Start Your Own Website

Without a doubt, the most common question I’m asked about Words I Wheel By is “how did you get started?” I think there’s a common misconception that starting a blog or creating a website is a difficult process, but it doesn’t have to be! If you want to share your words and your passions, I’m 100% behind you. Here’s the path I followed:

I started out by making a free WordPress.com blog: emilyladau.wordpress.com. This is a great option for beginners, because you can decide if blogging is something you’d like to do long-term before making a financial investment. Plus, doing it this way, you won’t have to worry about coding, designs, or any major maintenance on the back-end of your site.

Red arrow points to free tier of WordPress.com service

Once I realized I was serious about maintaining a website to publish my writing, I decided to buy a domain name (in my case, the URL wordsiwheelby.com). If you have a domain name in mind, I recommend buying it now, even if you’re not ready to use it. The internet moves fast, and someone else could snap up your great URL idea if they haven’t already. Most domain names are pretty inexpensive. I pay just over $10 a year for mine. And be sure to use a reputable company! I use Namecheap.

Domain Name Search. Text in search box reads "YourSuperCoolOriginalDomainHere.com"

In order to use my domain name, I needed to invest in hosting. In simple terms: using a free platform like WordPress.com means they host your site for you on their servers and handle all the technical aspects of setting it up, so they control all the files that make up your site. When you purchase hosting, you have control over your website.

In the interest of saving money, I jumped on a deal with a hosting platform I’d never heard of without doing any research about self-hosting or which companies are legitimate. DO NOT DO THIS! I only ended up wasting money, along with lots and lots of time dealing with nearly non-existent “customer service.”

But I get that it’s sensible to avoid spending too much when you’re just starting out. The good news is that there are plenty of very reputable hosting services that won’t require you to empty your bank account. Luckily, I realized I should start using a better service relatively early on in my hosting adventures.

Finally, I registered with a web hosting company.

I still wanted to use WordPress so I could transfer over the posts I’d already written. I chose a host that allowed me to do that. There was definitely a learning curve for site management, but it’s up to you how much work you want to put in to set-up and design. You can edit, tweak, and customize your website to your heart’s content!

Since then, I’ve kept right on writing. And now, it’s your turn to get started.

Want to get in touch with your artsy side? One of the fun parts of having a website is being able to design your own graphics to accompany posts and pages, which you can do whether you’ve got a free site or you self-host. For making custom graphics, I use PicMonkey or Canva – not as intense as Photoshop, but still offers lots of ways to get creative.

Disclaimers: Keep in mind, I’m not a professional web designer or developer. These are the steps that successfully worked for me, and I hope this answers some of your questions on how to start your own website.

Is the Restroom Accessible? That’s Up in the Air

A background image of blue, red, and white mini wooden airplanes. The text reads "Is the restroom accessible? That's up in the air."

When you’re getting ready to go on a flight, what’s on your last-minute to-do list? Mine looks a little something like this:

  • Make sure I packed enough underwear
  • Charge my Kindle
  • Start limiting the amount of liquid I drink

Does that last one seem a little strange to you? Well, for wheelchair users who are unable to get up and walk (like yours truly), limiting what we drink before flight is often the norm, because there’s simply no way for us to access the restrooms aboard a plane.

But bathrooms are something most people take for granted, and so they drink to their hearts’ content before and during a fight. Most people simply can’t imagine not having access to a place to relieve themselves wherever they go. And for that reason, I’m not all that surprised by a report that a Delta flight from New York City to Seattle had to go hundreds of miles out of its way to make an emergency pit stop just because the plane’s toilets were broken and people had to go right now.

Let me tell you something: I just took a flight from New York City to Seattle a few months ago. Heck, I’ve flown from New York City to Israel. And you know what I had to do on those flights, and every other flight I’ve ever been on? Hold it. I’ve gone without peeing for upwards of 14 hours so I could travel.

On the flights where I’ve found myself needing to use the restroom in spite of my valiant efforts to avoid drinking anything, the only solution was to meditate and deal with it. Seriously. No way would a pilot divert a flight because I needed to “find relief of built-up pressures.”

Once, during a flight home from Minneapolis, I had the misfortune of experiencing motion sickness. Fair warning: what I’m about to say may not be fun to read if you’re easily made to feel queasy.

I asked the flight attendant for a motion sickness bag, but she didn’t take my request seriously and took her sweet time getting it. Since I couldn’t get up to go to the restroom, I got sick all over myself. And then, you know what happened? My dignity took a nosedive and I had to change out of my vomit covered clothes in the middle of the airplane while the flight attendant who didn’t get me the paper bag in time held up a blanket to try to give me a modicum of privacy.

