Demystifying Disability for Comms Pros: an Interview with Emily Ladau


Author Emily Ladau, a white woman with brown hair and glasses.

Welcome to Stories from the Field, Block by Block’s new podcast interview series. Its goal: to highlight issue area experts who can answer your burning questions about disability rights, criminal justice reform, environmental justice, and more.


This month, we’re excited to be interviewing author, activist, and podcaster Emily Ladau, whose new book, Demystifying Disability, has won praise from NPR, Judith Heumann, Rebekah Taussig, and others.


Over the years, Emily has played a major role in projects that helped inspire Block by Block’s focus on disability rights, storytelling, and accessible media.


Back when our CEO & Creative Director Jordan Melograna founded Rooted in Rights, a video and social media advocacy program that provides a platform for disabled writers and content creators, he asked Emily to become the Rooted in Rights Blog’s first Editor in Chief.

Emily Ladau's book Demystifying Disability. Its cover is teal-colored and features a wide variety of cartoon people with disabilities, from every walk of life.

In this role, she was instrumental in creating a space for disabled people to engage with each other and talk about the issues they face, through telling their own stories.


The lessons learned from the blog and other collaborations with Emily became part of Block by Block’s DNA when it was founded, years later.


Now, with the release of Demystifying Disability, Emily has provided allies of disabled people who want to join the disability rights conversation with an invaluable guidebook. It’s recently out in bookstores and sparking great conversations across the U.S.


That’s why we figured she was the perfect person to help kick off Stories from the Field!


Interviewing Emily today is Kyle Khachadurian. He’s a member of Block by Block’s digital team as well as the Advocacy & Communications Specialist at the Arc of King County and Emily’s co-host on their popular podcast about disability, The Accessible Stall.


You can listen to Kyle and Emily’s conversation below.



Transcript


Kyle Khachadurian:

Welcome to Stories From the Field, Block By Block Creative's new podcast interview series. Every month we interview a different change maker about the developments in their issue area ranging from disability rights to criminal justice reform, environmental justice, voting rights and more. Today's guest is author, activist and podcaster Emily Ladau, whose new book Demystifying Disability has one phrase from NPR, Judith Heumann, Rebekah Taussig and others. It's a truly accessible guide for those who want to know what to say and do and what not to do, as well as how you can help make the world a more inclusive place.


Kyle Khachadurian:

Interviewing Emily today is me Kyle Khachadurian, a member of Block By Block Creative's digital team, and Emily's fabulous co-host on our popular podcast, The Accessible Stall. Emily, how are you?


Emily Ladau:

I'm great. And I agree that our podcast is fabulous, but I thought you were going to say, you're fabulous. And you are, so.


Kyle Khachadurian:

Well.


Emily Ladau:

That's how I'm feeling today.


Kyle Khachadurian:

I'm a little biased. I think that you're also pretty fabulous. So the first thing that I want to ask you was about how your book Demystifying Disability can be used sort of in the office or at work, right? I know you wrote the book for a broad audience, but it also has some specific applications for people like me, comms professionals, right? Because there's still gaps in language there.


Emily Ladau:

So my goal in writing Demystifying Disability was to bridge so many of the gaps that exist when we're talking about disability. And that can happen in any sector, whether it's the federal government, whether it's academia, whether it's corporations or philanthropy or nonprofits. You name it, there needs to be more tools and resources for how we think about and how we talk about disability. And right now that doesn't really exist in the way that it should. So I wanted to offer a starting point to having these kinds of conversations, knowing full well that I'm only one person and there's no possible way that I could encapsulate the entirety of the disability experience. But my hope is that people will see this as a nonjudgmental guide to get some of the information that they need so that they can begin to have these conversations about disability and know that if they get it wrong, they have a place to go back to find out more.


Kyle Khachadurian:

So you're saying that anyone from somebody like me to some executive director of a nonprofit should be able to pick up your book and essentially air quotes, get it, at least a little.


Emily Ladau:

That's my hope. I recognize that it's really complex to talk about a population of more than a billion people in less than 200 pages. And so I don't want anyone to read this one book and think that they are now an expert on disability because as the writer of the book, I also don't think I'm the expert on disability. My hope is that people will say, "Hey, I feel a little bit better informed, and now I'm going to keep learning more."


Kyle Khachadurian:

I mean, I just think that it was a fabulous book and I'm so happy that you wrote it, but.


Emily Ladau:

You're not biased at all.


Kyle Khachadurian:

No, not at all. I'm objectively the most objective person. Coming back to nonprofits and other orgs, really, what are some common ways that such organizations discriminate against people with disabilities without realizing it, right? Are there ways that companies sometimes communicate verbally or visually even that are unintentionally ableist or in other ways unintentionally ableist?


Emily Ladau:

Well, I think first we have to look at what's not being said and what's not being shown. Who are you leaving out of the conversation when your marketing materials don't have representation of people with a parent or visible disabilities? And who are you leaving out of the equation when your language around diversity and equity and inclusion doesn't actually include disabled people? Or on the flip side of that, are you communicating about disability, but are you doing it in a way that really avoids getting to the heart of disability? So are you using euphemistic language like special needs or differently abled instead of using the word disability? Are you showing one token white person in a hospital style medical looking wheelchair in your imagery?


