Leading With Empathy & Allyship Show

Advocating For People With Disabilities with Tiffany Yu

Leading With Empathy & Allyship promo with the Change Catalyst logo and photos of host Melinda Briana Epler, a White woman with red hair and glasses, and Tiffany Yu, an Asian woman with brown hair and beige shawl.

Join Change Catalyst Founder & CEO Melinda Briana Epler with Tiffany Yu, CEO & Founder at Diversability to discuss ways to be an effective ally and advocate for people with a wide diversity of disabilities.

In this episode, we talk about Tiffany’s disability origin story, and her path to growing into her disability identity. We speak a bit about #NoBodyIsDisposable and what people with disabilities are experiencing during COVID19. Tiffany shares her experience as a person with intersectional identities as an Asian disabled woman, we discuss the significance of the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and go over disability identity language. And we go over many ways that leaders can better lead with empathy and allyship for people with disabilities.

Learn more about Tiffany’s work at Diversability 

More to learn for Allies – Tiffany mentioned many of these in this episode:

  1. Diversability’s Resources for Allies
  2. Building Equity and Allyship for People with Disabilities” at Tech Inclusion 2019, panel moderated by Tiffany Yu
  3. Disability is Diversity” – Tiffany’s Tech Inclusion talk:
  4. The Power of Exclusion” – Tiffany’s TEDx talk
  5. Change Catalyst’s Ability in Tech playlist on Youtube:
  6. Watch “Crip Camp” on Netflix
  7. I’m disabled and need a ventilator to live. Am I expendable during this pandemic?” by Alice Wong on Vox
  8. I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much” by Stella Young on TED
  9. No Body Is Disposable
  10. Stop AAPI Hate


Here’s a recap…

I began by sharing how Tiffany showed incredible allyship for me at a critical moment in my life. Later, Tiffany spoke about my allyship for her and the disability community, something I have worked hard on over the years (and am forever learning). In Episode 3, Vanessa Roanhorse spoke about “reciprocal allyship,” and it’s been sitting with me ever since. Allyship is incredibly powerful when it’s reciprocal, where we support each other at crucial moments throughout our lives.

We learned Tiffany’s disability origin story in two parts: how she became disabled, and how she grew into her disability identity over the next 12 years. She founded Diversability in 2009 to build a movement around disability pride – and the organization continues to elevate stories, challenge stereotypes and biases, bring disabled and non-disabled people together, partner with organizations such as Tech Inclusion, and advocate for policy change.

“Intersectionality is when you hold multiple oppressed identities.” – Tiffany Yu

Tiffany also shared her experience with intersectional identities as an Asian woman and a disabled person with a mental health condition. We spoke about what people with disabilities are experiencing during COVID-19, including #NoBodyIsDisposable, mental health issues due to isolation, and high rates of unemployment.

We discussed language, how language in the disability community continues to evolve, the difference between identity first language (disabled, autistic, Deaf) and people first language (people with disabilities), as well as why you might avoid phrases like “differently-abled.”

“When we tell a disabled person that we don’t consider them to be disabled, what it is doing is perpetuating the stigma that being disabled is a bad thing. And when we don’t use words like disabled or disability, it is saying we think it is a bad word, and there is shame around it.”  – Tiffany Yu

10 Ways to Lead with Empathy and Allyship for People with Disabilities

  1. Follow disabled people and disability organizations on social media. “If we’re not visible on your feed… then sometimes our needs are forgotten.”
  2. Entrench yourself within the disability community, consume as much content as possible that is disability-centered from the disability community, and DM people with disabilities when you admire their work. “Fundamentally, all of us just want to be seen.”
  3. Show up. “Your first introduction to this conversation may be uncomfortable, there are parts of my story that are sad.” Just showing up to listen can be very powerful.
  4. Please avoid inspiration porn, recognize people with disabilities for their skills and accomplishments in their careers.
  5. As an ally, you have access to spaces that people with disabilities may not have access to. Amplify, share articles, share posts written by disabled people – help disseminate their stories far and wide. And don’t forget to amplify with an intersectional lens (eg disabled women and/or people of color, trans people with disabilities).
  6. Set the standard and lead by example: make your events, digital content and products accessible – especially now that we live in a highly digital space.
  7. Hire more people with disabilities. Ensure hiring processes and job descriptions are inclusive.
  8. The 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act is coming up on July 27 – mark it on your calendar, and celebrate this important piece of legislation.
  9. Be more disability-centered in all of your work. Make this important across every aspect of the company.
  10. Use your economic clout – put your money into disability-owned businesses.

