Words I Wheel By

September 10, 2014
by Emily Ladau

Reflecting on College and My Commitment to My Disabled Identity

Reflecting On College and My Commitment to My Disabled Identity - Words I Wheel By

Sitting on the train on the way to my first grad school class last week, I couldn’t help but wonder at how much has changed since my first day as a college freshman. Five years ago, my disability was a part of me that I grappled with on a daily basis. Now, nearly a year-and-a-half removed from getting my undergrad degree, I’ve started the process of getting my Master’s in Disability Studies. And since the school year has just begun for so many of us, it feels like the time is right to come clean about the process of learning to love my disability as part of who I am.

I can trace my struggle back to the fact that my parents chose to send me to a mainstream school, so I grew up surrounded by people who didn’t identify as disabled. They were my teachers, my classmates, my best friends, and they all embodied identities I thought I needed to have. I spent years trying to dodge the realities of my disability, instead attempting to assimilate with the able-bodied people around me. Hearing someone say “oh, I forgot you use a wheelchair” was the ultimate compliment.

Making people “forget” was as close as I could get to hiding my disability, and I thrived on the feeling. It didn’t take long once I began public school to realize that I could embrace my disability only when it was convenient for me and then spend the rest of the time trying to dissociate from it enough to be perceived as “normal.” In other words, I had it in me to be proud of my disability, and at times I definitely was, but I usually wanted to stay away from my disability as an identifier, to be known as Emily, without being identified by visible signs of my disability. Looking back on it, I’m not even quite sure what I thought I was accomplishing or who I was kidding.

Although my identity issues stemmed from being a disabled girl in a predominantly able-bodied world, they were compounded by the fact that nearly every summer from age 7 to 15, I would spend a few weeks at summer camp for disabled kids, completely reversing my usual daily experiences. Contrary to my school year desires to erase my differences, my differences were oddly erased for me during camp. I went from being the token girl who uses a wheelchair in my school to being surrounded by people with what seemed like every disability imaginable. I was never in a situation where lots of disabled people and lots of people who don’t identify as disabled were all together for purely social reasons; my exposure to disability was essentially a cycle of all or nothing.

Unfortunately, by the time I got to college, my mainstream mentality had taken a toll on me. Not only was I convinced that I needed to separate myself from my disability, but also I felt the need to keep myself separate from others with disabilities. I’m embarrassed to admit this now, but for years, when I would find myself in the vicinity of another disabled person in a public place, I would become uneasy, worried that the presence of that person called way too much extra attention to my own disability.

Being around visibly disabled people wasn’t much of an issue throughout college, because there weren’t many of us. Even so, I was starting to get tired of constantly feeling on edge about directly acknowledging my disability as part of my identity. My life had been focused on two modes of behavior: advocating for myself to be included and have access and equal rights, and then getting as far away from disability as possible so people would forget why I was doing that. It finally hit me that I had become a contradiction on wheels, and I realized how exhausted and confused I was from so many years of trying to figuratively extract myself from the mobile tank attached my butt to conform to mainstream norms.

I didn’t want to live this way anymore. I no longer wanted to feel like such a hypocrite. I wanted to be accepted, and the people around me accepted me as I am, so why couldn’t I do the same – for both myself and the disability community as a whole?

So, I started slowly. I gradually began to consider what being disabled means to me (a topic in and of itself). I dipped my toe in the water of studying disability, taking the few classes available on disability-related topics and taking it upon myself to turn my assignments into chances to incorporate disability themes. Every subject from ancient Greece to the medieval period to human sexuality became a chance for me to explore more about disability history and culture. Most importantly, I actively forced myself to stop constantly apologizing for who I am. This was, and continues to be, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but the four years I spent in college proved to be the perfect time for me to shed the secret shame I held and embrace my disabled identity.

Want to know the truth? I laughed when people told me about all of their big transformational college moments as I got ready to start my freshman year, but the way my mindset about my disability transformed throughout college is one of the most important things I had the chance to go through. For better or for worse, it led me to make a lifetime commitment to owning my identity as a disabled woman.

