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Episode 23: Tiffany A. Yu | The Fight to Be Seen

For some reason the universe is giving me this space to make whatever dent I can within this disability rights movement or in my disability advocacy work.

Below is an abridged audio transcript of Episode 23, the second episode for Season 3 of Rock The Boat: Against All Odds, edited for clarity.

This season on Rock the Boat, we're talking to people who have overcome challenges and beat the odds. This week we feature Tiffany A. Yu, the founder and CEO of Diversability, a social enterprise aimed at rebranding disability through the power of community.

Tiffany is fully immersed in the world of advocating for and creating visibility for the disabled. She is the Founder of the Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter which invests monthly $1,000 micro-grants to disability projects that support the ideas and projects within their own community. She also serves on the Leadership Committee to plan for the nation’s first municipal disability cultural center in San Francisco. But disability was not always the focal point of her life.

We’ll hear more later in the episode, as we talk to Tiffany about:

  • Some of the biggest misconceptions about the disability community

  • The evolution of her own life path,

  • How she’s unlearned the victim narrative by pushing herself beyond her limits over and over again,

  • How she has now found her life’s work in rebranding disability narratives

The following is an abridged transcript of the episode. To listen to the full episode, find us on Anchor, iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts!

I. Tiffany’s Origin Story

For Tiffany, her disability was acquired.

Lynne: Tiffany was born the youngest of four to a Taiwanese family. Her mom was a diplomat, her dad a stay-at-home dad. Because of her Mom’s job, they moved around every couple years, starting in Barbados, then Taiwan, then finally settling in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb just 20 minutes outside of DC.

Then when Tiffany was 9, something happened to change her life forever.

Tiffany: Over Thanksgiving weekend in 1987. So I was nine at the time. A couple of my siblings and I were dropping my mom off at the airport for a business trip. And on the way home my dad lost control of the car and as a result he passed away and I acquired a few injuries. So I broke a couple bones [00:43:12] in my leg and I have a what's called a brachial plexus injury in my right arm. So it's a pretty severe nerve injury. So it impacts pretty much the entire use of my right arm and in the period after that as we have talked about I kind of just lived in this place of not really understanding what had happened. You know, this wasn't just acquiring a disability. This wasn't just losing a parent it was my body is different. My family looks different my whole life looks different now and my relationship to myself and my family and my father has been broken and kind of glued back together in a way that the glue is still drying, you know now in 2019.

Lynne: Tiffany and her family didn’t know how to talk about the trauma. All of this was made even harder by the fact that the accident itself was rarely talked about -- which meant she was holding on to the pain of the car accident with no emotional outlet. She started feeling ashamed of herself and her new body.

Tiffany: When that accident happened, I feel like Tiffany lost her childhood.

There's a part of me that just felt like I was just a shell of a human because I was living in this trauma and so ashamed by it that I wasn't even really there.

I would show up for school every single day and feel the effects of what the social stigma of having a disability was like. What that social isolation and that social exclusion really look like and that's actually-- actually in that period of time, this was from 10 to 17, I don't remember much, but that's actually the period that shaped so much of how I saw myself in a negative way.

Lynne: In addition to losing her father, Tiffany lost the ability to use her right hand. She’d wear long sleeves to school and learned to write with her left hand. At the time, she didn’t even know how to talk about her disability and people didn’t mention it to her until college.

Tiffany: Up until 12th grade, I was kind of just growing up with the same group of kids. So post car accident, they all knew what happened. So no one needed to ask me about what happened. So I never needed to learn how to talk about what happened.

And so now I'm in a new environment where I'm being introduced to a lot of people who don't know my story and the only way I knew how to respond to those experiences was just cry.

That was just the only way that I knew how to deal with anything and if you ask someone, "Hey like what's up with your arm?" And the person starts crying, in a way that is reinforcing that you shouldn't ask someone about their difference.

II. Career Path

Lynne: Right out of college, in 2009, Tiffany got a summer internship at Goldman Sachs, the prestigious multinational investment bank and financial services company.

Tiffany: It was really transformative for me in a way, in the sense that it was the first professional environment that I had been in that I felt like I wasn't given an easy pass for life. Like working in banking is very hard and they didn't care that I couldn't use one of my arms. They cared about how my work product and doing what I needed to do.

So I had this one experience during my internship where you could go in every single week to meet with the recruiters and they give you feedback from your teams. So one week, I went in and Jenny was my--was my recruiter. I really struggled during that summer internship it was you know, really demanding and as I was kind of closing the door, on my way out. She was like, “Tiffany, I just want you to know that you deserved your place here. You don't need to have a chip on your shoulder.”

Lynne: as much as she enjoyed the challenge of banking, Tiffany always had other dreams of becoming a broadcast journalist.

She eventually did make that jump, moving to Bloomberg Television. She first started as a production assistant, which is often the first rung of a very long ladder to becoming a journalist.

After a few months, Tiffany was promoted to an assistant producer. But, as we know, the hustle of our work, doesn’t just stop when we leave the office. Tiffany saw this play out in the media world everyday. She saw fellow producers continue to work on their own personal and freelance media projects outside of their regular work schedules. But instead of pursuing freelance work, Tiffany dedicated her time to building up the disability community at Bloomberg by co-founding an Employee Resource Group for people with disabilities.