“Within organizations, my biggest thing is how can you hire more disabled people? Please. The more people with disabilities that you hire, the better your company becomes. ” – Tiffany Yu

Don’t stop here – keep learning, keep trying new things, keep taking action. 👊


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Guest Speaker
Tiffany Yu, an Asian woman with brown hair and beige shawl

Tiffany Yu
CEO & Founder at Diversability

Tiffany Yu is the CEO & Founder of Diversability, an award-winning social enterprise to rebrand disability through the power of community and the Founder of the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter, a monthly micro-grant for disability projects that has awarded $37.5k to 38 projects in 8 countries. She was appointed to the San Francisco Mayor’s Disability Council by San Francisco Mayor London Breed in 2019. She started her career in investment banking at Goldman Sachs, working on over $14 billion of announced transactions. She has also worked at Bloomberg, Sean Diddy Combs’ REVOLT Media & TV, and a venture-backed real estate startup. She has been featured in Marie Claire, the Guardian, and Forbes and has spoken at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, TEDx, and Stanford University. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and her Master’s degree from the London School of Economics.


MELINDA EPLER: Welcome. Welcome to Leading with Empathy & Allyship. I am your host, Melinda Epler, the founder and CEO of Change Catalyst where we build inclusive education in training. We build empathy for underrepresented and historically marginalized people and provide tangible, actionable steps we can all take to be better allies and advocates for each other. A few logistics before we get started and introduce our guest. The first is we are extremely lucky to have Jasmine, an ASL interpreter and that is sponsored by Interpreter Now. We also have live captioning by Maggie at White Coat Captioning. If you want to turn on the captioning, go to the bottom of the screen and click closed caption. If you are on a computer, you can adjust the size if you go up to the top of the menu and click Zoom.us and you will go into the preferences and then accessibility and you can change the size there. I also want to thank our team. On the line we have Renzo and Sally so if you have questions DM them directly. We do have a code of conduct that we will be adhering to and that code of conduct is available on our website at changecatalyst.co/codeofconduct. Lastly, use the chat for chat. Any takeaways you are coming up with. We would love to hear what’s resonating. If you have specific questions for Tiffany or I use the Q&A function at the bottom of the screen so we can quickly look and answer them at the end of our time. All right. Today we are discussing Advocating for People with Disabilities. Please welcome, Tiffany Yu, who has been a great friend, a colleague and an ally for years. Tiffany is the CEO and founder of Diverseability. Welcome, Tiffany. 

TIFFANY YU: Hi, thanks for having me. Great to see everyone joining in the chat. 

MELINDA EPLER: I wanted to start first by just telling a brief story. A few years ago, Tiffany was a great ally for me and I don’t know that we even really talked about this. I was getting ready for my TED Talk at the headquarters and despite speaking on hundreds of stages at this point, speaking at TED set up by imposture syndrome and deep anxiety about the fear of speaking I had gotten over years ago but suddenly it all came back. I think it was the pressure of speaking to a million people and it turns out it has been well over 2 million which would have made my anxiety a lot higher at the time had I known. Tiffany learned I was doing a TED Talk and asked if she could help by creating an event where I could practice. She created a Diverseability event around allyship and brought me in as the keynote to practice my TED Talk. Then she asked the audience to give feedback on cards which was amazing and my talk at that point was definitely not in the shape it was when I got to TED. It was definitely still in practice mode I would say. That feedback and that event gave me the confident I needed to step on stage at TED with grace. So thank you for being the ally for me at that time. It was really meaningful and I appreciate you did that and you stepped up so thank you. 

TIFFANY YU: My heart. Of course. I know Corey Ponder who was joining us was also one of the speakers there. You know, I think one of the things we are trying to do within the disability community is how can we be more intersectional in our movements? How can we bring people in who wear other hats than the lived experience of being disabled? I am really grateful we were able to do that event. I am so excited and if anyone who was listening to this hasn’t seen her talk yet definitely check it out on TED. Let’s get that 2 million to a 3. 

MELINDA EPLER: If somebody on the team, you could drop that link in the chat that would be awesome. Let’s start with, what’s your story? Who are you? How did you end up doing what you are doing now? And lastly, what are you doing now? 

TIFFANY YU: Sure. So I do want to preface a little content warning. I am going to share my disability origin story and there is childhood trauma in there so I want to preface that. I see two origin stories emerging here. One is Tiffany becoming disabled and the second is Tiffany growing into her disability identity and what I will call disability pride. The first origin story started when I was nine. Right around Thanksgiving weekend, my dad and I and a couple siblings went to drop my mom off for a business trip at the airport and on the way home he lost control of the car. This was a single vehicle car accident.