Emily Ladau:

These are a lot of the initial, very simple questions that I like for communicators to ask themselves. And then we can begin to dive deeper. Once we first asked who's missing, and then we ask are we being tokenizing, and then we ask what language are we using? Are we being respectful of the communities that we're representing? Then we can think about the imagery that we're using and whether we're really diversifying it.


Emily Ladau:

So there's a multitude of layers here. And then once you have put thought into how you are communicating regarding the language that you're using and the imagery that you're using, the next step is to ask yourself, am I genuinely making this accessible to people? So am I including image description? Am I using plain and clear and concise language? So there's a lot of steps to this, but I don't want people to feel overwhelmed by it because really nothing that you would implement would create any difficulty for anyone else. It would only make the experience better and more welcoming and more inclusive for all of the people who you're trying to communicate with. So start small and broaden from there.


Kyle Khachadurian:

Talk to me about that though. If I'm a communication's professional, what are some low hanging fruit? Where do I start? And what are some sort of medium to higher hanging fruit? I appreciate the fact that you're talking about steps, but if you're someone who doesn't know, what can they do?


Emily Ladau:

Yeah, it's a great question. And I think if you're looking at the "low hanging fruit" first, there are some simple steps that you can take to make sure that what you're putting out into the world is more accessible. So look at things like color contrast, for example. Are you using white text on a light blue background? That's probably pretty hard to read for everybody, not just for people with vision disabilities. Are you describing your images so that if somebody has a vision disability, they can still engage with your content? Are you captioning your videos and transcribing your audio content? This might seem complicated, but it really is low hanging fruit and it makes the experience better for everybody. I know that I love caption videos. I do have a hearing impairment. But that being said, there are sometimes where I'm just sitting in a doctor's office and scrolling through social media and I want to watch that video without turning on the sound because I don't have my headphones. Add captions and suddenly you've just made the user experience better.


Emily Ladau:

I mean, then there's, if you want to call it the higher hanging fruit, if you will, there's steps that you can take to ensure that your broader messaging is inclusive of disability. And that doesn't just mean using the word disability or showing a couple of disabled people in your photography. It means literally thinking about how the impact of what you're communicating relates to the disability community and how you can incorporate a disability perspective into your messaging. And doing that requires connecting with members of the disability community. So that I would say maybe is a higher hanging fruit if we're still going with this fruit thing.


Kyle Khachadurian:

You know it.


Emily Ladau:

But at the same time, that doesn't make it something that you should avoid just because it seems more challenging. In fact, it's all the more important because simple actions like better color contrasts or captions mean nothing if you're not putting true action behind these smaller steps that you're taking.


Kyle Khachadurian:

Absolutely. Man, you making my segues really easy for me.


Emily Ladau:

You're so welcome. So Block By Block Creative is a video production company. And you've worked either directly or indirectly with us in the past. And we strive to make all the videos we make as accessible as possible for as many people as possible, right? So one, what did we do correctly for accessible video? But also, what can other orgs do? And I guess really the essence of this is if I'm making an accessibility checklist for an accessible piece of media, what would be on it? What's important to have on it?


Emily Ladau:

Well, I think in terms of what is most important about getting it right, it's building accessibility in from the beginning. So don't just think about accessibility at the end. Ask yourself how access can be a feature rather than an add on. So how will you build in caption? How will you build in what's known in audio descriptions, which is describing what is going on on the screen and providing pertinent information for people who have vision disabilities. Ask yourself about the scripting and the language that you're using. Don't let this be something that comes up when the alarm bells are sounded after the fact.


Emily Ladau:

And I think that in taking into account how to create accessible media content from the beginning. So going over that checklist initially of saying, okay, are we building in captioning? Are we building in time for audio description? How is our language? Is the video accessible for people to watch? For example, if someone has epilepsy, is this going to trigger a seizure? Is this a really flashy, difficult to watch video, right? Ask yourself these questions before production. You will save yourself a world of trouble in post-production.


Kyle Khachadurian:

No, if I, if I could pivot a little bit though. So that's all great for digital accessibility, but I want to talk about physical accessibility for a second, especially now that COVID is sort of waning and people are murmuring about returning to the office. What can organizations do beyond just including ramps for wheelchair users that can make their event spaces and not to mention or workplaces more accessible for folks with disabilities?


Emily Ladau:

I know that everyone thinks, oh, we've got a ramp. And we captioned this video and look at us. We are doing the access. But it's really so much more than that. It's about overall fostering a workplace culture that is really welcoming and inclusive and allows for dialogue and conversation about what people actually need to feel like they can thrive and to be successful. And since the pandemic, working from home has become the norm for so many people. But for years before that, it was seen as some kind of workplace accommodation, and a rare one at that.


