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Advocating For Yourself and Others, with Emily Ladau

Advocating For Yourself and Others, with Emily Ladau

Episode 163: Advocating For Yourself and Others, with Emily Ladau

Starting her activism journey on Sesame Street at the age of 10, Emily Ladau, Disability Rights Activist, Writer, Communications Consultant, joins us this week for a sneak peak into what she will be sharing at the Mobilize Women Summit. On this episode, Emily talks about the role of advocates and how one can be a good advocate, as well as making the disability experience accessible. She also shares best practices on talking about disabilities with kids, the nomenclature on disability, and what is next on the horizon for her. Emily will take the stage at Mobilize Women on June 21st to continue to inspire, advocate, and activate.

Episode Transcript

00:13 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast, this is your host Kristy Wallace, with my co-host Maricella Herrera. Hi Maricella.

00:22 Maricella Herrera: Hi Kristy. Sorry, I'm eating chocolate.

00:24 KW: It's one of those days, and now as I'm speaking, happy but yet I don't feel so happy inside. It's just a rough day.

00:32 MH: It's been a rough week, but chocolate.

00:35 KW: And Emily.

00:37 MH: And Emily.

00:38 KW: Who's our guest today. And honestly it's just, I really am inspired by her, and just her kindness, graciousness, optimism, impact, and there's so many words you could use, but she's a really spectacular person who is an advocate for disability rights and awareness and had so many powerful and important things to say. I was moved by our conversation, and I'm greatly looking forward to meeting her at the Ellevate Summit, on June 21st in New York City.

01:16 MH: Yeah, I'm really looking forward to meeting her, too. I'm so excited to have her as one of our speakers for this summit. And more than anything, I remember when we reached out to invite her to speak, she was aware of who we were and what we did and about our summit last of year, but she very explicitly told us that the reason she was saying yes to be a speaker was because we have such great representation of all different voices on stage.

01:44 KW: Yup. She did mention that on the podcast, which was moving to me because, you know, we do the work that we do, but we're still living in a vacuum, in many ways and through our own individual identities and so to get that feedback from Emily, and from our community at large is important to me and to us because that's really what this is about. It's not about one voice in one situation or one large group of...

02:15 MH: Samesies?

02:17 KW: Singular. Yeah, samesies, but if you really want to create change, we need to start from a place of understanding and awareness. So I'm excited for the summit, and for those our listeners for the Elevate Podcast, if you don't know we do this summit, this will be our third year in New York City on the 21st of June, and you can watch on live stream, we make live stream free for anyone who wants to watch, you can show it at your company, show your kids, whatever it is. But for us, it's really about amplifying this message.

02:52 KW: The core of Ellevate is to create an equal workplace for all people, specifically for women, and we know that to do that, two big things have to happen. One, we really need to break down barriers and stereotypes and bias to provide a space and a platform for that opportunity and success to happen. And two, we're tapping into the power and influence of women who hold such an important role in our society and in our economy and in our business world to be drivers of that change. And that doesn't mean that it's just women, the burden is on women, whether this is just about women, but we understand the unique power and potential of this conversation to create clear action steps for change, to mobilize communities around that change, and to provide transformational development around this world we wanna seek. So we're very excited about the opportunity and the privilege to host this event, and we really hope that you'll all join us.

04:07 MH: Yeah, I'm so excited.

04:09 KW: Yes, we are very excited. Well, let's get to my conversation with Emily, who you will be hearing on the stage at the Ellevate Mobilize Women Summit and we will see you back here next week for the Ellevate Podcast, where we will be hosting more of our speakers leading up to the summit, so you wanna tune in to get an inside peak at everything that that's gonna be said on the stage and beyond.


04:43 KW: Emily, thank you so much for joining us today on the Ellevate podcast, it's great to have you here, and I have millions of burning questions, but I wanted to get started through your voice and you sharing a little bit with our community, what your journey has been like so far, and how you've gotten to where you are today.