He, unfortunately, passed away and I stained a couple injuries from the accident. I broke I think it is called my femur. The big bone in my left leg. And my right arm was paralyzed. After the accident, the bones in my leg healed. I was using a wheelchair for about four months. I relearned how to write with my left hand and I went back to school. I was kind of thrust into this environment and I often like to tell people this isn’t just a disability story. It is the story of what it is like to grow up as the daughter of Asian immigrants. There is grief and trauma in all our disability narratives but in the case of losing a parent that adds an extra layer and because it happened as a kid that adds an extra layer. I love disability origin stories because they are so different and really color the lens through which those of us are disabled move about the world. In my case, we did not talk about the car accident after the car accident. I often joke it was as kind of like going to the grocery store. You went to the grocery store; you got your groceries and now it is new day. I didn’t really have spaces to really heal and understand what happened so fast forward to 12 years later to 2009, the car accident happened in 1997. In 2009, I started thinking about how much of my life I spent growing up as a victim trapped within the story. I felt like I was hiding so much of a core part of who I was and also the physical manifestation was I wore long sleeves all of the time. I was trying to hide everything. I had never gotten opportunities to talk about my disability origin story. When I first started Diversability in 2009, the premise was to start a movement around disability pride. And I actually think what’s interesting about that is that was an aspiration for me personally as well in terms of I didn’t really know what disability pride meant. I didn’t really know what it meant to be proud of a disability identity and I didn’t know what it was like to feel powerful and strong and courageous in my disability story. Those are two origin studies. Today I am running Diversability full time and transitioned out of the corporate world and moved into something I really care about. Every single day I get to meet new people and hear their stories and I think back to this allyship event we had, and one of the things I talk about a lot is how can we democratize disability and storytelling? Who gets to decide whose story is told and why? And why is that person’s story more important than someone else’s? 

MELINDA EPLER: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. Thank you for sharing your story. I think, yeah, thank you. Can you talk a little bit about what it is you are doing now, about Diverseability, and what you do there? 

TIFFANY YU: Diversability, our tagline is the celebration of the diversity of our disability lived experiences. There is a neuroscientist, I think, named Vivienne Ming who has also made her way around diversity and inclusion spaces and one of the things she said that has been the guiding light of all of our work is one of the best ways to tackle bias is through real life continuous experiences with people who challenge your stereotypes. What that meant for us pre-COVID was how can we get disabled and non disabled people interacting face to face as much as possible? If that’s not happening in the workplace, which is where most of us spend our time, and we can talk a little bit about disability employment. The employment number is around 20 25 percent employment. How can we as Diversability help curate that for you? Part of that is hosting our own events. It is partnering with people like you, Melinda, through Tech Inclusion to make sure disability is recognized on the stage and in the audience and working with different organizations and universities. I will say now in our current COVID state, a big part of what we are trying to do is leverage whatever digital disability we have to continue to democratize storytelling. If you follow us on Instagram, you will see every other week we host someone from the community who has a chronic illness. Lillian is graduating from high school and has cerebral Palsy and she is a wheelchair user and talking about all the technology she uses as she goes to online school and also wear our advocacy hat of elevating some of the access issues that are currently existing in this pandemic. 

MELINDA EPLER: Let’s go right into that. What is happening now? What’s going on? What are you working on specifically right now during the pandemic and I guess during the economic crisis is a part of that as well? 

TIFFANY YU: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. For people who do want to help shed light on some access issues, there is a campaign going on called #nobodyisdisposable and you can go to nobodyisdisposable.org to find template letters to send to officials and at the bottom of that is to prevent discriminatory hospital practices when someone deemed with poor quality life gets sick and goes to the hospital. Luckily I am safe at home. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge sheltering at home is a luxury. I am at home. I am safe. I am healthy. But I know that outside of my space that dynamic is also existing. I think the other thing that’s really happening is, you know, we have the immediate health threat of this pandemic, but then there is kind of a secondary pandemic that’s happening which is really around a mental health crisis and a lot of what I have been spending my time doing is how can we make sure that a community that is consistently socially isolated and excluded, how can we make sure we help them stay connected? And how can we also make sure we are checking in on their mental health and I am checking in on my own mental health? Melinda, I remember when you and I chatted on the prep call for this, I spent the first part of the shelter looking inward and making sure I had my own cup full before I could reemerge into our community and create space for what our community members were feeling. 

MELINDA EPLER: 100. I did the same thing. I did the same thing. I had to, not only my mental health, but my financial safety as well, and that was key for me was to bring down the anxiety and really be able to be present and be there for others. 

TIFFANY YU: I will add May is Mental Health Awareness Month and one of the things I have shared is that last year I got diagnosed with PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder and I think oftentimes when we talk about disability, we talk about it mainly in terms of the physical disability, but I believe 70% of disabilities are invisible. There are a lot of undiagnosed mental health conditions that people don’t realize have treatment plans. There is a huge mental health component to being disabled even if it is a visible or an invisible manifestation of it. 

MELINDA EPLER: So, could we talk a little bit about intersectionality and your intersectional identities? I think we had our very first episode of Leading with Empathy & Allyship was focused on xenophobia and anti Asian xenophobia. Can you talk about your experience? 