Emily Ladau:

And now that we know that we can do it, we have to recognize that we can't just forget about flexibility and accommodations in the workplace. We have to implement that as a feature rather than as some kind of add on or extra. And especially when it comes to work in the field of communications, we benefit from the fact that we can do that from almost anywhere. And so I really, really urge people to think about the environments that they're creating and to offer hybrid options, to offer flexibility, to provide workspaces that just work better for everyone.


Kyle Khachadurian:

I completely agree with you. I can tell you, at least for me, the cat is out of the bag with remote work. That is something that I don't see returning to a hundred percent in office for a very long time, if ever. But I did also want to talk to you about jobs, particularly nonprofits, but also jobs in general. How can organizations do a better job of recruiting and perhaps more importantly, retaining disabled people? Are there ways we can improve job listings, how they're written and how interviews go? And I guess most importantly, perhaps, are there any questions that you should not ask a disabled person during an interview?


Emily Ladau:

Well, okay. There's some good news here in that if you are making your overall communications more inclusive and accessible, then you're already showing people who may potentially be interested in working for your company, that you are a welcoming environment for disabled people. Now, whether or not you are actually welcoming or you're just paying lip service to it in your communications is another question entirely.


Emily Ladau:

But your external presence is always a really big factor in being able to recruit disabled people. And once you get to the actual process of creating job applications and seeking out talent, absolutely mention things like that you are welcoming and inclusive of disabled people. Include disability in your equal employment opportunity statement. Note upfront in the application that if someone requires accommodations for the interview that you will offer those accommodations. Don't make someone have to wonder and guess if they can ask for it.


Emily Ladau:

And then once you get to the actual interviewing process, I mean, look, the reality. I'm not a lawyer. And there are very, very specific instances of what is okay to ask and what is not okay to ask in regards to finding out about job performance, but not being invasive when it comes to demanding someone disclose information about their disability. And so rather than me tell you what to do, my best advice is seriously, look up the very specific requirements through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to understand what the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act says is okay and not okay to ask during a job interview. I cannot stress this enough. Do your homework in advance. Don't get yourself into hot water.


Kyle Khachadurian:

So now you've gotten the job and you're starting. You're getting your feet wet. You like it. Why is it worth investing in your org's digital and print comms to make them more inclusive? And sort of related, what are some free changes that an organization can make to their communication strategy to help reach more people?


Emily Ladau:

I am a big believer in investing resources in communication, both financially and in terms of time. I think that by creating assets that are accessible and inclusive, you're showing a continued commitment to meaningful diversity, equity and inclusion. It's not just a one time deal. It becomes part of the ethos of your organization and your brand. And that investment alone, I think will pay in dividends.


Emily Ladau:

And on top of that, you don't always have to spend a ton of money on these efforts. There are free tools online, things like a color contrast checker, right? There is automated captioning. Now I'm not saying that it's super accurate, but at least it gives you a baseline to get started with. And then you can go in and correct those captions. When you're looking at adding image descriptions, that's a free step that you can take. It doesn't cost that much to describe an image. It costs what five minutes of your time at the most. So I think we can't look at access as a big expenditure because if done right and done well and done consistently, I think it's ultimately going to be to your benefit and your profit.


Kyle Khachadurian:

I could not have asked for a better answer. Emily, thank you so much. The final question that I have for you is do you have any other recommendations for how comms professionals can learn more about this topic other than, of course, going out and immediately buying your book from the local independent bookstore or subscribing to The Accessible Stall?


Emily Ladau:

What great suggestions, Kyle. I'm kidding. I think it's so important as comms professionals to continually be learning about your space. And for me, as someone who works in communications, I am consistently plugged into resources that help me when it comes to learning about the language that I use, to being thoughtful about the way that I communicate about things. There's the National Center on Disability Journalism I believe, that has a really great style guide on writing about disability, which is a super helpful resource to reference. And also listen into conversations on social media. Find people who are leading marginalized spaces on social media. Don't demand labor of them, but do listen to what they're saying, because that is one of the best go-to resources for listening directly to people and doing it at a very grassroots level rather than at that 30,000 foot view. And if you're looking for a place to get started, literally even just typing in hashtag disability Twitter on Twitter will get you to those particular parts of the internet. Start paying attention and I think you'll learn so much just from stopping to listen.


Kyle Khachadurian:

Well, Emily, I just wanted to thank you for your time and what an honor is to have you as the first subject for Stories From The Field.


Emily Ladau:

I'm the first? Wow. I didn't know that.


Kyle Khachadurian:

Yeah!


Emily Ladau:

What a genuine pleasure. I was happy to do it. Thank you for having me.


Kyle Khachadurian:

Thank you so much. Want to hear more interviews like this one? Visit BlockByBlockCreative.com/moreinterviews to sign up to receive monthly interviews with nonprofit change makers delivered straight to your inbox. Since 2016 Block By Block Creative has been building video powered stories for mission-driven organizations that promote conservation, criminal justice reform, voting access and civil rights. Learn more at blockbyblockcreative.com and thanks for listening.




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