05:05 Emily Ladau: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me, I'm really excited to be having this conversation and I think that my journey has been a bit of an interesting one, because I was born with a physical disability, called Larsen syndrome, and so that has really shaped my world-view and my career trajectory and pretty much every part of my life. I am currently working as a communications consultant, writer, speaker, podcaster, activist, you name it, I do it all under the umbrella of a focus on disability issues. And so I like to say that if I had not been brought into the world and the way that I was and if I had not had a disability, I think my life would have taken a completely different path, so as cheesy as it sounds I'm probably where I'm supposed to be and doing what I am extremely passionate about.

06:18 KW: Thank you for being here today and for sharing this message and the work that you do it's so important and I think about advocacy a lot and how we get to that point. Were you from an early age inspired to speak out and to share your story or is this something that you've grown into that identity?

06:44 Emily: I think it's less of an either-or and more of a combination because the interesting thing about my family is that my mother shares the same disability that I do, it's genetic. And so I grew up in a household where I always had a very strong awareness and understanding that disability was part of the human experience and so from a young age I would see my mother constantly advocating especially on my behalf because I was such a young child at that point, and seeing her advocate really taught me the basic skills that I needed to advocate. So I'm lucky that I had such a strong role model in that sense, but as I got older, especially I would say in college, I started to come into my own in regard to advocacy and activism in a way that my mother really never had because she didn't grow up in a world where activism was quite as accepted and where things spread so rapid fire like they do online right now. And so it went from her teaching me about advocacy to me dragging her a little bit, kicking and screaming at first, into a different type of advocacy world where you weren't just advocating for yourself but where you were advocating for much broader issues that impact the whole disability community. And so I think that since then my mother and I have really played off each other in learning how best to put ourselves out there and really get our messages of empowerment across.

08:43 KW: Yeah, I can imagine that it's really been a learning process. As it is, just the past 20 years even we've seen such a fast evolution in how we obtain information, how we're able to share information but also the inconsistencies and confusion that can happen when you have, to be blunt, when you have people engaging in a conversation that are misinformed or coming from not a genuine and true place, and so understanding just how to leverage the power of media and the internet but then also how to address some of the complications that come with that must have been quite a process for you to come to terms with that.

09:41 Emily: Oh, absolutely, there is nothing quite like the crash course in the misunderstanding and sometimes utter hatred of people who are different than you, then when you get right into the social media sphere, when it comes to activism and so I've had to really develop a thick skin but at the same time I've also learned that it's not always about getting up on your metaphorical set backs and yelling into a megaphone and expecting everyone to come right along with you. And so I think that the key to the leadership that I am trying to cultivate within myself is a focus on meeting people where they're at, and so I recognize that for so many people disability is this really foreign topic that just doesn't make any sense to them because they don't have a disability because they've never met anybody who has a disability.

10:46 Emily: But I always say, and this is a common thing within the disability community, that we are the world's largest minority and also the only minority that anyone can join at any time. And I never say that it's a threat but rather that it is part of a natural human experience and so why not make the world a more accepting place for this community, but because not everybody is there in terms of their thinking, the motto that really informs my work is that if you want the world to be more accessible to the disability community then it's a two-way street. And we really have to focus on making the disability experience more accessible and understandable to the world, so that is how I try to do everything that I do, that's my guiding principle is meeting people where they're at.

11:45 KW: So you, from a very early age, I know you are on Sesame Street and you've won a number of awards, and to me that's very powerful. I have three children and so I think often times about ways in which I'm exposing them to as many narratives to as many identities and situations as I can, and I think when we don't maybe always fully understand that situation we as parents and as human struggle with how to best have that conversation with our kids. Do you have advice? What did you learn during this whole lifetime, but especially when it comes to children and younger adults, what has best resonated with you?

12:38 Emily: So, in regard to being on Sesame Street, my mother always says, that I'm milking it at this point. But I say that having been on a children's television show at 10 years old, and being able to educate not just kids, but also their parents, a little bit about what my life with a disability was like, I don't think I realized it at the time, but in retrospect, it's the experience that I look back on that shows me that by having authentic disability representation, and by including disability in pretty much every aspect of the media, and of what we do, that's how we start to create change and get people to be more comfortable. But unfortunately, because the media is not quite there yet, there really aren't a lot of great models for people to look to, to see disability in this sort of humanized light. And so the advice that I tend to give parents is to stop being so skittish around people who present as having a disability because kids pick up on how parents respond to things. And so, kids seem to be the most comfortable with me. And, I have a wheelchair, I like to say I ride around with a tank attached to my butt all the time.


