This story is part of the “90 for All” series, which examines the challenges facing traditionally underserved students, particularly low-income and homeless students, English learners, students of color, and students with disabilities.
When Tiffany Yu was only 9 years old, she was in a car accident that changed her life in two inalterable ways. First, Yu suffered severe nerve damage that limits the use of her right arm to this day, a condition called brachial plexus palsy.
Second, she lost her father.
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving in 1997, and Yu had expected to return to school the following Monday. Instead, she spent three weeks in the hospital and months in a wheelchair.
When she finally returned to the classroom, she struggled to readjust to academic life while simultaneously dealing with the loss of her father and, as she puts it in the video below, her new identity as a person with a disability.
Yu shared her story at the Recommit to Kids Summit, an event that marked the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and called the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth. She went on to describe how her disability left her feeling alone and isolated.
“I wore long sleeves all the time, and if you asked me about my arm, I’d just start crying,” she said. “I didn’t give you the opportunity to get to know me and get to know my story.”
Today, Yu works as an advocate for young people with disabilities through Diversability, an organization she created to rebrand disability, the importance of which she focused on in her speech.
“I started to notice that people were pretty uncomfortable with disability. And as a result, they were uncomfortable with me,” she said.
“As I thought about it a little bit more, I realized that the fear was really around the language we use when we talk about disability. We’re so afraid of saying something offensive that we end up saying nothing at all. So something that was so core to my identity that I thought about every single day, no one was talking about, and no one was acknowledging.”
Yu added that the assumptions people make are particularly limiting.
“When I think about what the real issue is in the disability space, I think it’s rooted in assumptions—assumptions that kids with disabilities can’t achieve and can’t dream,” she said. “And because of that, we’re not even given the chance to succeed.”
“It starts at an early age,” she continued. “It starts with how our parents and adults treat us, it starts with how parents and adults are educating their children and bringing that into the classroom.”
Yu said this can have a long-lasting detrimental impact. “It can mean me feeling like a burden for the past 20 years, which is one of the most dangerous things a person can ever feel. And it can mean feeling like I have to ask for permission just to show up.”
Yu ended her speech by focusing on the meaning and importance of empowerment.
“Empowerment can come in a lot of different ways,” she said, such as “feeling like you have people who are rooting for you and who support you, and challenge you, and lift you up.”
“Fundamentally, all of us as humans just want to be seen, and we want to be heard, and we want to be valued. And so I want to pick each and every one of you…to commit to empowering our youth to recommit to themselves.”
Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.
Join the GradNation Learning Community To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to Krista O’Connell with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.
The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below: