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Book Review: Demystifying Disability

book review demystifying disability

For National Disability Employment Awareness Month, I’m sharing one of my recent favorite disability awareness primers: Demystifying Disability: What to know, what to say, and how to be an ally by Emily Ladau (2021). As a DEI practitioner, a disabled person, a neurodivergent employee, and a scholar, I loved this book for three reasons:

  1. It’s accessible in terms of its language and terminology.
  2. It’s informative, with everything from language to tips and strategies!
  3. It’s actionable, meaning you can do something right away to address your own knowledge gaps around disability.

One of the most essential components of this book is how Ladau talks about disability to raise our awareness about our individual bias and how disability is often left out of the DEI conversation. She isn’t afraid to write about disability from a nuanced perspective, and she makes her content accessible to the reader through her word choices, sentence structure, font and language choices. The author and the publisher are intentional with their font choices and colors. Additionally, the author uses language that is simple and easily understood. Her book truly is accessible in terms of disability. I found this book easy to read and it wasn’t too academic. It’s not heavily theoretical, but rather, it’s inclusive of stories and practical knowledge that we can start to use to challenge the ways we think (or don’t think) about disability. Ladau acknowledges that both bias and privilege exist when we think about disability. For many non-disabled people, these conversations are newer, especially in the wake of the early days of the Covid pandemic. 

Four reasons to read this book:
  1. Ladau asks the reader to consider how ableism and ableist language permeate our everyday lexicon. It’s everywhere – how we describe ourselves, others, events, and places. Demystifying Disability challenges us to center disabled people in the conversation around disability rather than non-disabled people, then consider what actions the reader can take. We can constantly talk about scenarios and theory, but to effectively make a difference, we need concrete tools we can implement. Ladau’s book not only shares how some language that we use is connected to ableism and microaggressions, but also shares how to change up that language and related behavior. One example is using common words without thinking of their origin and whether these words were negatively used against the disability community. Instead of using problematic words such ‘lame’ or ‘idiot’, we can say what we actually mean. Instead of using ‘lame’ to describe something as boring, just say ‘boring’. Another example would be saying that someone is ‘normal’ versus ‘non-disabled’ or ‘able-bodied’. Using the word ‘normal’ perpetuates the belief that disabled people aren’t normal or capable of doing things (Ladau, 2020, p. 24-26). Be aware that using these outdated, ableist words can create a divide with disabled folks (unless they have specified that they don’t mind you using this kind of language with you) and can erode trust, as this kind of language usage can be microaggressions.
  1. Ladau includes a history of disability in her book. In my opinion, this history is necessary for conversations around DEI because of the intersections between disability and other areas we explore in our DEI work. As a result of years of erasure of the disability community, many of us are unaware of the ways we have assumptions that are rooted in that erasure– so when we are “doing things as they’ve always been done,” we are perpetuating the system of ableism.  Many workplace processes, such as recruiting or promotions, may be unintentionally rooted in ableism and exclusion, so understanding the history of disability and the various ways disability manifests is important. Here are some ways understanding the history of disability impacts our current work culture:
  • Historically, some job descriptions have included the ability to lift 50 lbs as a required skill, even when that might not have been essential to perform the job. 
  • Asking clear and concise open-ended questions in an interview can support someone to be successful in their interview. But when we ask complex, multiple-question questions, we may be assuming that everyone processes information in the same way when that is not true.
  • When someone needs something repeated, we might assume that they were not listening when in actuality, perhaps they have a hearing or learning disability.

    When it comes to being on a team, whether you’re a supervisor, team lead, or colleague, we all need to consider the history of those with developmental disorders or disabilities. We should challenge our own expectations that everyone works the exact same way we do. We should also acknowledge that others may process information differently. 
  1. There are so many ways that we have unconscious bias surrounding ability and disability that many times ableist attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors go unchecked– even for me, as a disabled person! This book illuminates these biases and asks the reader to examine their individual awareness gaps by illustrating where they may have some lack of knowledge in a nonjudgemental and approachable way.
  1. Ableism and disability are a part of our everyday life, and we don’t always notice them. For me, the book was a first step to building more awareness around a topic that’s often overlooked or considered taboo. 
Actions you can take at work
  • The broader meaning of the term ‘disability’ has only been an area of focus in more recent times. In the world of DEI, disability is often forgotten. Encourage your DEI council or office to support programming around initiatives like National Disability Awareness Month in October.
  • Ensure that your virtual, in-person, and hybrid meetings are accessible to all. If you are not in a position to update virtual meeting account settings or hire an ASL interpreter, reach out to your manager or DEI lead to inquire whether this could be possible.
  • Ask yourself: do we provide information in multiple ways when we interview candidates, provide announcements, or share pertinent information such as important dates or policy changes to employees? These questions are examples of ways we can think about increasing access without requiring our disabled colleagues to disclose or request something that many people see as ‘extra.’

Moving forward, consider suggesting this book for a diversity, equity, and inclusion reading club! This book is a great starting point to better understand disability from a historical and current perspective. You will gain more strategies for your toolkit and continue to challenge your own assumptions about ability and disability, with the end goal of intentionally creating a more inclusive workplace.