the ADA, and I got so many comments on my post being like, “Thank you so much. I didn’t even know,” and I think for many people on this call, just imagine what it would be like to live part of your life where you didn’t have your rights protected. 

So, the ADA was signed in 1990. I don’t know if there’s anyone on here who was born after then. If you were born after then, you’re the next generation, I guess, but yeah, I think just even the visibility of acknowledging that there was this landmark legislation and even as we live in this avalanche of the bad news of the pandemic, I often tell people it is incredible that I live in a country where there is a law that protects my identity and access to public spaces. Compliance is a different conversation. It is incredible that we are living through a pandemic that we can then tell future generations that we were stuck at home and complaining, and Zoom became a big thing.

It is incredible that we’re living through a civil rights revolution, and I think like Jennifer said, we’re not going to go back. How do you go back from something like this? Oftentimes, we in the disability community, we look to the queer community. We look to what’s happened in civil rights as an example of what I envision and I feel very hopeful about in terms of visibility, representation, and valuation, like actually valuing disabled people within our society.

JENNIFER BROWN: Tiffany, that’s beautiful. Thank you for that hopeful note. We are living in history right now, and we are an incredible democracy still hanging in there, where we do value these things, and they’re achievable. They’re achievable. So, I really appreciate you. I know there was a lot of feelings on this call. Let’s give Tiffany kudos, virtual… I don’t even know how to do that. What’s the best way? You’re getting a lot of love pats is what it looks like. Thank you so much Tiffany for your advocacy, and everybody hung on, and I was watching. I know people have to go, but that last point you made really wrapped it up and left us I think really inspired, and here’s to July 27th anniversary, 30-year anniversary of ADA. What is your company going to do? Reach out to Tiffany.

TIFFANY YU: July 26th. Sorry. July 26th.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s July 26th. Yes. Great. Thank you so much for coming.

TIFFANY YU: But July 27th is the… day.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, okay. Thank you. Thank you. All right everybody. We’ll see you next week. Thanks to Tiffany, and next week, we’re going to have Chelsea Williams back joining me from the JVC team, and all you might remember her, incredible member of my team, and joined by Keisha who she works with on an ally program that we’re running at Hearst. So, the conversation is going to be around ally training and a very successful implementation that we want to share, the 101 with everybody and get your thoughts on as well. So, that’s going to be the topic for next week. Have a wonderful long weekend. Thanks for staying late, and take good care of yourselves. Stay safe and wear your masks. Love to you all.

TIFFANY YU: And a shout-out to Murray and Chris for their comments and questions on the call.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Murray and Chris. Bye everybody.

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