Photo credit: epicture’s (more off than on) / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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August 30, 2014
by Emily Ladau

August Disability News and Blog Post Round-Up

With the end of summer and the new school year upon us, I’m feeling a renewed energy for advocacy. August held an exciting milestone, because Words I Wheel By had its one-year blogiversary. And now, it’s already time for my monthly round-up again. As always, I highly suggest pinning or bookmarking the round-up so you can come back to it whenever you have a few spare moments. Let me know what interested you the most, and if you think I missed anything!


Disability News

Disability Blog Posts

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August 25, 2014
by Emily Ladau

Writing Process of a Disability Advocate – The Writing Process Blog Hop

One of the best parts of blogging is connecting with amazing bloggers around the globe. I learn so much from them, and they’re part of my motivation to keep writing. So, when Sarah, a lovely blogger-friend of mine, tagged me in the Writing Process Blog Hop, I thought it’d be a fun little challenge. A blog hop is simply a task or series of questions that one blogger completes, and then invites other bloggers to complete it as well. And since I’ve been blogging for over a year, and writing for as long as I can remember, I’m excited to share a bit about my writing process.

The Writing Process of a Disability Advocate - Words I Wheel By

What am I working on?

Right now, I’m focused on two major things: starting graduate school and developing my career. (Read: I’m trying to accomplish a zillion things at once.) I’ll be pursuing my M.A. in Disability Studies at the City University of NY School of Professional Studies in Manhattan. On the one hand, I feel like I should have a degree in disability just for having been born with one and living with it every day, but I’m glad I’ll have the chance to dive deeper into disability law, policy, and history.

I’m sure juggling grad school while working on my career will be quite the adventure, but lots of people do it, right? My blog posts might just have to be excerpts from whatever paper I’m working on. Just kidding…sort of. Seriously though, I have no plans to stop writing because I love what I do. I’d like continue freelancing as a big part of my career, so I’m working on that, but I’m also going to be branching out into the world of professional public speaking. I already have experience with this, so I’ll be expanding on it. Eventually, my dream is to work for a disability related non-profit organization, and one day, I plan to be behind a non-profit of my own.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Though so many people write about aspects of disability, I don’t know too many people who have quite the same experience with disability as I do. My writing is shaped by two main factors, the first being that my disability is an extremely rare physical genetic disorder. The second is that both my mother and my uncle have the same disability. I think this influences my work in that I perceive disability as a defining part of my identity. Disability is, and always has been, in my blood. So, when I write, I have a life truly full of disability to drawn upon as I put words on the page.

Why do I write what I do?

Quite simply, I write about disability because it is so much a part of who I am. The culture and identity, the stigma and discrimination, the positives and negatives – I want to be open and honest about it all. I want to be part of larger conversations about what it’s like to be part of the world’s largest minority, and I want to share my own experiences. I want to speak for myself and to provide just a bit of insight to other people. And the one thing I can’t stress enough is that if you’ve met one disabled person, then you’ve met one disabled person. I don’t write to put words in anyone’s mouth; I write to be involved in advocacy and social justice and education, to contribute my voice to the much bigger world around me.

How does my writing process work?

All of my work stems from how I experience and interact with disability. Sometimes, an idea will come about from an impassioned conversation, and other times I’ll start by quietly reminiscing or reflecting on past experiences. While some ideas just pop into my head, a lot of what I write is inspired by current disability issues in the news or other media.

Once an idea forms, there are three possible ways I’ll go about writing. 1) I write notes or a draft by hand (which I did for this post). 2) I bang it out on my phone in the car or late at night before bed (which I did for this post on being part of the Americans with Disabilities Act Generation). 3) I type it a bit at a time in a Word document (which I did for this post on speaking up against ableism).

If something really gets me going, I can finish a piece in under an hour. Other times, it can take up to a week. When I’m done, I’ll sometimes publish right away, but usually I like to let a post sit for a day or two and then reread it from a fresh perspective to revise. Or, if it’s a piece on a particularly intense topic, I’ll edit and then read it to my editors-in-chief – my parents. I have always valued their perspectives immensely, because my mom has lived her whole life with a disability, and my dad has been around disability for 26 years. They’re both always ready to offer honest thoughts, arguments, or critiques, and I’m immensely grateful to them for that.

