Alumna Tiffany Yu (B’10) on Reframing Disability as an Identity of Pride
“What if we look at disability as identity, as part of the fabric of who we are, that can be rooted in pride and empowerment?”
Tiffany Yu (B’10) is flipping the script on how the world views disabilities through her company, Diversability – an award-winning movement designed to elevate disability pride, foster community, and create a sense of belonging.
Diversability was born from Yu’s personal experiences as a disabled person. At age nine, she was involved in a car accident that changed the trajectory of her life. She was permanently paralyzed in one of her arms. This accident also took the life of her father.
While navigating the grief and pain of the accident, Yu returned to school and quickly began to experience a new side effect of her disability – “chronic” isolation, shifted mindsets from her peers, and assumptions about her own capabilities.
Then, over time, she started to believe them.
“I think for many years after the accident, I pretty much just felt a lot of shame and didn’t really talk about it,” said Yu. “The frequent isolation and exclusion that comes with a disability can have lasting impacts on how people feel they can contribute to society.”
It wasn’t until Yu was a senior at Georgetown that she felt a sense of identity with her own disability.
“I interned at Goldman Sachs, and while I was there, I was introduced to their Disability Employee Resource Group. I really thought about the power that happens in community to unlearn shame and to also realize that you are not alone in your experience,” she said. “It made me realize how low the expectations are for many of us who do have disabilities around what we think we can and can’t achieve.”
After recognizing a lack of disability peer groups and resources at Georgetown, her experience at Goldman Sachs inspired her to create a club centered around disability identity and celebrating disability culture.
“We applied to ReImagine Georgetown for a grant to develop a club, and we ended up receiving a $500 grant. It was not only the money but a bode of confidence in this idea that I had really helped get it started,” said Yu.
The club – Diversability – became the foundation for her future company. But it wasn’t until several years later, after she transitioned from her full-time role in investment banking, that she realized her campus club could become a fully formed business.
“Diversability started out as a campus club in 2009, and then I went to do my full-time job in investment banking. Come 2014, I had transitioned out of working in corporate spaces to a corporate development position at a startup. But the startup didn’t have a disability employee resource group like previous employers had.
“So I started to think more seriously about what it would look like to create a disability ’employee resource group’ that lives outside of a company. What would a version of this look like for young professionals like me who are working at companies – not at the large corporate companies that already have the resources in place – but for the smaller organizations that don’t have pre-established communities?”
After consulting with other female founders and pulling from her own successes founding a club at Georgetown, Yu incorporated Diversability in 2015.
She sold out her first event. And then another. And then another. Soon, Diversability was welcoming thousands of members and followers into a diverse, disability-centered community.
“Today, we’re an ecosystem of about 60,000 in a community that spans eight cities and over 100 events,” said Yu. “We are a community for disabled people and non-disabled allies who support us. And we’re bringing to light and usualizing a conversation that people had been too uncomfortable to talk about.”
Usualizing disabilities and sharing their unique experiences is the future of Diversability, according to Yu. The founder discovered an “accidental business model” after one of the Diversability events in New York City.
“Someone from the NYC Public Library reached out after one of our events and said, ‘Hey Tiffany I’ve been seeing these events you’ve been hosting for Diversability. We’d be interested in having you curate a panel of speakers that we’re willing to pay for a librarian staff awareness training around people who have different disabilities and their experiences in the library.’ And that’s when I realized that our lived experience was valuable.”
Yu is now exploring new opportunities to monetize the Diversability community, sourcing speaking engagements for various companies and organizations that seek diverse and disabled perspectives.
“I want to challenge the notion that disability is charity. Part of why we’re called Diversability is because we wanted to highlight that disability is diverse and we were able to show that through who we were able to curate for these speaking engagements. We also wanted to show that disability in itself is an aspect of diversity.”
Yu also is helping to advance disability initiatives at Georgetown. Through a generous seed gift from Yu and a crowdfunding effort from the community, the university will establish the Disability Empowerment Endowment Fund in 2023.
“This fund represents disability empowerment, which to me means access to education for disabled folks, celebrating disability culture, forums to discuss disability identity, growing disability studies and dismantling ableism, together,” said Yu in a Georgetown College article announcing the fund.
To support disability initiatives on campus and make a gift to the Disability Empowerment Endowed Fund, visit https://give.georgetown.edu/DisabilityEmpowerment