III. Beginnings of Identity Community Building: Diversability 1.0

Lynne: In college, Tiffany participated in an activity revolving around the Big 8 aspects of social identity. These include race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, ability, religion, nationality, and socioeconomic status. They were given a pie and asked to cut out eight slices of the pie, based on how important those aspects of social identity were for them.

Tiffany: So for me, you know being Taiwanese was important. Being a woman was important. And having a disability was like half of my pie. And to be honest, that was the first time I had ever seen disability included in included in something that was considered like this is your pie of identity.

And then I looked at the guy next to me and being non-disabled was just like the thinnest the thinnest sliver it could be [of his pie]. It was just like a line or something.

And I was just like, “Wow, it's so interesting because something I think about every single day this other people are not thinking about.

IV. Diversability 2.0: Balancing It All

Lynne: This was the start of Tiffany’s involvement in the disability movement. But after she graduated, she put things with Diversability on the backburner for a few years and instead focused on her career. Then in 2015, a serendipitous event prompted her to relaunch Diversability.

Tiffany: I got an email from a guy named Jason. And Jason was like, “Hey Tiffany, I came across some of the work that you that you've done with Diversability and I find your story really inspiring. And he shared his own personal story with with me and at the end he was like, “I really hope that I can share My Own Story one day, but I'm not sure when I'll be ready yet.” When I got this email I was like wow, this guy felt really compelled. And so this is 2014 and I'm like, he felt really compelled by something he read in 2009 or 2010. Then he went to go find my email address. He needed to go find this person to contact them. Then he shared a story with me that he hadn't shared with anyone else and it kind of made me think like what is still missing in the disability space that I'm getting these messages? It kind of just like feels like a sign like I don't know what the timing is or who knows and what it made me realize was at the time. I couldn't really find anything that number one was cross-disability. So, you know, combine like physical disability, mental health conditions, chronic illnesses, like every one. That I didn't find anything that brought non-disabled people into the conversation.

Tiffany did more research and discovered three core pieces missing from the disability space:

  • First, she noticed that there wasn’t much work around this concept of cross-disability, which involves bringing people together with a range of disabilities including physical, mental, and chronic illness.

  • Second, she realized that there wasn’t much work being done to bring in non-disabled people into the conversation

  • Finally, she was having trouble finding organizations centered around disability empowerment.

So she decided to restart Diversability as an organization that tackled all of these things, bringing together people with various types of disabilities to share information and empower each other to make social change. Most importantly, the organization would be led by those with disability themselves, veering away from the typical charity-based model.

Tiffany: I couldn't find any organizations that were really around this idea of like disability pride or disability empowerment or the celebration of intersectionality, the fact that you know, these are all aspects of our identity. And most of what I found was like let's fix disability, let's find a cure, let's make you more normal. I didn't want to live in that, I didn't want to live in those narratives of like wanting to be fixed all the time.

One of the things I talk about a lot in our work is, you know, how can we move away from some of these disability narratives that are very much rooted in pity and rooted in shame and rooted in feeling like a victim.

V. Tiffany’s Next Chapter: Self-Preservation, Self Care, Leveraging Her Privilege to Build Something Even Bigger

Lynne: Diversability started as a side hustle but has since become Tiffany’s full-time hustle.

Tiffany: And when I decided I was going to start Diversability, I did something that I think everyone should actually do, which is you make a commitments list. You write down everything and everyone that you have committed time to outside of work. And then you cross off the things that are no longer serving you. And for me, if I was really going to commit my time to building Diversability, I needed to cut everything.

Lynne: Committing to Diversability full-time catapulted Tiffany into the limelight as a quasi-spokesperson for the disability community. She’s been invited to speak at numerous conferences including TEDx and World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting at Davos.

But as the face of an organization that is working to re-shift the narrative around disability, she’s found herself struggling with the limelight at times. She wants to ensure that her story is not the only disability story and she knows that she comes from a place of privilege.

Tiffany: For some reason I have been given the microphone and so what am I going to do with that power right. And last year at the end of this really hard year where I just so tired of reliving my trauma and retelling my trauma. I was like I got to get out.

When I worked in banking, all we talked about was work. Now all I'm talking about is my life. I don't want to do this anymore. And then I thought about it and I was like, but I still have the microphone in my hand.

But for right now, for some reason the universe is giving me this space to make whatever dent I can within this disability rights movement or in my disability advocacy work. Like am I just going to run away because it's hard and because I don't want to do this? So I've been thinking a lot about this quote which is from Dr. Robert Bullard. And he says the fight for justice is a marathon relay. And what that means for me is that we will never stop fighting but it will look different.

Lucia: For Tiffany, the fight will always be somewhat personal - it’s part of her own journey to being seen and heard.

Lucia: It was really brave of her to share her disability story with us. I like how she’s turning the narrative around disability from one of pity and curing the disability to one of pride, inclusion, and employment.

Lynne: I think it’s one thing to work through your own challenges, but she’s taken her struggle and built space for others to work through theirs. The community part of her work is probably the most inspiring to me.

Tiffany: I just saw a mirror of myself and to be honest, I just couldn't imagine that girl that nine year old girl going through what I went through.

And if I look at myself in the mirror now. I can't imagine how I could have ever been that nine-year-old girl, but I feel so proud of where I am.


Show Notes

For more information, you can check out Diversibility's website.

If you work in media, the National Center on Disability and Journalism provides resources for language around disability.

Follow Tiffany on social media:

Listen to Tiffany's full episode on Anchor, iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts!

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