Ultimately, my writing process isn’t set in stone. The only sure thing behind everything I’ve written is my passion to connect with people and hopefully, in my own small way, bring about positive change for the disability community.

Now, I’d like to tag a few awesome disabled bloggers to get in on sharing their writing process as well, if they’d like: Cara Liebowitz of That Crazy Crippled Chick, Andrew Pulrang of Disability Thinking, and Alicia Searcy of Spashionista. And even if I didn’t tag you, if you’re feeling like sharing more about your writing process on your own blog, I’d love to read it!

Olivander / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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August 19, 2014
by Emily Ladau

Believe It Or Not – Media Constantly Perpetuates Freakish Disability Stereotypes

Let’s be real for a minute – we’ve all seen something we deem to be out of the ordinary and held our gaze on the sight just a bit too long. It’s human nature. And when it comes to people who have visible disabilities, we’re quite used to being on the receiving end of stares or double takes. While it can be frustrating, I try my hardest to consider a person’s stare as a moment of genuine curiosity rather than a display of rudeness. After all, despite being a passionate advocate for accepting everyone exactly as they are, even I have been the one guilty of staring on occasion. That being said, there’s a difference between expressing curiosity about disability and downright ogling that still seems to be lost on some people.

So, the announcement that the fourth season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story will have a Freak Show theme reminded me that in certain, society has yet to move beyond perceiving disability as something unusual to be put on display. I know the season hasn’t started yet, so I can’t form a specific opinion, but I do feel some trepidation regarding the freak show concept. I sincerely hope Ryan Murphy is thoughtful about his portrayals of disability, because if he’s not, it’s quite possible to make disabilities seem even more freakish and frightening to the general public than they already are. Conversely, if done well, the freak show theme has real potential to open up important conversations and challenge conventional ways of thinking about disability.

My concerns are perhaps heightened due to my recent visit to the Ripley’s Believe It or Not “Odditorium” in Times Square in New York City. It’s a total tourist trap, but for the most part, it made for a entertaining afternoon with my friend Julia. However, the disability activist within me struggled with the ableist and discriminatory mindset that was so deeply intertwined with some of the museum’s exhibits.

Essentially, the Odditorium relies on the stigma against disability that has historically influenced society’s perceptions in order to create shock value and evoke strong reactions from patrons. Granted, Ripley’s Believe It or Not was at one time an actual show that originated in the early 1900s, a time when exploitation of physical difference for the sake of amusement and monetary gain was considered socially acceptable. Freak shows were a common form of entertainment back then that involved “normal” people gawking at people with obvious physical differences. So, even though the Odditorium is reflecting history, it’s clear that the exhibits make no effort to negate this antiquated freak show theme.

Wax figure of Johnny Eck, a man born with no torso. On the right, a picture of my friend inside an optical illusion making it appear she has no torso.

Instead, the Odditorium has an eerie feel of giving its visitors complete permission to slip back into the mindset of outdated disability stereotypes in ways that would be considered unacceptable in other contexts. Barely five minutes into the visit, Julia and I encountered the first of many examples of disability on display: a wax figure of a man named Johnny Eck, who actually was a freak show performer for part of his career. The figure prominently shows that his body ends mid-torso. I was rather uncomfortable with the idea that this figure was display worthy because of his disability, but all of the people around me were absolutely fascinated – laughing, pointing, and mocking. Next to Eck’s figure was an interactive optical illusion that allowed people to appear as though the bottom half of their body had gone missing. I admit that Julia and I were amused by how well the illusion works. But, we enjoyed it purely for the sake of the illusion.

The whole point of the museum is giving people a chance to gawk, and heck, I even paid for a ticket to do so. Yet, combining displays about “abnormal” human beings with displays ranging from medieval torture devices to baseball artifacts just doesn’t make sense to me. Even so, as we continued to venture through the museum, we saw several more instances of human “freak” exhibits, including pictures, statues, and videos. I was particularly struck by a series of black and white photographs that showed people who were actually part of the Ripley freak show. Nowhere did the exhibit specify that people should not make fun of or judge people with visible physical disabilities as was done in the early 20th century. In fact, the pictures had captions with rather tasteless jokes posted underneath them. To me, the attempts at humor just fell flat, instead driving home the ableism. I fear that to many other visitors, it likely reinforces a message that it is okay to mock disability and to objectify humans simply because they look different. Not enough distinction was made to indicate that the exhibit is intended to reflect history, and not 2014.