TIFFANY YU: Intersectionality is when you hold multiple oppressed identities. I like defining things because it was interesting the first time I talked about intersectionality it was circa 2018 and they were like Tiffany, I don’t know what this terms intersectionality is and when I look at the different movements they are using terms I don’t understand. That came from an ally. The feedback was just delivered in a loving way. 

MELINDA EPLER: Thank you. 

TIFFANY YU: But for me, so, yeah, I am Asian. Oftentimes our community will put ourselves into people of color which means non white. That term is mainly used within a U.S. context. I am also disabled. I am also a woman. And I do want to talk a little bit    yeah, I can’t wait to rewatch or relisten to that episode with Michelle because there is a group out here called stop AAP height. They have an infographic showing 42% of hate crimes against Asians are happening in California. Over 2X Asian women are more likely to be targets of harassment or attacks. So what that means for me is that when I prepare to go outside, if and when I do which has been very seldom, I wear my mask, I pull my hair back, have my gloves, and I am not only afraid of the risks of potentially contracting COVID, and then if it turns out I do need to go to the hospital what they will determine around my perceived quality of life because I do have a disability, and I do have a mental health condition, and then even if I am not thinking about that, the world sees me as an Asian person and I don’t know who is going to say what to me and who can potentially attack me or do whatever because now that we are all sheltering, we don’t have as many bystanders or spectators to call things out. Those are realities. There was a period of time, again, at the beginning of the quarantine where I felt like my head was exploding and imploding because this was when I was really seeing intersectionality at play. If I walk out on to the streets and someone attacks me, they don’t care I am disabled. All they see is an Asian person and our leadership is saying may be carriers of this virus and for those of you on the call that is false. The definition of intersectionality is when you hold multiple oppressed identities. There is an emerging area within disability ad have    advocacy called the disability justice movement which is the disability justice movement emerged because it wanted to acknowledge intersectionality and the erasure of other oppressed identities in the emergence of the disability rights movement. I know Ashton is on this call who has done a lot of great work around ageism and she and I were going to talk about intersectionality and how it plays into disability advocacy work. Most of what we see, yeah, most of what we see right now in terms of disability advocacy, and it is changing. Previously it was very white and very gendered and very male dominated and previously very focused on wheelchair users. When I think about democratizing disability and storytelling, how can we show disability looks like so many different things? I oftentimes get people making a comment to me but I don’t consider you disabled and while I understand they are trying to be well meaning, when we say things like that, and of course this is going into our conversation around allyship, when we tell a disabled person that we don’t consider them to be disabled, what it is doing is perpetuating the stigma that being disabled is a bad thing and when we don’t use words like disabled or disability it is saying we think there is a bad word and there is shame around it. Part of the reason why I think I am as visible as I am and as vocal as I am is because this disability looks like me too. It looks like a young Asian woman who got educated and worked at Goldman Sachs and now gets to hang out with Melinda. How can we diversify what disability looks like? 

MELINDA EPLER: Yeah. That comment about not seeing your disability is, I think, similar to people saying they don’t see color or they don’t see race. It is an invisiblization that can happen. It is a lack of recognition of somebody’s identity. I agree. It comes from a good place usually but it is not the right way to be an ally. Recognizing somebody’s identity and allowing them to identify themselves is key. 

TIFFANY YU: And honestly, that’s one of the things I am learning, too. I have told my disability origin stories many, many times. I have corrected people’s language many, many times. And I think a lot and Aubrey Blanche talks about call in versus call out culture and now what I am understanding and views every conversation as is a reset. I am looking at this conversation as this is the first time Melinda that you and I are having a conversation around disability allyship and may be the first time many of your listeners are learning about disability for the first time, how can I be compassionate around the fact that not everyone has been sitting in a disability identity for over 20 years? Sitting in disability work for over 10 years. If you use differently abled let’s continue the conversation and at the end I will say I want to explain this is the reason why I don’t use the word differently abled and here is a link to journalism guidelines around preferred language or words to use when talking about our community. 

MELINDA EPLER: That brings me to my next question around language. I have been learning and when I first started doing this, I heard over and over again use the term people with disabilities. Then I started hearing maybe three or four years ago, a lot of people talking about well, that’s not how I want to be identified. I want to be identified as disabled. So there is this people first language versus identity first language that I think there is a    and I don’t think there is one way that everybody says. There is multiple ways and people like to be identified differently. The other thing that I have realized, I have learned, is that for a lot of people who are disabled, disabled people, they want to be identified by their specific disability. So, autistic, people on the spectrum. People who are blind or have low vision or Deaf and hard of hearing. Can you talk about this? First, what do you prefer? And what is the best practice around language? 

