"Ending Discrimination Begins With Self-Reflection": Tiffany Yu on Democratizing Visibility

Akiko Eisner Waters
Akiko Eisner Waters

Avoidance does not equate to acceptance, which is why disability advocate and TikTok creator Tiffany Yu has made it her personal mission to cultivate open conversations around disability and inclusion. When she was 9 years old, Yu was involved in a car accident that took her father's life and left her right arm permanently paralyzed. In 2009, as an undergrad at Georgetown University, Yu founded Diversability, a women-of-color-led organization with the goal of changing the stigma around disability and creating a community for disabled people and nondisabled allies.

"In an effort to try to find affordable and accessible housing and access to healthcare and close the disability employment gap, we forgot that disabled people also want friends."

As a three-time TEDx speaker and the host of the Tiffany & Yu podcast, Yu is adept at discussing disability on all scales. Still, she's viscerally aware of the discomfort in speaking about disability on all sides and aims to destigmatize these conversations on a grand scale. "'Disability isn't the problem, ableism is,'" Yu told POPSUGAR, quoting disability fashion stylist Stephanie Thomas. "The reason why we as disabled people either feel like burdens or feel like our disabilities are a hindrance is related to the fact that our external infrastructure and social attitudes around disabilities are socially excluding us. They're telling us that we're broken, or something's wrong with us, or we need to be fixed."

In combination with having no public outlet for discussing these experiences, this discrimination creates varying levels of internalized ableism within members of the disability community that make these conversations even more difficult to have. "I grew up believing that my entire existence was very shameful," Yu said. "And it wasn't until my second disability origin story, which happened about 12 years after I became disabled, where I started to become really curious about what it would look like if I didn't carry so much shame and feel like a victim in my story."

As a TikTok creator, Yu creates bite-size videos to help people understand that "disability is a core part of the human experience" and to guide viewers in being better allies to the disability community. "Disability intersects every single social issue," Yu said. "In an effort to try to find affordable and accessible housing and access to healthcare and close the disability employment gap, we forgot that disabled people also want friends . . . It wasn't until I met other disabled people that I realized that my life and the way that I looked at my disability could be different."

Society has systematically stripped the power away from the disability community, resulting in chronic social exclusion, isolation, loneliness, and a deep misunderstanding of disabled people. So Yu is grateful that, through social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter, she's able to reach out to people who may have never seen a disabled person, an Asian person, or a woman of color before. "I'm here; I'm going to be loud and make noise," Yu said.

"We will continue to deepen our understanding of intersectionality and what it means to really live in a more equitable world."

For Yu, unlearning ableism is a lifelong journey, but she says that disability pride is crucial in sparking meaningful, productive conversations about disability and building intimacy between the disabled community and nondisabled people. Yu added, "Silence is an answer and contributes to a culture of ableism." With a "fervent desire" to show the world how magical the disability community is, Yu hopes to create spaces where disabled people can feel comfortable being unapologetically themselves, encourage more representation of the disabled community in the media, and embolden people to not remain silent about potential discomforts surrounding the topic of disability.

Among the many messages Yu hopes to impart to her followers is the idea that ending discrimination begins with self-reflection. By hiring more disabled people and following more people from the disability community, allies can contribute to the often neglected yet necessary integration of disability culture into society. So step outside of your comfort zone and take a critical look at your FYP, your Instagram dashboard, and your Twitter feed, and make an active effort to follow more disabled people. "If all you're seeing is your own views reflected back at you, then you're not growing," she said.

Most recently, Yu has announced plans to endow a Disability Empowerment Fund at her alma mater, Georgetown University. With plans to match up to $50,000, Yu hopes to see the fund used to support a disability cultural center, disability clubs, scholarships, fellowships, and more. "I literally got so many messages that I didn't matter growing up," she said. "And I actually started Diversability at Georgetown, which is also why it has a special place in my heart."

Through her work with Diversability, Yu — who was the 2015 recipient of the Belle Greve Award from the National Rehabilitation Association — hopes to give people the courage to tell their stories on their own terms, to show that disability is varied, and to provide more opportunities for members of the disability community across all areas of life. "What gives me hope for the future is that we will not stall on the progress that we've made in terms of moving the conversation around diversity, equity, inclusion, liberation, and intersectionality forward," she said. "We will continue to deepen our understanding of intersectionality and what it means to really live in a more equitable world . . . I think many disabled people may never get to that second story of wanting to take ownership and identity in [disability], but for me, I just feel so liberated to finally be able to be myself."

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