We need to change the way we think and talk about disability, says this inspiring young leader

Disability advocate Tiffany Yu (r) with members of the Diversability community

Disability advocate Tiffany Yu (r) with members of the Diversability community Image: Diversability

Tiffany Yu
Alumni, Global Shapers Community, Diversability
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

Tiffany Yu, 29, founded Diversability, an award-winning social enterprise and community working to reframe disability. She grew up in Washington D.C., the child of immigrants from Vietnam and Taiwan. At nine years old, Tiffany lost her father in a car crash. The accident left her without the use of her right arm.

Tiffany studied finance at Georgetown University, where she started Diversability as a campus group. She has worked for Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg and Revolt TV. Tiffany is a member of the Global Shapers Community.

What inspired you to start Diversability?

When I was nine, my mum had to travel for work on Thanksgiving weekend. My siblings and I went to see her off at the airport. On the way back, my dad lost control of the car. As a result of the crash, he passed away. I acquired a disability, a brachial plexus injury. I can't use my right arm.

For the 12 years following the accident, I just hid. I wore long sleeves all the time. I never talked about what had happened. As a nine-year-old girl, I didn't know how to deal with it. So I didn't.

More than ten years later, in my senior year at Georgetown University, I was asked to participate in diversity training. We were given a pie and asked to cut out slices, depending on how important different aspects of our identities were to us. These included ability (physical and mental), age, ethnicity, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. In the diversity space, they're called the Big 8.

Disability is often talked about like it's a medical diagnosis, or a tragedy that's happened to us. Like, ‘let's work to find a treatment or cure’. When I saw that disability was one of the Big 8, I realised it was an identity.

This inspired me to reframe the conversation around what disability actually means. What it could look like if it was framed as identity, and rooted in empowerment and pride like other identity movements? I started Diversability on campus to do that.

What was the turning point in becoming a disability advocate?

Working at Goldman Sachs after I graduated university. It built up my self-confidence and self-worth, because it was the first place I had worked where they didn't view me as a pity story. Instead, they demanded such a high quality of work ethic and product that it transcended disability. It was the tough love I needed to have confidence in my abilities. In the US, less than 30% of adult Americans with a disability who can and want to work, are working.

After Goldman Sachs, I moved to Revolt TV, a music start-up founded by Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs. It didn’t have affinity groups for people with disabilities, or for women or people of colour. It was the first time I wasn’t directly involved in anything disability-related. I had an itch.

Then I started receiving tweets and emails from people I’d never met before, sharing personal disability stories with me, hoping they would have a wider platform to share their stories on one day. I realised there wasn’t any group that united the disability community, and that engaged ‘allies’ - people who don’t have disabilities. Or anything that really looked at disability through the lens of identity, of pride and empowerment. It was always about finding a cure or fixing something.

While still working at Revolt full-time, I launched Diversability in its new form to a broader community. We started hosting different events, bringing people together to hang out and put a face to what is normally just seen as a diagnosis. Once you start to meet face-to-face, it changes what disability looks like. The more people with a disability you meet, the less they are the ‘other’.

In 2016, while I was still working full-time at Revolt, we started getting our first corporate clients. Without having anyone working on Diversability full-time, we had grown so quickly. It served a need people had. That’s when I planted the seed of really coming out as a disability advocate, and working on Diversability full-time.

What does Diversability do with corporates?

Our main business is events. We get people meeting and connecting in person, either through curated events on our own, or partnerships with other non-profits.

On the business side, we have three different categories of how we work with different companies. First is event sponsorship. People who are passionate about inclusion want to have a presence at our events. Second is through branded partnerships. For example, we’ll partner with a conference that wants to ensure their event is accessible to people within our community. We also partner with brands and companies who want to tap into our community, for example because they’re designing a product and want to do user research. Third is speaking engagements. We’ll get hired by companies, conferences or universities who want a Diversability speaker at their event.

What do you want employers to do differently? How can they tap into the talents of people with disabilities?

The word disability almost does a disservice to our community, because disability is so diverse. I can’t use one of my arms, but I don’t know what the day-to-day experience is like for someone who’s blind or deaf. Yet we’re all grouped under the same umbrella. When we think about hiring people with disabilities, it’s really just hiring people. People with disabilities can be investment bankers, software engineers, or incredible entrepreneurs.

The empowerment model is a new way of talking about disability. It means putting decision-making power back into hands of people with disabilities, rather than other people asserting what they think our abilities are.

It’s about making language as inclusive as possible, so that people with disabilities know that they are welcome. To my colleagues at Goldman Sachs or in different corporates, disability is a huge part of my identity. It reframed what disability looked like to them. At Goldman Sachs, I was ranked top of my analyst class. That was huge for me and for anyone who has a disability, or who has ever struggled.

So much of the narrative around people with disability is that society doesn’t include us, and doesn’t believe that we can do anything. It’s a whole narrative of ‘can’t’. When your whole world is telling you that you can’t do something, you start to believe it.

In your own journey working on Diversability, what has been the biggest challenge?

As meaningful as I find the work I do, I relive the hardest thing that’s ever happened in my life, every single day. It’s a huge part of why I do what I do, but it’s also very hard to share something so personal about my life.

It’s growth in all directions, which has been challenging. I’m a work in progress, and I make mistakes. I say things that people disagree with. I decided to take a leadership position in the disability world, a space where everything is so contested, including whether to use the word ‘disabled’. There’s so much additional sensitivity in a community where people have often felt silenced, overlooked and invisible. To provide a voice is a huge privilege I don’t take for granted.