TIFFANY YU: Yeah, so I loved the way you framed this because you are really highlighting, again, the diversity that exists within the disability community; right? Everyone has different preferences. Before I go into language, I just wanted to know that one of things I often think about is the dehumanization of the disability experience. What I mean by that is oftentimes people will come to us and say give me the guide. Give me the guide to language. Give me the guide to disability etiquette and when we create guides like that it is another way of dehumanizing the community. There is one right way and here are all of the answers in the book. This is the feedback we get within the inclusive design space which is my thinking is you design for one to design for all because if you create a tactile watch chances are I will have difficulty putting it on. I just have difficulty putting watches on. That watch was designed for people who are blind or low vision not designed for people with brachial plexus injuries which is the name of the type of paralysis I have. I want to preface all of this exist on a spectrum. I come to this with my own lived experience and I will bring in other people’s experiences if they give me consent to share their stories but, yeah, back to language. I think language is so fascinating and this is part of why I still do this work because I am still learning as well. I will share an anecdote where I spoke on a panel with another disability advocate who has been doing this work for, I would say four decades longer than I have, and I would talk about    I was making a statement around going into my first professional work environment and no one was really judging my abilities there or the fact I was disabled. One of the things that she mentioned to me was that it is only why talk about things in the context of disability where we bring in ability versus disability which is if I didn’t hold my disability identity, I would not be talking about someone judging me based on  my abilities as a person of color or a woman. Very sensitive nuance I want to bring on here. But, yeah, I think, for me, person first versus identity first language is very personal. Identity first language came into popularity 3 4 years ago when you started hearing people wanting to be identified by identity first. The politically correct context for people with disabilities person first language was that you wanted to see the person first. There still are a lot of disabled people and if you read formal documents people often use person first language. That’s still at least within the U.S. the politically correct way to write it. I will often alternate between the two because I prefer to describe myself as a disabled person because if I look at my other identities I am not telling you that I am a person who is Asian, or I am a person who is a woman, right? I am not distancing myself from my other identities. So I will say identity first language, again, is really centered around disability pride and ownership over a disability. One of the things I have found interesting in this work is that there are some people who are not proud of their disability. They may have acquired it later in life, like not as a kid as I did, and it may    the disability they have may deteriorate over time. We are going to go through stages of grief. Like I have to acknowledge grief within my own disability story because I used to be right-handed. I used to be able to use both hands. When you experience any type of loss, you are going to go through grief and the last couple stages of grief are acceptance but you have to go through all of these other stages of denial, and you know, I don’t remember what the other ones are, but you have to go through that whole journey and honestly for me, that journey took over 10 years. It took 12 years from the time that I became disabled in order for me to then grow into that second disability identity origin story. 

MELINDA EPLER: Yeah. And I am looking at the chat and somebody was saying I think it is maybe somebody with a disability saying they want to challenge what it means to have a disability and we should call ourselves uniquely abled and I do sometimes think disability is framed as a loss, as a lack of, rather than as a unique quality and I think that’s probably what’s behind sometimes people saying differently abled. I think that, again, we are seeing that somebody else that it is unique and individualized and one of the big things about allyship is asking. Asking how somebody wants to be identified and really listening to that and using that and being an ally when somebody else calls them something else and privately telling that person, you know, I know that this person likes to be called this. You can ask them yourself but here is what I have heard. 

TIFFANY YU: Yeah. And again, context really does matter. Who is the person who is saying that the they prefer language? If it is a non disabled person saying I prefer to use a euphemism for disability, that is further stigmatizing the word disability. I do not see disability as a bad word. I look at all of the opportunities I have in my life and how enriched my life is I think all of the that is because of my disability identity. When we say this person did XYZ despite their disability, in that context we are framing disability as a bad thing. Instead it should be this person did XYZ because of their disability. My biggest personal achievement that happened is I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and the journey of me getting there was rooted in how proud I was as a disabled person and how I wanted to have this experience    first of all, it was a very meditative experience but, for me, that experience, and again I am not sure because I do wear my disability identity, I don’t think I would have decided to do that had I not been on this journey of really embracing my own disability identity. 

MELINDA EPLER: This year marks the 30th anniversary of the ADA, the Americans Disability Act. Can you say a bit about why that is so important? 

