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Disability Empowerment

How One Woman Helps People Find Strength in Their Disabilities

Before the global pandemic, unemployment rates in the United States were at record lows — for most workers. For people with disabilities, the unemployment rate is more than twice that of people without disabilities, and studies show that only 40 percent of adults with disabilities between the ages of 25 and 54 are employed.

One reason for this disparity is how people with disabilities are viewed. 

“Most of us approach disability from one of two harmful models,” said Tiffany Yu, entrepreneur and disability advocate. “The first is the ‛medical’ model. You go to the doctor, here’s your diagnosis, here’s your treatment, let me fix you. The second is the ‛tragedy’ or ‛charity’ model, where we view disabled people as ‛less than.’”

Business benefits

Yu brings a lifetime of insight to her advocacy. A car accident that killed her father when she was 9 years old left her with a brachial plexus injury and a paralyzed arm. 

“It’s a severe nerve injury. I was in the hospital for three weeks,” she recalled, “and in a wheelchair for four months.”

She founded Diversability, a community-driven organization seeking to rebrand the concept of disability, to facilitate conversations between disabled and non-disabled people. 

“I was a senior in college,” she said. “My roommate and I were both Taiwanese and had started a Taiwanese Club. I said, ‛What if I started a disability club?’”

Yu went on to professional success, graduating with honors from Georgetown University, earning a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, and working for companies like Bloomberg and  Goldman Sachs. She thinks organizations that hesitate to hire people with disabilities are missing key data.

“People think hiring disabled people is a social good, when honestly, hiring disabled people is great for your business,” she said. “Companies that prioritize disability hiring enjoy 28 percent higher revenue, they have double the net income, and a 30 percent higher economic profit margin.”

Yu argues that disability inspires innovation — and notes that people with disabilities also wield considerable economic power, controlling an estimated $1 trillion of disposable income annually — a number that rises to $8 trillion if you include their friends and family. That’s reason enough for organizations to care how their disability hiring practices are perceived.

Achieving empowerment

Another obstacle people with disabilities face when pursuing their life goals is themselves. 

“I grew up with a narrative that something about me was broken and the only way I could be successful in the world was if I fixed myself,” Yu said. 

This led to what’s called “internalized ableism,” the belief that being non-disabled is preferable and one must deny their needs. 

“Many times I don’t ask for my needs to be met,” Yu admitted, “because I don’t want to feel like a burden.”

Overcoming this form of impostor syndrome is crucial to your success. 

“Try and find a support group,” Yu advised. “I cannot tell you how powerful it is to be rooted in community and to have role models that look like you. If I think about how I became empowered, it was because I met other disabled people.”

Yu says that mentors are also important. 

“Having mentors is so important because I think that we need more people to see us for who we really are, even if we don’t think we’re there yet,” she said.

For Yu, that sense of community is crucial. 

“I tell other people who have disabilities that your presence is your advocacy, and your success is your activism,” she said. “You have a huge community of people who are just waiting to cheer you on.”

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