14:08 Emily: Kids have no problem with that. But if a kid is staring for a moment too long, or if they approached me and they have a question, or they wanna know about my wheelchair, or even if they say, "What happened to you?" I will never ever get mad at a kid. Some days it's exhausting to be a teachable moment on wheels, but I accept that that's something that I take on as a person in the world. And so when a parent lets their kid engage with me instead of pulling them away and saying, "That's not nice." Or, "Don't talk to her. Stop looking." Or, "Get out of her way." I think that it really helps to reinforce that I'm a person like everybody else. I've had the rebuttal that I'm also a stranger like everybody else, and that it's not really necessarily okay for a kid to just come up and talk to me. And I totally get that, but I think under parental supervision there's certainly nothing wrong with engaging and asking some questions and showing that you're comfortable with it.

15:17 KW: Yeah. There's so many ways to advocate for others. It's in a one-on-one conversation. It's through real political advocacy, there's a huge, broad spectrum, but my sense is that we tend to advocate for things that we personally experience, and to see real change we need to be advocating more broadly for all of the issues that we care about. And so that starts from a place of understanding what are the biggest challenges for you and how can our listeners better advocate for you?

15:53 Emily: It's really about looking at advocating for disability issues, as advocating for something that's going to effect overall positive change for everyone in the community. But beyond that, while it is important to look at some of the broader issues, I think that people can get very quickly overwhelmed, when they start looking at all the issues that pertain to disability. Because the reality is that disability can intersect with any other identity. And so, when you realize that disability issues are everyone's issues, it starts to become very, very scary to think, "Well, where can I even start? And I'm one person, and how can I make a change?" And so, while I'm all about larger political actions, and speaking up, and calling your congressmen, and then whatever the case may be, I also think that there's something to be said for smaller changes that still have a really big impact.

16:58 Emily: So, for example, focusing on inclusive employment for people of disabilities is something that I'm very, very passionate about, and often if you have a disability, it's a challenge to even get in the door for an interview, either literally or figuratively speaking, depending upon accessibility. And once you get in the door, especially if your disability is visible and not hidden, it becomes sometimes a great challenge to deal with employer discrimination, and so, you may not get the job. And so I think that we need to start thinking about, "How can I change what I'm doing, and be more accessibility-minded, and inclusion-minded, and give disabled people a fair shake just like I'd give everybody else?" Rather than necessarily a diving right in, and looking at it as," Okay, we need to change an entire system." Because the system doesn't change unless we start to change gradually, one at a time.

18:05 KW: Yes, yeah that's excellent advice, and it is really, what are these small more micro-level actions we can take every single day that build up towards the big macro change? And I feel like we often times think, "Oh someone else is taken care of that." Or someone else is dealing with that. But we have so many moments in our lives where we can truly be an advocate and be very intentional about those acts we take. And you're completely right, just be intentional about who you're hiring, and inviting to the table, and giving those opportunities to. And especially within the Ellevate community, it's important to me, it's very important to me that I think our community is focused on gender equality. And I think we do ourselves a disservice when we try to easily put people into this label of male-identifying, women-identifying because it's so much more nuanced than that. And if we're just focusing on the women then there's still so many in that community that are marginalized or that are kept out, kept from opportunity. And so we have to really be explicit about who we're hiring, who we're giving those opportunities to, who we're supporting, and know all the ways in which we can do that. And so, yes, hiring is number one, I think a huge opportunity, not just to make businesses better, but to create fair access to economic opportunity advancement, all of those things for all people.

19:49 Emily: Yeah, absolutely. And I always say that the first thing you should do when you get to the table is look around and see who else has a seat at the table. And for me, it's quite easy, because if you let me at the table, I have my own seat. So I'm pretty easy to get up there. But once you realize who's missing, what are you doing to bring their voices to the table in a meaningful way? And it's not as hard as people think. It's not that hard to welcome more voices to the conversation. And also, I try to avoid jargony terms when talking about things like this, like intersectionality and things like that. But the reality is that we do have to recognize that there are so many intersections of marginalized identities. And so we need to be sure that we're doing a good job of representing that across a broader spectrum. And so even for me, I recognize that I am a white woman who has plenty of privilege, but I also have a disability.