People who have similar disabilities can have totally different ways of living or working. A woman called Amy Wright runs a coffee shop in North Carolina which employs 40 people with disabilities. She has two children with disabilities. Her message to her kids is: "I would not change you for the world, but I will change the world for you".

There’s a phenomenon called the Curb-Cut Effect. When someone designed sidewalks that gave wheelchairs users access, it made life better for everyone. From the mother with the stroller to the package delivery person with their trolley. When you make the world better for the most marginalized or vulnerable communities, you make it better for everyone.

How much do you tap into the social entrepreneur community?

Being an entrepreneur is isolating; being a community leader is isolating, because you’re the rock for everyone; and having a disability is isolating. Everything about this world I’ve created - out of a desire to create a sense of belonging for myself - has been isolating.

It’s made me really passionate about finding my rock. I find it in places like the Global Shapers community, a group of young people who are passionate about improving the state of the world. I find it in women’s entrepreneurial groups, and in social justice and social innovation groups.

It’s super important for any of us who do social good work to be allies to each other. We all want the same thing - more equality. But in an attempt to make our voices heard, we sometimes fall victim to invalidating each other’s opinions. It’s important to learn from people who are in communities that we’re not.

As allies, we can help move movements forward for each other. I recently spoke at a conference about ‘covering’, a term to describe how we hide parts of our authentic selves when we go to work. Especially if you have an invisible disability, such as depression or anxiety, the chances are you may want to hide that. Interestingly enough, some Latino people will pretend that they don’t speak Spanish in attempt to try to fit in.

Allies can play a role in preventing covering in the workplace. They are an observer, which means they have a respected voice by being part of a majority, or not being part of that particular under-represented community. As an ally, as long as you ask for permission from that under-represented community, you can help make sure they are represented behind closed doors.

What advice would you give an aspiring entrepreneur who wants to change something for the better?

First, don’t get discouraged. It is very easy to be mission-driven in our work. The rewards may come slower or later than you think.

Second, find your tribe. These are the people who are going to support you, challenge you and lift you up. One of the things I appreciate about Diversability is that people call me out when I make mistakes. It means a lot to me that people hold me accountable, and challenge me not to sit in my comfort zone. That’s how you grow.

Third, just start. We get so held back by decision fatigue and fear that we end up not doing anything. Look at how long it took me to do work that is meaningful. It was 10 years before I spoke publicly about the car accident. That’s 10 years of shame and trauma. Through creating Diversability, I found a way of healing, and a community that wants to fight as much as I do. Fighting gets tiring. That’s where discouragement gets in. We have to make sure we are taking care of ourselves, and that we have our tribe to support us.

What are your ambitions for the next five years?

My dream is that we don’t need to have Diversability! I never wanted the fact that we need a company that helps facilitate conversations around disability to be a thing. But unfortunately it is, until disability is ingrained within our culture and society, and fully accepted. Until we create societies where people belong.

In the nearer term, my vision is to provide access and opportunity to my community as much as I can, through disability empowerment. I see that manifesting in three different ways.

First, continuing to build the communities we’ve created at Diversability. When you belong to a community, you start to believe and see yourself for your potential, not for where you are. That’s why I believe so strongly in the power of community.

Second, creating more opportunity through financial empowerment. In 2017, ten peers and I co-founded The Awesome Foundation Disability Chapter. Each of us contribute money to a pool, and we award a $1000 grant every month to a different disability project around the world. That has included an arts projects in Uganda, a community garden in Ecuador, and political activist groups in the US and Canada. $1000 is not that much money, but it is. It plants a seed of confidence.

Third is providing access and opportunity through employment. How can we create more opportunities for people with disabilities to get into higher paying jobs? Disability to me is defined by two things. The feeling of being excluded, and the loss of independence. When you give some of that back, you remove negative connotations of what it means to have a disability. Part of it is financial independence, making sure people have steady streams of income through employment, and understand they are being utilized to the best of their abilities.

How do you think millennials see disability?

The majority of us in Diversability are millennials. My generation is filled with people who are curious and super passionate about diversity and inclusion, and who want to be a part of these conversations. It’s not just being a member of the disability community, it’s being an ally as well - understanding what it feels like to be underrepresented or marginalised, whatever community you are part of. Everyone in the Global Shapers community is passionate about figuring out how we can elevate each other’s voices.

What can we do to create a shared future in a fractured world?

Make sure we never forget the needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable communities, when we’re developing solutions. Make sure that the world’s one billion people with disabilities have a seat at the decision-making table.

Get to know as many people with a disability as possible. Or get to know as many people as possible, period. When we reshape in our minds what an experience looks like - whether being black, or a woman, or an immigrant, or having a disability - we stretch our comfort zone.

Never forget that people with disabilities exist. Once, I overheard someone saying: “I’m afraid we’ll be forgotten”. It broke my heart. So much of the time, our community is overlooked or not included.

Were you a natural leader from childhood? Or did working on your passion put you in a leadership position?

When I was a kid, my school's grades were O for outstanding, S for satisfactory and N needs improvement. I would get N for speaking. At university, I stayed away from courses where participation was part of the grade. I was so afraid of speaking up. I didn't, for more than a decade. The first ten years following the car accident, I wanted to hide. I didn’t want anyone to see me. I couldn’t see myself.

There was this person who wanted so badly to be a leader and to be heard, but didn’t know how. My mentors have helped me find my voice. Whenever I have to make large decisions in my life, I’ll reach out to what I call my board of advisors - some of my university professors, colleagues from Goldman Sachs, mentors I’ve made along the way through entrepreneurial or social good networks.

I think the reason why I became a leader was because other people believed I had the potential. I felt a responsibility to be a voice and represent my community, because I was given the opportunity to do so.

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