Neurodiversity in the Legal Profession: Demystifying Disability with Author Emily Ladau

By Melissa Berry, Rachael Bosch, and Robin Thorner
NALP Bulletin+
July/August 2023

NALP's Neurodiversity in the Legal Profession Task Force was honored to host internationally recognized disability activist and writer Emily Ladau, in a webinar on March 9, 2023, for a conversation about her life and her book Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally (Ten Speed Press, 2021). Since appearing on Sesame Street at age 10, Emily has used the power of storytelling about her lived experience with a physical disability to engage people in learning about disabilities and allyship.

Here are some of our takeaways from the conversation with Emily for thinking, talking, and asking about disability:

Be Mindful of Language (Just Say It)

We're socialized to be uncomfortable with the word disability. Don't shy away from using the word disabled. Just say it and avoid well-meaning but flat substitutes like "differently-abled."

  • Words can Hurt: Make a conscious effort to remove ableist language and phrases related to disability or diagnoses from our vocabulary. Phrases used casually, like "insane," "OCD," and "paralyzed," should be avoided. Using language this way is harmful and offensive. Instead, substitute words unrelated to disability, like "frozen" rather than "paralyzed."

  • Person-first v. Identity-first: Everyone with a disability has a preference about how to describe and define themselves. Person-first language does just that: it puts the person before the disability. For example, a "person with autism." Identity-first language, which Emily prefers, is about acknowledging disability as part of the person's identity, such as "Autistic person." The capital A indicates a connection to a broader community. While neither of these options is universally accepted across all disabled communities, within the Autistic community, there is a preference for identity-first language. If you’re not sure which approach someone prefers, just ask.

  • Apparent and Nonapparent Disabilities (Don’t Assume): The age-old advice applies when identifying disability: Don't make assumptions about a person's disability status based solely on their appearance. Apparent — or visible — disabilities are those noticeable to other people based on appearance or communication. Nonapparent disabilities are not typically noticeable by looking at someone or communicating with them, such as neurodiversity or physical disabilities like autoimmune conditions. Using apparent/nonapparent language is more inclusive than visible/invisible because it recognizes other ways to notice disability beyond vision and avoids further marginalizing disabled individuals. When discussing disability, intersectionality is a critical component of the conversation. When aspects of disability intersect with other historically marginalized identities, the outcome can make a person feel like they don’t belong or are invisible in society. Disability is a part of the whole person; they are not hiding it, and it is not invisible to them. It is simply not apparent to you.

Disclosure Is a Personal Choice (For Them to Make)

We all want to support our students' and lawyers' professional development, but this becomes more complex and challenging when they may have a disability that isn't apparent. What if they either haven't disclosed their disability or have disclosed it confidentially? In her comments, Emily stressed that disclosure "is a deeply personal choice, and every person is on a different journey when it comes to opening up about their experiences." We need to "flip the script on assumptions we make" about whether someone has a disability, and support each of our students and lawyers by recognizing they are individuals with unique needs. By understanding disability as part of a whole person, we "foster an overarching inclusive culture that creates an environment where students [and lawyers] feel they can show up as their whole selves. Instilling the message in students that they are welcome exactly as they are is something they'll carry forward with them throughout their careers."

Inspiration Porn (and Its Cousin, Pity Porn)

It caught our attention too. The term "inspiration porn" was popularized by Stella Young, a disability activist who used it to describe the concept of how the media objectifies disabled people and their "inspirational" stories to make the readers/viewers feel good. This is disrespectful because it stems from the ableist belief that disabled people only achieve despite their disabilities. Emily abhors this worldview because "[W]e, like all other people, disabled or not, are both capable and fallible, with many rocky layers in between."

"Pity porn" has similar roots and portrays disability as a tragedy. Autistic Activist Jim Sinclair expressed in an essay entitled "Don't Mourn for Us." He wrote, "The tragedy is not that we're here, but that your world has no place for us to be." (Demystifying Disability at 66). When you see an inspirational story, ask yourself why it inspired you. Is it a positive representation of disability that humanizes disabled people? If not, change the channel.

Be a Better Ally (or Nothing for Us Without Us)

Examine how you can be a better ally through everyday actions, like the example above of shifting our language and removing ableist words from our vocabulary. If you're in a position of privilege, pass the microphone to ensure that you are amplifying the perspective of disabled people. The slogan "nothing for us without us" in the disability community is a reminder to allies, in Emily's words, to "[a]dvocate alongside us, rather than on our behalf. Stand (or sit!) in solidarity with us, rather than moving ahead of us." (Demystifying Disability at 144). Most importantly, keep learning.

Further Resources

NALP Member Webinar, held March 9, 2023: Emily Ladau, Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally.

The Accessible Stall: a podcast about disability issues hosted by Emily Ladau.

Rooted in Rights Blog: a platform dedicated to amplifying authentic narratives of the intersectional disability experience.

Melissa Berry ( is Director of Attorney Development at Perkins Coie LLP
Robin Thorner ( is the Assistant Dean of Career Strategy at St. Mary’s University School of Law.
Rachael Bosch ( is the CEO and Founder of Fringe Professional Development.

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