TIFFANY YU: Sure. So July 26th is the date. Please save it. And if any of you are looking at ways to kind of celebrate this milestone legislation, I know Disability Pride Philadelphia is organizing a month long series of events and Diversability will carry some on their community calendar. For those who haven’t watched, Crip Camp, on Netflix, I would highly recommend it. It is a documentary around a bunch of kids with disabilities who went to a camp and because they got to meet each other in that context and develop their disability identity rooted in community were they able to then go on and advocate which led to the 504 protest which was linked to the precursor of the ADA called the Rehabilitation Act. The ADA is the first piece of legislation and anyone can correct me if I am wrong but if it is the first piece of legislation that prohibits the discrimination based on disability. And I think there are two things kind of happening there. This was passed in 1990 which is why this year is the 30th anniversary. On the one hand, I want to acknowledge that there are still a lot of gaps in the ADA. I believe that people who have concern types of chronic illnesses don’t call under protections. Discrimination is still rampant. Our employment numbers have barely moved since the passage of the ADA meaning there is still some work that we need to do but I also want to acknowledge that I feel really proud to live in a country that at least has that initial piece of legislation and I am learning, you know, when we first started Diversability, I was like we are going to do all this grassroots work and I was living in New York and I met the commissioner from in New York City’s mayor office for disability and I am like hey, how can we work your office? And he said, Tiffany, I need you to show up at City Hall because if you are not showing up, we don’t know how to advocate for your needs. I am part of the San Francisco mayor’s disability council and we are focused on employment and affordable housing. So, yeah. I feel like I just rambled a little bit but, yeah, it is an important year for us to realize there is still a lot of work to be done, but it is also for us to celebrate hey, by the way, it is amazing we do have a piece of legislation that protects our rights. For those of us who are disabled, we can tap into that, although there is a part of me again, with my allyship hat on which is I never want to use litigation as a reason for people to care about our community which is, unfortunately, historically how we have gotten more people to care: by taking legal action

MELINDA EPLER: I think that’s the same in company and not around legal action, well, I think legislation can make a difference inside companies and that can force policies internally but then there is an additional policymaking internally in companies around inclusion. Can you talk a little bit about what leaders in companies, leaders of teams, leaders of companies, can do to lead with empathy and be better allies for people with disabilities? 

TIFFANY YU: Sure. I will offer kind of like a multi pronged approach. The easiest thing to do that literally takes no work, or limited work, and everyone who is watching or listening can do is to follow disabled people and disability organizations on whatever social media channel you are most active on because for you to be an ally, if you are not entrenched, if we are not visible on your feed or wherever we need to be, then sometimes our needs are forgotten. That’s number one. Easiest thing to do. The second thing to do is to really and Melinda, I think you have been an incredible ally for your community and really get yourself entrenched within the community. Alice Wong came out with this incredible article on Vox. DM an advocate you admire by letting them know. Fundamentally, all of us just want to be seen. There is just such a human desire to want to be seen that the disability community just has not gotten access to. One of the things I think about, Melinda, is like you have access to spaces that I don’t have. By you hosting this, and having Jasmine the interpreter here, and Maggie the captioner, is hopefully setting a standard to other organizers to make sure they are included. And sorry. I tripped over myself because I came up with so many ideas at the same time but now that we are in a digital space, what are we doing to make our digital content accessible? There is a great free resource called otter.ai that transcribes conversations through artificial intelligence and if you don’t have access or the budget for a live captioner maybe that’s a good backup plan. And then are you captioning the videos that you are posting to your social media? Anyway, most of these are kind of grassroots allyship. Within organizations, my biggest thing is how can you hire more disabled people? Please. The more people with disabilities that you hire, the better your company becomes. To me, I look at companies like Microsoft and Google and Facebook and Salesforce because now they are building up their office of accessibility. These companies know this is important. They are building up those teams and if I look at    otter.ai which is this transcribing tool was created by ex Googlers. If I look at some of the tools I personally use to help make my content accessible, they are all created by ex Googlers, not all but a lot, which to me is saying, and you know, I think all these companies still have work to do in terms of hiring, but for me that’s saying, here is a company that really tries to engrain accessibility into all different parts of how it was operating. I also want to acknowledge that, you know, the engineers and had developers who are building the products, may be different from the hiring managers but the fact that now I am getting recommended to tools that were created by former engineers at this company is telling me, or signaling to me, that this company made it important in all areas of the company that a disability centered point of view is important. And again, on the language, if you are in a meeting and people are talking about hiring, or how to put their  materials together, and it doesn’t say we are an equal opportunity with XYZ and disabilities and just bringing that up. How can we be more disability centered in all of our work? 

MELINDA EPLER: Yeah, and I just want to at something. Accessibility is not a nice to have. It is a must have. We are not an organization that has a lot of money. We are hurting financially right now but we have still figured out a way to have Maggie, to have Jasmine, to make this happen and accessibility is the last thing we will cut in your budgets if we run out of money.    our. We have to reframe it as well. It is not well, if we have extra money we will do that. It is you have to do that and then add other things if you can but accessibility is a key component of this. Yeah. 

TIFFANY YU: One of the conversations that was happening initially when the pandemic started was around all of these government notices that were going out that were not accessible and people who were deaf and didn’t get the notice were being penalized because they had not even gotten the notices. Even at a higher level, the governmental level, and when I watch our mayor and governor do their townhalls I notice they have captioning and interpreters but, yeah, I think there are a lot of great comments in here about the budget needs to be there. And even, you know, oftentimes we will talk about how whatever you are doing in terms of accessibility is actually better for everybody. So 70% or a pretty high number in that percentage of video is consumed without content. These are all important. 

