With the subtitle of “What to Know, What to Say, and How to be an Ally”, Emily Ladau’s book Demystifying Disability delivers on its promises.
Ladau is a communications consultant for disability-related organisations as well as the digital content and community manager for the Disability and Philanthropy Forum. She is passionate about disability rights and social justice, and this is her first book.
It is described on the back cover as an approachable guide to being an ally and making the world a more accessible, inclusive place.
I live with ME, a chronic autoimmune illness and an invisible disability, so I tire quickly when concentrating on a book for a while. But this book is written in easy-to-digest chapters with clear print and zero jargon and I read it in two sessions – very unusual for me. It is also available as an e-book.
The author offers a supportive experience, so readers can focus on learning rather than feeling shame or guilt. Ladau’s humour shines through, too. In fact, it feels as if a friend is talking to you.
Readers are offered an important – if challenging – opportunity to address life-long assumptions and biases. Many of the points that Ladau covers resonated with me from an anti-racism perspective. However, I would never use that as a reason not to educate myself about other areas of diversity and inclusion.
The process of confronting your own biases and addressing society’s so-called norms is relevant to everyone in any job role. As the book is so practical and accessible, I would recommend it to anyone as part of professional and personal development.
Although the book is a straightforward look at disability, ableism and allyship, it is a journey that at moments can be distressing. For instance, Ladau drives home the huge damage caused by ableism with examples of horrifying behaviour and attitudes among non-disabled people.
Intersectionality is also given attention. The account of a Black, queer, physically disabled man was not surprising from a racism point of view.
But I was disturbed at Ladau’s account of how white people often assume doctoral student D’Arcee Neal is disabled because he was shot – assuming he was involved in criminality – when actually he is in a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy. Would they draw this conclusion if Neal was a white, blonde woman? I think we all know the answer.
I realised that my role in reading the book was to reflect and figure out how to be an ally and anti-racism activist without speaking for global majority disabled people. Although I can talk confidently about being a woman of colour with a chronic illness, this is only one of countless intersections.
Having spoken with white friends and colleagues about the need to “sit in discomfort” while being kind to yourself when working more inclusively, I was happy that Ladau mentions the value of self-compassion and forgiving yourself for mistakes.
To aid learning, Ladau provides guidance on how to handle saying the wrong thing, apologising and preventing a repeat incident.
The book’s “how to” approach makes for a useful reference book, helpful for curation, community engagement, marketing and PR, people management, historic research, and so on.
I have no criticisms of Ladau’s book – I have a better understanding of how to behave and the shape of genuine allyship.
Once you have read this book, I recommend that museum staff have specialist training to help embed the learning into their roles.
Elma Glasgow is an inclusive communications and engagement consultant and founder of Aspire Black Suffolk