20:50 Emily: And so even if you are someone from a minority group, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't be mindful of the ways in which you do still have privilege, and the ways in which you can still help to bring other people to the table. So I really say that the onus is not just on one person, but on everyone. And when we all start making sure that more voices are brought to the table, that's when I believe that we're going to start seeing actual progress towards change, because I've seen it happen on micro levels many times and macro levels, but I think there's more that we can do. And it just takes a little bit of stepping outside yourself and saying, "I'm here, who's not?"

21:38 KW: Absolutely. So Emily, you will be joining us on stage June 21st at the Mobilize Women Summit in New York City. Thank you for joining us, adding your voice to that conversation. We're so excited to have you. There was a question that I had that I'd like to ask is around nomenclature. And so, I've heard disabled, and I've heard differently-abled, and I know there's others too. And I think words are powerful, and having a broader identity that you associate with and words that you associate with is important to you. And so you use the word disabled throughout the course of our conversation, so that's the messaging I use, but is there a preference? Are there other things we could do to be more inclusive?

22:31 Emily: Yeah I think that's a really great question, because the reality is that language is so incredibly personal that everybody has their own preference at any given point in time, and that makes it kind of complicated. And people say, "Well, I have no idea what I should call you, because everyone prefers something different. And I don't want to offend someone by saying the wrong thing." So then they don't say anything at all and it becomes this vicious cycle. So, there is a movement within the disability community that prefers what's known as identity-first language, which sees disability as an identity, which considers disability something that identifies s person in the same way that you would say that you are a Chinese person or a Jewish person. You wouldn't say that you are a person with Jewishness or necessarily a person who is Chinese.

23:29 Emily: And so much the same goes for disability. When we say a person with a disability, there's a belief that by using that person-first model, that we're actually saying that we need to see the person without the disability in order to see them as a whole person. And so both person-first language and identity-first language are two of the most common modes of thinking. And what I always tell people is that neither one is wrong. And that sometimes the best thing to do is to default to one or the other, and someone will tell you what they're most comfortable with. Or you can feel free to ask, you can say, "What would you prefer that I call you? Would you prefer a person with a disability? Would you prefer disabled person, autistic person, deaf person?" Whatever the case may be. And so, it's really all about that communication.

24:25 Emily: And there are some people who do prefer terminology, like differently-abled, or special needs, or physically challenged, or even handy-capable. I, personally, don't like any of those. I'm not comfortable with them. I find them to be euphemisms that really dance around the term disability, and treat disability like it's a bad thing. But I speak only for myself, when I say that I most prefer to be called a disabled woman. And the best thing that anyone can do is say, "What would you like to be called?" And that's been my go-to advice, because if you meet one person who has a disability, you've met one person, and everybody's going to say something different. And so a simple question of ensuring that you're saying what that person prefers can really make all the difference.

25:28 KW: So, Emily, I just wanted to end on what's next for you, what are you excited about, what are you doing next, and how can Ellevate, and our listeners of the podcast support that?

25:42 Emily: I do have a few things on top that I am working on and hopefully will be able to talk more about soon. I know I hate when people do that. They're like, "Oh yeah, I'm working on something, but I can't tell you." But in the meantime, I think that the best thing that anyone can do for me is to continue to amplify a larger message of disability inclusion. I don't think that any of the work that I do is just about me. I think that it's really about taking the broader messages that we're all talking about and pushing them forward in your own way. And so in terms of what's next for me, I'd like to say that in five years from now, I'll be doing exactly what I'm doing on an even broader scale, because I'm so incredibly passionate about what I'm doing. And the way that I can continue to do that is by bringing more people into the fold who are really ready to get down and do the work of being an ally and of being an advocate.

26:43 KW: Thank you. Thank you so much, Emily, for joining us on the Ellevate Podcast today, for joining us June 21st in New York City at the Mobilize Women Summit. And thank you for sharing your inspiration and just amazing insights with us here on the podcast. It's really been a true pleasure to talk to you.

27:03 Emily: Thank you. You too.

27:08 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes. Give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter @EllevateNTWK, that's Ellevate Network. And become a member, you can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website: And special thanks to our producer, Katherine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.


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