Cover of book titled Demystifying Disability. Cover includes tiny images of disabled people of all shapes, sizes, colors and genders.Emily Ladau’s excellent book on disability is both a treat to read and a primer on all things disability. Ladau manages to be entertaining, informative and funny about a topic she naturally feels strongly about (she’s disabled) while challenging the reader to think beyond stereotypes, stretch the limits of their own experience and – at a bare minimum, learn Disability Etiquette 101.

And she’s brave enough to go first.

Ladau is white, educated, heterosexual and privileged. Yes, she’s also disabled. Yet, she’s aware of her many advantages and is honest enough to admit that she’s made some of the very mistakes she wants to help us avoid.

Mistakes like using ableist language or making assumptions about people based on their intellect. Mistakes like assuming others feel the same way that we do or have the same aspirations and dreams.

Indeed, the world that Ladau presents in her book is one where assumptions are challenged and limits expanded. She seems to embody what I find most exciting about disability: the way that it reframes questions we’ve long thought we knew the answers to. Ladau is fairly young (she was born in 1992) and like many people of her generation, her own assumptions are different to the ones of – say – my generation. That doesn’t automatically make her right and me wrong, but it does give us something to push against and measure ourselves by.

Speaking only for myself, I enjoy the process.

Demystifying Disability does quite a bit more than the title promises. It offers a glimpse into disability history which is fascinating and little known. While I did know that US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used a wheelchair to get around I had no idea that abolitionist icon Harriet Tubman was disabled nor that disability pensions go back as far as the 1600s when the Pilgrims of Massachusetts enacted a law pledging support for any soldier who became disabled defending the colonies. Knowing these things is important! While Ladau’s references are mostly from the US, there must be similar examples from every country in the world . . . how useful and inspiring to collect them in one big history book.

The book also details the many simple ways accommodations can be made as a matter of course and makes it clear how useful such options can be for anyone. Common sense suggestions like flexible working hours or sending a slide deck in advance of a meeting so people can process the information in advance are ideas almost anyone would appreciate. My daughter is a university professor in California. One of her students has autism and met with her at the start of term to share some accommodations that she said would be very helpful for her success in the class. My daughter assured her student that they were all things every one of her students would benefit by – they’re all now a regular part of her teaching repertoire.

Picture of comedian Stella Young smiling. Quote reads: "No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp."Ladau quotes extensively from such a wide range of disabled people (comedians, artists, educators, musicians, activists) that one feels deeply how much the world is missing by their not having a wider platform for their talents. They are funny, insightful, brilliant and important. One of my favorites is the comedian Stella Young, who died tragically young (and you can just imagine the fun she would have had with that irony) and who took on Peter Singer, the famous philosopher/euthanasia (for others) fan and all the purveyors of “disability porn” with whom she had so little patience. Never heard of disability porn? Read Emily Ladau’s book.

Really, just read the book. (It’s available in good bookstores and online.) It’s the perfect primer you didn’t know you needed. But you do. You really do.



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  • Ellen Ladau

    FULL DISCLOSURE: I am Emily Ladau’s mother. But I just have to say that this has been the most thoughtful review of her book that I have read to date. Thank you for capturing the purpose of her book so wisely!

    • Jo

      Ah, the impartial mothers! As a proud mother myself, I am thrilled to get your endorsement – and I have to say I loved the little glimpses I got of you and your husband through Emily’s fantastic book. You must both be so thrilled with all she has accomplished. Thanks so much for writing in. Jo

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