Like it or not, we cannot deny that the degradation of the disability community through freak shows happened. And unfortunately, messages and images like this that perpetuate the idea of disability as freakish can still be pretty easily found in the media. I worry about the possibility that the same sort of freak show negativity could overtake the entire fourth season of American Horror Story. If this happens, it could be a huge step backwards for portrayals of disability in the media, especially because the show is so popular.

In the case of Ripley’s Odditorium, I don’t have much hope that they would consider recontextualizing their exhibits because the fact remains that it houses history. But, I have very high hopes that American Horror Story won’t perpetuate stereotypes, and will instead do justice to the incorporation of disability within the story line. Ultimately, it’s crucial for the consumers of such forms of media to understand that the freaks at which they gawk are representative of visibly disabled people who exist in the real world. We’re humans, not just plot devices to be objectified for your entertainment.


Image descriptions:
1) (From left to right:) Wax figure of Johnny Eck, a man born with no torso, next to a picture of my friend inside an optical illusion making it appear she has no torso.
2) (From left to right:) A photograph of a man with hands and feet that are thought to look like crab claws. Caption reads “Crabby By Nature – A rare genetic disease afflicted the ‘Crab-Toed-Man’ of up-state New York c. 1900.” Next, a photograph of a man with a lot of hair covering his face. Caption reads “Groomed for Success – Jo-Jo the dog faced boy had ‘werewolf syndrome’ – a genetic disorder that made him a world famous 19th century sideshow performer.” Next, a photograph of a man with three legs. Caption r
eads “Just for Kicks – Francesco Lentini, the toe-tapping, three-legged musician and soccer player literally had a ‘leg-up’ on the competition.”

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August 12, 2014
by Emily Ladau

5 Lessons I Learned From My 1st Year of Blogging

Let's Celebrate the 1 Year Blogiversary of Words I Wheel By on a purple sparkly background with rainbow balloons next to the text.

Last year, on August 12th, I hit publish on my first blog post, wondering if it would make it any further than my grandmother’s inbox. (Hi, Grandma!) I had decided to take on the idea of an elevator to success, since I can’t climb stairs. As I return to these words I wrote so long ago, my view hasn’t changed, but I find myself cringing a bit. My points read like an undergrad paper and there are no personal stories to be found. It’s as though I thought I’d be emailing the link to a professor for a grade.

So much has changed since then. I think (and I hope) that my writing style has evolved; I have grown into my voice; I have learned to stay strong when my beliefs are challenged at their core. The past 365 days have been an incredible crash course in discovering my place in the real world.

Most importantly, Words I Wheel By makes me proud. This blog is my baby, and it’s launched me headfirst into some wonderful experiences. And it seems that time flies when you’re having fun, because today is my One Year Blogiversary and I am SUPER EXCITED! Like, I’m-having-a-dance-party-and-would-throw-confetti-except-then-I’d-have-to-clean-it-up excited.

But if you know me, then by now you’ve probably figured out that while I’m putting up streamers and balloons and eating ice cream cake, I’m also reflecting on how I can apply what I’ve learned from the past year of writing experience as I move forward. I’ve narrowed it down to five bits of wisdom that I’m trying really hard to remember each day:

5 Lessons I Learned from my 1st year of blogging - Words I Wheel By

1) Be bold and brave.

  • To be honest, conflict kind of terrifies me sometimes. I worry about stirring up trouble, and at times I’ve found that my careful focus on being diplomatic undercuts the messages I want to put out there. But when it comes to writing about disability rights, or any topic you’re passionate about, you can’t succumb to your fears. Not only has Words I Wheel By been a great platform for me to work on advocacy, but also I’ve found that it functions as a major kick in the butt for me to be brave and speak up directly to people – like the time I experienced discrimination while I was at a disability-related event and confronted it instead of letting it go. I know it’s cliché, but it really does help to do one thing that scares you every day…or at least once in a while.