MELINDA EPLER: I have a couple more questions for you and then I just want to let everybody know we will answer some Q&A in a minute if you have any additional questions put it in the Q&A. What is allyship to you? Or what do you need from allies right now? 

TIFFANY YU: I think when people meet me they know what I am going to talk about. I am going to talk about disability stuff. I am going talk about accessibility. I am going to talk about intersectionality. I can only reach out to my sphere of influence and all of those people are already allies to me because they follow my work but who are the people who are following you who have, you know, who may not necessarily be aware of all of this stuff? So to the extent that you can help share articles, help share posts, or accounts that you think are written by disabled people and help disseminate those messages far and wide. The other thing I will say is when we were meeting in person, I think it was just really important for me just the people who showed up. Half the battle is showing up. We know that oftentimes your first introduction to this conversation may be uncomfortable. There are parts of my story that are sad and that can be seen as sad but I have been thinking about what disability wellness looks like because I think when I was growing up I thought being disabled and being well were mutually exclusive. How can we share more stories that are not inspiration porn or the fact that I showed up to this podcast is so inspiring but instead share stories that are written by disabled people, telling stories in their own words? I think the “New York Times” opinion disability series is really helpful to that. To the extent you can, consume as much material possible that is disability centered from the disability community. It will help elevate our story. And I think if we can put an intersectional lens on it so as we think about which voices we want to elevate. Are they people of color? Do they have other multiple oppressed identities that we can help help them elevate their work as well? And one of the things I often look at is there is a movement within the Asian community called Gold open and what Gold open does or did is when there was a film that came out that either had an Asian director or someone in the cast, they would pool together their economic clout and financially they would buy out movie theaters and I thought that was such a powerful way for that community to show that I am putting my money in this community because these stories are important. One of the things we are doing at Diversability is highlighting disabled authors and disability owned businesses that you can support. Are you putting your money? And Interpreter Now is deaf owned. I am not sure White Coat Captioning but I also heard great things about White Coat Captioning but, yeah. Are we putting our money into places that help elevate disability owned businesses? Where are we using our economic clout? That’s another. 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. You touched on this earlier at the beginning. As advocates sometimes work is really hard. It is emotionally and even physically draining and as marginalized people ourselves and also working against systemic barriers and biases. How are you taking care of yourself? How do you refuel to be an ally and an advocate when you need it? 

TIFFANY YU: Such an important question. Again, Melinda, I think back to our prep call when you were like Tiffany, what are you up to? And sometimes I feel a little bit of shame around answering that question because I am not doing as much as I could. I have really been taking care of my mental health and that has been meditating twice a day and honestly everything I am going to tell you now I did not do pre quarantine but I am meditating at 7:30 A.M. and 7:30 p.m.  I am rooting myself in gratitude doing gratitude journaling. And my PTSD diagnosis came in 2019 because I started getting really bad triggers from retelling my origin story for the last couple of years until I got the diagnoses and treatment. What I was realizing is I was trying to do all of this work and my cup wasn’t full and it was manifesting in ways in my body that made it hard to show up for others in my community. I think doing the inner work is so important. I still am talking with my therapist. I am super grateful. I have been doing a lot of reflecting around if I hadn’t gotten treatment for PTSD last year, how much more difficult this quarantine and social isolation period would be now. I feel bad there are not any groundbreaking things. Meditating and gratitude journaling. I am taking a class on Coursera known as the Science of Well-Being. It is the happiness course at Yale. There is no required reading. I am on week six. I did post this on Twitter. By taking that class, I am realizing and what that class goes into is here are all the things we think should make us happy but don’t. Here are all the reasons why we are not happy all of the time. And here are concrete tactical strategies you can do to increase your happiness. Yeah, I am feeling better. I am feeling whole. I also think that this digital environment is a great way to help people feel seen. Again, just slipping in and sending someone a text or direct message and saying I saw that post and I want to acknowledge that’s where you are or I appreciate the content you put out makes me feel happy and the receiver feel good too. 

MELINDA EPLER: I am going to jump into questions. There is one from Ashton. Can you elaborate on call in versus call out culture? 

