Publications
Exploring Disability Advocacy with Tiffany Yu
Written and interviewed by: Suzanna Chen
Edited by: Harvi Karatha

Since publishing the article “Recognizing Disability: The Forgotten Diversity,” the overwhelmingly positive feedback has invigorated us at Detester; it has made us want to spread more awareness around this (unfortunately) overlooked topic. Fearing that the information I have as a newly-diagnosed neurodivergent is insufficient, I have reached out to Tiffany Yu—an experienced, impassioned, and professional disability advocate—to discuss more nuanced issues. Please proceed with a mind that is compassionate and ready to learn. More information about Tiffany and her work can also be found after the interview.

1. Can you briefly introduce yourself to our readers at Detester Magazine?

My name is Tiffany Yu, and my pronouns are she/her. I am a social-impact entrepreneur, a podcast host, a disability advocate, and a three-time TEDx speaker and multi-hyphenate. Currently, I spend most of my time working as the CEO of “Diversibility” —a community that celebrates disabled lives—and serving on the San Francisco Mayor’s Disability Council.

2. We’ve received lots of feedback that the issue of disability discrimination is often unfortunately overlooked. What is your opinion on the lack of public awareness around this topic?

I think that [the lack of awareness on disability discrimination is] a human rights violation; we, as disabled people, are dehumanized to the point that discrimination is not acknowledged when it happens to us. It also shows how much our society is really built on a culture of ableism. Disability discrimination is not only overlooked; it’s also just very hard to prove. Similar to most cases of discrimination, it is hard to prove unless it’s more overt.

3. How would you define ableism?

I often reference Talila Lewis and Dustin Gibson. I will go ahead and reference it, and you can find the definition by going to https://www.talilalewis.com/blog.

So, here is the updated working definition of ableism: “[a] system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normality, intelligence, excellence, desirability, and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worthy based on a person’s language, appearance, religion and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and ‘behave.’ You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”

When I am working with people, I make sure to define ableism by taking an abbreviated version. Ableism is when we place value and worth on a person based on their body and/or mind: you do not have to be disabled to experience ableism. We often mistake that ableism only impacts disabled people, but it’s about placing value and worth on a person’s body or mind. You can see that happen with Black bodies [and] women’s bodies. It just goes to show how much ableism intersects with so many other identities.

4. How is ableism harmful to people with disabilities?

I mean, it’s harmful in so many different ways: it means placing one group of people above another. I don’t really know how to explain how it’s harmful, but I would say that it condones harm the same way racism does to people of colour and sexism does to women. With intersectionality, people can also experience multiple forms of compounding oppression if they hold multiple of these [marginalized] identities.

5. While we acknowledge the diversity within the disabled community, is there a way that non-disabled people can act that will be accommodating to everyone?

I think it really comes down to being as disability-centred as possible in whatever types of accommodations or environments you’re trying to create.

Also, I would make sure not to identify non-disabled people as “normal” because we’re all normal, right? We need to move away from saying that there is a “normal” group and a “not normal” group. The universe—depending on how spiritual you are—would not have created disabled bodies and minds if that was not something that was supposed to exist in society.

6. What is your opinion on the current media portrayal of disabilities? How can we improve these portrayals to lessen the societal stigmatization of disabilities?

We just need more disability representation in the media and across all industries, period.

I think that the current media portrayal of disability feeds into a “charity-tragedy” model or a victim narrative—which, again, perpetuates the culture of ableism. So, [I think we can improve] by having more representation and showing disabled people as the hero or heroine of the story—such as in a love story or a romantic comedy—and not just being the sidekick or the background player.

(Interviewer’s note: I wrote an article, “Disability in Media: Sia’s Music and the Labels and Libels,” that explores this topic further.)

7. Do you support special education for children with disabilities? Why or why not?

It depends on the type of disability, but as someone who has a physical disability, I don’t see a reason I would need to be in special education.

I think that integrated classrooms—again, I’m not super well-versed in this particular area because my work doesn’t intersect with children—better support a culture of inclusion and compassion. As these children become adults, [they’ll] become so used to being separated over and over and over again—whether it comes to having a separate entrance, having to ask if an event is accessible to them, or having to ask for permission to participate in a certain activity. Right?

[We should] create an environment where kids with disabilities don’t have to ask for permission to show up in places and get to interact with their non-disabled peers. [This would] better support how those [able-bodied] kids can grow up and treat disabled people well. The root of ableism starts with the parents and teachers in the classroom because kids spend most of their time there.

8. What is the legacy you want to leave as a disability advocate?

It will be that I contributed to making the world more accessible and compassionate, and I started a movement that would last for generations and enable disabled people to really be proud of and embrace their disability identities.

Unfortunately, the interview concludes here. While we encourage reading thoroughly to absorb as much as possible, we acknowledge that the amount of information presented might be overwhelming for a topic seldom discussed. So, we compiled some of our key takeaways:

The lack of awareness in the general public about disability discrimination is arguably a “human rights violation” and shows the deep-rooted ableism existing in our society.

Ableism is defined as “[a] system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normality, intelligence, excellence, desirability, and productivity.” It leads to systemic oppression against one’s “language, appearance, religion and/or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and ‘behave.” For more detailed explanations, explore Talila Lewis and Dustin Gibson’s work.

While one does not have to be disabled to experience ableism, the disabled community is directly harmed by it “the same way racism does to people of colour and sexism does to women.” Compounded discrimination is also possible if one holds multiple marginalized identities.

Do not identify non-disabled people as “normal” because we’re all normal!

The current portrayal of disabilities in media perpetuates ableism in various ways, but we are in more dire need of more representation in every industry in general.

Irrespective of whether to implement special education (as it depends on the type of disability), we should aim to create accessible environments that would teach non-disabled kids to treat their disabled peers well. This would address the root of ableism in the minds of developing children.

Huge thanks to Tiffany for chatting with us!

Mentioned in the interview…

Dustin Gibson, disability advocate -> https://www.dustinpgibson.com

Talila Lewis, disability advocate -> https://www.talilalewis.com

Support Tiffany’s work by…

Learning about “Diversibility” -> https://mydiversability.com

Watching her TedX Talks -> The Power of Exclusion | Tiffany Yu | TEDxBethesda , The Problem with Positivity | Tiffany Yu | TEDxYouth@CaliforniaHighSchool, The Truths About Being A Pioneer | Tiffany Yu | TEDxGeorgetown

Listening to her Podcast -> TIFFANY & YU, The Podcast

Following her on Instagram -> @imtiffanyyu