2) You can’t please everyone.

  • Conflict may be scary, but I’ve still ended up in the middle of some serious doozies when it comes to controversy. When I wrote about my feelings against curing disabilities, I received an email disagreeing with me using language so colorful it could have made a rainbow. And speaking of rainbows, if I say they’re beautiful, someone will probably find a reason to disagree with me. There are just some people who won’t be happy with you no matter what you say, and I’ve come to realize that’s okay. I’m pretty sure it’s what makes the world go ’round.

3) Stand (or sit) by your views.

  • I’ll admit that when I encounter a person who disagrees with me, it can shake me up. The very first time someone expressed a dissenting opinion, I freaked out about how I’d defend my views to a person who just didn’t seem to get it. However, as I’ve continued writing, I’ve become more comfortable in explaining my reasoning and remaining firm in my beliefs, even when I’m met with anger or resistance. I had to learn this early on in my blogging experience when I wrote a post responding to a Guinness commercial depicting a game of wheelchair basketball that had a twist ending. I found the ad patronizing to the disability community, but apparently, tons of people thought my views were wrong, despite that fact that I actually am a wheelchair user. A particularly friendly person named Helen accused me of “looking for reasons to be angry and unhappy.” How sweet! So, this became a test for me as my viewpoint was challenged time and again, and I had to learn to stick by everything I said. Recently, I was put to a similar test because of a response I received about a piece I wrote on The Huffington Post…from the article subject’s mother! It was a fiery reply and tough to read, but I didn’t let it intimidate me, and I’m quite proud of that. So, whenever someone confronts me with a different perspective, no matter how heated it may be, I stay calm, polite, and unwavering in what I sit/stand for.

4) Don’t take criticism personally.

  • This has been, without a doubt, the hardest part of blogging. A while ago, I wrote a post on why the fact that Michael J. Fox and I have disabilities does not make either of us inspirational. It was met with nearly all positive responses, except for a few rude commenters who I now consider to be “blog trolls.” One such comment I received from a lovely fellow named Craig asserted: “Well see, the difference is, Michael J. Fox IS inspiring, and you’re not. Simple truth.” Charming, isn’t he? But when I thought about it, I realized this faceless, mean person on the Internet offended me AND missed the point of my post entirely, so I got over it pretty quickly. That being said, people who criticize your personal character without taking the time to truly understand you are everywhere. I just experienced this in the form of a blog post calling me and fellow advocates from my generation lazy and “careless.” And let me tell you, I was having NONE of that, so I wrote a response. In that particular case, I did take the criticism personally at first, but when I realized just how off-base it really was, I decided to use the situation into something positive and advocate for myself. I’ve seen some amazing bloggers and mentors who do the same, and have learned from them to let criticism roll off my shoulders.

5) Examine your own beliefs.

  • This contradicts everything else I’ve said in a way, but it’s perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned this year. It’s important to sit/stand for what you believe in, but I am human, you are human, and none of us are always right. My way is not the only way, and my view is not the only view. While I advocate for what I support, it would be downright unreasonable for me never to consider new ways of looking at things. And this is really tough for me sometimes, because who wants to admit to being wrong, or even just to the fact that there may be two sides to something? But checking myself is something I am trying with all my might to do each day, because to shut myself off from other perspectives is to deny myself the chance to develop a greater understanding of the world around me.

Anyway, to say thank you to those of you who stick around, who keep coming back, who take the time to consider what I have to say…it would never be enough. I’m honestly amazed every time I encounter someone who has read something I’ve written, because (and I know how cheesy this is) blogging is one of the ways I’m fulfilling my dreams of being an advocate. So please know, from the bottom of my heart, how much it means to me that you’re here, and I hope you’ll still around for year number two!

I’d love if you’d all join me in celebrating my blogiversary by sharing stories if you can relate to any of the experiences I’ve had. And if you’ve never said hi before, I hope you’ll comment and let me know your thoughts!

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