Why am I telling you all this? To highlight what it’s like to be disabled in a world designed by people who don’t take you into account.

I spend my life (not an exaggeration) strategizing every move, big or small. From researching if I’ll be able to get into the new restaurant a friend suggests for dinner, to deciding if I should stay on a long sidewalk in the hopes there’s a curb cut at the other end, to figuring out when I’ll next be near a restroom I can actually use­­––everything requires planning.

Of course, it’s possible that people on the Delta flight had other types of disabilities, chronic conditions, or age-related bladder or bowel issues, so yes, I get why the plane landed, but the world sure doesn’t accommodate me with emergency landings.

But there are laws to make things accessible, you might say. True. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed over 27 years ago to prohibit discrimination and provide access for disabled people in all areas of public life, but even with amendments to update the law, inaccessibility is still everywhere. The Air Carrier Access Act (which significantly fewer people know exists, including, seemingly, airline personnel) was passed nearly 32 years ago, with the intent of ensuring the disability community has access to air travel. Yet, though it’s since been amended, the law still allows for aircraft with only one aisle to have inaccessible restrooms. These types of planes, known as narrow-body planes, are used by commercial airlines pretty darn frequently.

Even so, I need to travel for work. I have to go places in order to go about my day. I have the right to be an active member of my community.

I could wrap up with a broad, sweeping call to action to improve upon accessibility everywhere, from storefronts to airplanes, but I believe this kind of change won’t happen without recognition of just how easy it is to take access for granted.

I admit that I roll my eyes when people who break their leg or have surgery that temporarily impacts their mobility tell me they “get” what I “go through” every day, but there’s still a lesson to be learned from these comments: the ability to access wherever you please doesn’t matter to people, until one day it does. Anyone can become disabled at any time.

That may sound intimidating, but think about it: if you became disabled tomorrow, wouldn’t you want to live in a world where you had access to basic things like restrooms anywhere you go? People don’t think about the possibility of not being able to use the restroom until access to this basic need is taken away from them, just like the situation on the Delta flight.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. Full bladders should not inhibit full participation in society for the disability community.

“There’s No Room For You Here.” – On Encountering Discrimination

I have a little tradition to search for handmade jewelry when I travel, usually rings or earrings. It’s my favorite way to bring home a piece of where I’ve been. Since I just visited New Mexico for the first time to join my family in celebrating my cousin’s wedding, I was especially excited to see what I’d find because I love southwestern jewelry designs. My mom (who also uses a wheelchair), my dad, and I ventured to Old Town in Albuquerque one afternoon to look around and when we reached the first shop, Native Gallery, I was immediately drawn to rows of earrings and beautiful pottery.

Not even 10 seconds after entering the shop, I gravitated toward some rainbow bowls in the front of the store and was already contemplating buying one when the shopkeeper came over to my family and said “there’s no room for you here.”

Mind you, the aisles were a bit narrow but I have the depth perception to know my wheelchair would fit through and the common sense not to drive like a wild woman through a store full of valuable breakables. There was undeniably room for us. So, I began to explain that we were fine and would be very careful, but the shopkeeper again insisted there was “no room” for us and demanded we leave.

My dad, who was standing up and is obviously taller than me, could plainly see the shopkeeper was lying about the lack of space. In fact, aside from the one couple he was ringing up, there wasn’t a single other customer in the store. There was plenty of room. Based on the look of horror on the shopkeeper’s face when he saw two wheelchair users roll through the entrance, the urgency with which he jumped up to ask us to leave, and his persistent arguing that we couldn’t stay, it was clear he just didn’t want us to patronize his shop, or assumed we’d cause damage, and so he thought it best to kick us out rather than finding a way to accommodate us.

I sort of get it, maybe. Power wheelchairs in a store full of fragile pottery are risky and the shopkeeper wanted to protect his goods, but the reality is that anyone could accidentally break something. At the very least, he could’ve offered to bring some pieces to the front for us. But no matter how many times we pointed out that turning disabled people away from your public business is discriminatory and illegal, the shopkeeper ultimately forced us away.

I just wanted to buy a ring. I wanted a taste of what New Mexico has to offer. I wanted to enjoy the late afternoon sun and the colorful boutiques with my parents. I love exploring new places. Yet it seems every time I try to embrace my independence like any other human being, someone stops me in my tracks and reminds me that disabled people are still not fully welcome in this world we inhabit.

In most cases, it’s structural barriers that prove unwelcoming. Steps and narrow entryways are warning signs to stay away. Because of this, I’m generally inclined to give my business to places where the architecture isn’t keeping me out. Of course, there are plenty of instances where I take one look at a place and can tell there’s no way I will actually be able to navigate safely or easily. But I have learned to make my way around in environments not designed with accessibility in mind. I have learned how to weave through curves and make sharp turns, how to roll forward at just the right angle and slip through tight spaces. Within the realms of accessibility, where I go is my decision to make.