TIFFANY YU: Sure, and Melinda, I think you may be better on this than I am but for me, I think a lot about something called the inclusive language movement. Oftentimes, we will use inclusive language or people not using inclusive language as a way to shame people. Like oh, I can’t believe you used that word. I think part of it, for me like that would be a call out. I can give an example. I am part of a community where they came out with a promo video and handicapped is not a word that we use within the disability community because it has its root in putting your hand out with a cap and asking people for money. If you watch Tech Inclusion talk an allyship in 2019 there is a panel where a speaker Kate goes into more detail on why we don’t use the word handicapped. I watched there video and it was someone sharing a project they had done for handicapped people and I reach out to the people who put the language and I said that language is offensive for people in the community, please take that video down. I brought it up within the Diverseable community and I said I want them to take it down. Am I overreacting? And some of the comments I got were on both sides. One was Tiffany, taking out that footage we have no disability representation in the video? And the other is did you notice the name of the organization that has the word handicapped in it? So there are organizations that still have handicapped within their organization name. For me, by just going to the organizer and saying take the video down, that to me was a callout. It was me acting from like a very emotions driven place of something I didn’t like. When the message of the video was amazing and it was like here is this great project done that serves people with disabilities. I would say to Melinda and I’s conversation, for me calling in would be someone reached out to me and said hey, Tiffany, can you recommend a couple differently abled people for this event? I gave them names and said by the way, we don’t use the world differently abled because it perpetuates the stigma disability is a bad word. I got a response from that person saying thank you so much for letting me know and the way you did it. It didn’t make me feel bad. I think we are all learning. That is an example of call in versus call out culture. Melinda, I don’t know if you have anything to add to that. 

MELINDA EPLER: I do. I think one thing about calling out is doing it publicly and in a way that can potentially shame people because the emotional reaction someone has if they are trying to do the right thing is really important because, you know, I have studied behavior change for a long time and if people get a point of feeling guilty or shame, guilt or shame, or anything like that, they are much less likely to ever step up again. So we need to be really careful as people that are being advocates, who are advocates and allies, is when someone is trying to do the right thing, to figuring out how to approach it. If they say something that’s not right, if they say something that hits you the wrong way, figure out what you can do to help them do it the right way. So that’s not usually publicly calling them out. That’s privately saying hey, this is how it made me feel. Perhaps you could do it this other way next time. Or could you take it down and, you know, reframe it or is there a way you can do it differently so everybody wins? Yeah, that’s a really important piece because when people are starting to become allies, they need to be able to make mistakes without getting hurt/punished so much that they never do it again. So, for me, that is just an added component. Publicly shaming    I don’t think it works unless people are egregiously doing something wrong and then that might be a different story. But if people are actually trying to help, I don’t think that publicly shaming works. You really have to think about it. It requires more work on our part but you have to think about what you can do, what you can say that can help them do it right the next time. 

TIFFANY YU: Yeah, and I think one of the points I have been reflecting on is we need to, number one, yeah, we need to give people permission to fail. Number two is we need to stop being so critical of each other’s advocacy. I think we are all learning and trying to figuring out what the right path forward is with the ultimate goal of inclusion and empathy and allyship and the third is there is space for everyone. A disability movement is not a vendetta. I will look at the feminist movement and hear from male allies they think it isn’t for them but we all have a role to play in being better allies. A lot of times in my work, I never approach things from a blame or pointing fingers or you did this and this is why the world isn’t accessible. It is like how can we co create something here together? 

MELINDA EPLER: Awesome. Unfortunately, we are out of time, and there are some other really great questions. What I will do is I will work to answer and maybe if Tiffany has time, we can both work to answer some of these questions outside of this session here because there is some really great questions and then I will put them in the follow up email. 

TIFFANY YU: Awesome. I will tweet out. I have put this on our site but I think the New York City’s mayor office of people with disability is great and they have a guide on alt text and accessible virtual meets so I will tweet out those and you can include them in the follow up. 

MELINDA EPLER: We had the commissioner speak at Tech Inclusion New York a couple years ago. Thank you, Tiffany. This has been amazing. Appreciate you and appreciate you being here. Keep it going and keep the conversations and the learning going. Be grave, be courageous and take a new action. Thank you all for joining us. You can join us every week live or catch the podcast and video afterwards. You can stay in the loop by being to changecatalyst.co and signing up for your newsletter. Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast and YouTube channel and we will see you next time. Thanks, everyone. 

>> CART PROVIDER: Thank you!

About the Host

Host: Melinda Briana Epler

Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.

As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.

Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.

Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.

In The Press

Watch Melinda’s TED Talk

Speaking Engagements

Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.


The show shaped my scope of reasoning on the dynamics in the corporate world, brand building, harmony across board with team mates. Your series has helped me feel less alone and less daunted by the challenges I face as a leader at a company that is used to moving fast with decisions and making swift progress across the board. I so earnestly want to grow and deepen my perspective when it comes to diversity and allyship; it’s not always clear how to do it. This series has felt like a path I can follow and revisit and draw strength and insight from. Thank you.

This show has given me clear opportunities to learn in the midst of 2020’s numerous social and personal challenges, including engaging remote content. I’ve learned new terms, heard new voices, diversified my interests and internalized personal narratives that have inspired me to get more active.

I watched many of your live shows in 2020, and I learned something from every discussion. They were inspiring on many levels. Early on during the pandemic (especially), the show also provided me with a sense of community that I was sorely needing. Thank you.

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