Disability Rights Activist Emily Ladau on How to Make Feminism Include Everyone

Eleanor J. Bader: I read that you were on Sesame Street as a child. Before we dive into your many projects, can you tell me how this came about?

Emily Ladau: When I was nine, I went to a camp for kids with disabilities called the South Hampton Fresh Air Home. Apparently, the talent manager at Sesame Street had called the camp looking for kids to audition for the show. They had had a disabled person on the program but she was aging out, so they were looking for someone new. I went to the first audition, got a call back, and then got the part. I was on Sesame Street for one season and was in about seven episodes. Although my time on Sesame Street was short-lived, it was exciting!

EJB: How and when did you become a disability justice activist?

EL: Basically, I always knew that I’d do something public. As a Jewish kid growing up in a largely Catholic town, I became a big advocate for the separation of church and state when I was in high school.

Then, when I got to college—I attended Adelphi University—I thought my route would be teaching, but about halfway through college I had a quarter-life crisis and realized that this was not what I wanted to do. The education classes I took were all textbook-based, and when we discussed special ed, both my teachers and classmates often failed to recognize that real disabled people had real experiences that we could share if anyone asked us. 

EJB: Did you have an a-ha moment?

EL: A culminating moment for me was when one of the Resident Advisors in my dorm—an able-bodied woman—asked if she could borrow my wheelchair for a simulation during Disability Awareness Week. Of course, I said no. I was so frustrated that the university saw disability as a problem to be fixed. I was also the first student who used a wheelchair to be enrolled in the Honors College. The building had a ramp, but not automatic doors, and there was no easy way for me to get to the lounge or computer areas. Some of the professors held events in their homes and I was never able to go. I felt as though I was always throwing a wrench into their erudite plans. I was not mistreated, but they were unprepared for a physically disabled student. It was a complete lack of recognition that dealing with disabilities involves complex and nuanced solutions.  

At the same time, I’ll admit that my transition from frustration to disability activism was pretty gradual. I started realizing how out-of-place I often felt, but after abandoning teaching as a career I had no idea what I could actually do with my degree, or with my life. I talked to a lot of people, including my parents and then-boyfriend, and pretty much everyone encouraged me to do something with disability. This idea was basically a seed that took some time to flower.

EJB: How did this play out?

EL: The summer between my junior and senior years at Adelphi I did an internship with a local organization, and did outreach and communications work, reorganized their contact list, and redesigned flyers and leaflets. I loved it.

Then, when I went back to school for senior year, I looked for another disability-related internship and found the American Association for People with Disabilities–and a week after I graduated I shipped down to DC. They paired me with the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, where I began writing legislative talking points, going to Capitol Hill briefings and doing social media work. In addition, my pairing mentor was a terrific woman, writer and blogger Day Al-Mohamed. She suggested that I start my own blog. That’s how Words I Wheel By came to be. This was August 2013 and when a total stranger–someone I’d never talked to or met—commented on one of my blog posts, I realized that my writing could make an impact. Nonetheless, it was also clear that I needed to monetize this. My first paid blogging job was for The Mobility Resource, a company that sells vehicles that are adapted for people in wheelchairs. 

EJB: How did you connect to Rooted in Rights

EL: I was a huge fan of Rooted in Rights and met some of their staff at an AUCD conference early in 2016. We spoke and I became one of the first people to do a storytelling video for them. The theme was rights of parents with disabilities; like me, my mom has Larsen syndrome and she and I spoke about our experiences. The video came out in time for Mother’s Day 2016. After the video was released, I stayed in touch with folks at Rooted in Rights and in September 2016 received an email from the editor of this then-fledgling blog. He asked me to become its editor-in-chief and basically build the site from the ground up. At first, I said no, but he convinced me and I took the job in the fall of 2016.

The priority of Rooted in Rights is to amplify the voices of people with multiple marginalized identities and we are constantly publishing new content.

EJB: What are you most proud of as editor?

EL: Last year I was awarded the Paul G. Hearne Emerging Leaders Award from the American Association of People with Disabilities and am extremely proud of this. It enabled me to create a Rooted in Writing Fellowship for Disability Writing and gave me a way to provide intensive mentorship to two emerging writers who I am sure will go on to pen great articles and essays.

EJB: Your educational outreach includes speaking at conferences and events as well as writing. Can you tell me about where you’ve been?

EL: Everything I do is about bringing disability from the sidelines to the center. I’ve spoken all over the US but am always pleased to go into synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, or attend United Jewish Appeal events. When I enter these spaces, I talk about ways to include disabled people in religious services and events. I speak with clergy as well as education teams about how to better include disabled students in Hebrew School. I also talk about using inclusive language.

I like to give a personal example: when it was time for my Bat Mitzvah, one of my best friends’ dads—an architect—had to build a ramp for me to get on the bimah so I would not be shut out.

EJB: What other advice do you have for schools, religious institutions or other venues that want to improve inclusivity? 

EL: Colleges and other programs need to focus on real inclusion. This means making disability part of the fabric of what they do, rather than a special initiative or add-on. I am not a project. I am just a person who wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah, go to college, complete a degree and find meaningful work.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.