And so, even as the sting of this encounter flowed through me, I was still determined to find a ring. We went to a shop around the block called de Colores Galleria. There, the owner was lovely, accommodating my mom and I as we narrowed down our jewelry options, never making us feel as though we were unwelcome or in the way.

While she helped us, my mom shared with the woman behind the jewelry counter what had happened at the other shop. The woman was mortified, apologizing on behalf of Old Town. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “That’s not good for Old Town. And that’s not good for you.” We appreciated that, and thanked her profusely for her hospitality before we left.

My mom and I felt compelled to thank the second shopkeeper because her kindness was such a refreshing change from our first encounter. That said, we were essentially thanking this woman for treating us like people. It’s a painful reality of my existence that I find myself expressing gratitude when people communicate with me in such a way that shows they see me as deserving of equality and respect.

As I sat down to recount this shopping debacle in writing, my stomach tightened at the thought that issues such as this – the ones I so desperately wish to see eliminated – are the ones on which I’ve built a platform and a career. The frequency with which I experience and write about ableism has become a twisted form of job security, because deep down I know I will never run out of stories to share. And yet, what I would give for an end to the writing fodder, as it would mean a world finally without encountering discrimination.

I am tired of the days when simple moments of enjoying life are shattered by someone else’s lack of understanding and acceptance. I am a tireless activist, but I am still tired.

I kept the ring that I picked from the second shop on my finger as I wrote this. It now has a place as one of the most bittersweet pieces in my collection, but I treasure it. I will wear it with joy not only because it is a reminder to keep up the fight even when I feel defeated, but also because of the other memories it holds: eating raspberries straight from the bush in my family’s backyard, the hazy mountain view surrounding us, twirling around the dance floor with my dad at my cousin’s wedding, peering out of a tram with my family as it reached 10,378 feet, and – most beautiful of all – being with people I love, who love me, and who welcome and accept me as I am.

A Letter to My Younger Self in Honor of International Women’s Day

Dear Me, A Letter to My Younger Self in Honor of International Women's Day. Love, Me. - Words I Wheel By

Shortly after my first love and I broke up in 2013, I wrote a letter to my younger self. At the time, I intended to bury it away somewhere to be forgotten, as it was just meant to be a private way to help myself heal. But every couple months or so, I’ve found myself pulling up the letter again on my computer, reading it over, adding to it, finding comfort in it.

In 2015, I learned about #DearMe, an empowerment campaign in honor of International Women’s Day that encouraged women to write a letter with advice to they needed to hear when they were younger. So, I pulled my letter out of hiding and put it out into the world. Now that International Women’s Day has come around in 2016, I feel it’s time to dust off my letter once again.

This letter will never be finished. Each year, as I grow older, I plan to read and reread, write and rewrite, hopefully building on what I want 15-year-old Emily to know. And while this letter is deeply personal to me, and I’m specifically sharing it for International Women’s Day, it is my hope that no matter what age you may be or how you identify, these words will resonate with you, reminding you that you are always enough and never alone.


Dear Me (15-year-old Emily),

I know how your eyes scan the room every time you go somewhere new, wondering if today will be the day your gaze settles upon a guy who just might accept you for who you are. I know how you lay awake at night envisioning what the future might be like, if only a guy could accept your disabled body. I know how you think that day will never come.

But the day will come when someone will accept you. He will tell you that you are the most beautiful girl in the world. He will tell you that you can trust him. He will tell you he loves you.

And he will be a wheelchair user too. I know that’s not an option you’ve been considering, but I promise when you open your mind to him, you will feel like he can relate to you in ways no one has ever understood you before.

Then he will leave you. He will break your heart and break your trust instead of breaking your fall. And it will hurt in ways you never imagined.

Don’t let him be the source of your self-worth. For that matter, don’t let anyone be the source of your self-worth. You’ll face rejection for being disabled and you’ll face rejection for being the girl you are. When you’re met with discrimination or a lack of acceptance, don’t just sit there and take it.

Learn to love yourself for all that you are. Gain strength that will be there to keep you going even when life shoots you down. That cannot come from outside you. It will only come from within.

I know these sound like words in the self-help books that made you roll your eyes and laugh as you pulled them from bookstore shelves. Quit laughing and start listening. It will save you a lot of pain in the years down the road.

Please, don’t give any of yourself away before you accept yourself. Learn to embrace your disability as another part of what makes you, you. Learn that just because you’ve got a body with scars and curves and a wheelchair attached to your butt, does not mean you’re not beautiful just as you are – your brain, your body, every part of you.

I won’t lie to you: Life as a disabled woman will continue challenging you to the core at times. Know that even in the hardest moments, you have so much to offer the world. Stop doubting yourself. More importantly, stop believing that you will only be validated and whole when someone looks at you with romance in his eyes.

Remember the pain of heartbreak is an experience not limited to the disabled world, nor is the joy of reaching your dreams. If there’s a day, a week, or a month when it feels like you just don’t fit and nothing is right and everything is wrong, know that you are far from alone in this world.

Focus on finding joy in who you are, on finding your way to a career path that will both fulfill your dreams and give you the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. Remember how capable you are, no matter what message society may send. When it feels like you’ve been left out of nondisabled life, never forget that your life is no less valid.

I promise write to you again in a few years as I work to gain self-worth, self-acceptance, and pride in being a disabled woman that I wish you’d fight harder for now. But in the mean time, hang in there. You’re going to become stronger than you thought possible, and you’re going to be alright.

Love you always,
24-year-old Emily

The Mighty Question: Who Should Speak for the Disability Community?

If you’re a somewhat active Facebook user, I’d venture a guess that you’ve seen at least one article from a website called The Mighty in your newsfeed. With frequent click-bait headlines (recent example: “When Gym-Goers Said Inviting a Dwarf to a Party Would Be ‘Hilarious’”) and a steady stream of posts intended to play to emotional sides, The Mighty has become one of the most popular websites focused solely on disability and disease to make an impression on mainstream social media users. Unfortunately, there’s controversy flaring up around The Mighty right now that I just can’t ignore.

The Controversy

You can read about what sparked the firestorm in more detail if you’d like, but here’s the crux of the issue: The perspectives of contributors to the site are often at odds, largely due to an “us vs. them” mentality held by non-disabled parents of disabled children and the disability community. Many non-disabled parents use the Internet as a public forum to express their thoughts on disabilities and their experiences in relation to raising their children. Many disabled people (myself included) would like non-disabled parents to use more discretion regarding what they share. We would like the voices and viewpoints of non-disabled parents to not overshadow those of people who live every day in a disabled body. This is not applicable to all parent writers, as many truly take the time to listen to what the disability community has to say, actively connecting with and being part of the community. Other parents, however, feel that disabled activists are really just trying to censor or silence them.

Really, this is a tired tale that debate over The Mighty happens to have revived. Take, as just one example, what I wrote last year for the Huffington Post about the parents who didn’t see anything problematic with publicizing a photo of their 16-year-old disabled son wearing nothing but a diaper in a story for NPR. These parents wanted to share their stories as caregivers, and they were well-meaning, but there were so many other ways they could have addressed how they care for their son. They still could have provided an honest look at their lives while also respecting their son’s dignity.

This type of oversharing never sits well with me, but it doesn’t mean I believe parents don’t have a right to share their experiences. And if The Mighty wants to provide a platform for that, great. The problem, though, is that The Mighty constantly tries to be all things to all people, and it’s difficult to find a middle ground between the debaters. The Mighty has the potential to be a vehicle to increase understanding between parent and disabled communities and among society at large, but this can’t happen effectively when there’s a constant tug-of-war between people trying to do the educating.

One article paints disabled people as inspiring for simply living their lives (known as “inspiration porn” and here’s a TED talk by Stella Young about it that you should save to watch later); the next focuses on promoting genuine insight and acceptance. Another article shares the perspective of a non-disabled parent of a disabled child; the next is a piece written by someone who actually has a disability. Is it even possible to foster a peaceful coexistence between non-disabled parents of disabled children and disabled activists, all on one platform?

The Real Question

I’ve stayed quiet about this until now. (Full disclosure: I was invited via email to speak with the editors, as were many disabled writers, when the controversy first came to a head. I took a bit to answer, but they didn’t respond to my reply to set up a call.) I think The Mighty has its merits, and there are certainly gems within the content. In 2014, I had a couple posts republished on there, excited to contribute content to a growing site with a disability focus. (I’ve since asked to have them pulled. They responded to this request right away. Go figure.) On the flip side, I find some of what they post to be harmful, and they seem to be spiraling down a black hole of not handling the current controversy well, thereby alienating a number of their contributors. But to make The Mighty the focal point detracts from a larger conversation at hand. It just happens to be the current online space to raise the question: who should speak for the disability community?

I tackled this question about two years ago, in a post for Think Inclusive. I’m firmly committed to what I wrote: “It can become problematic if parents or professionals are reluctant to relinquish their positions of authority and move to the role of advocate-allies, advocating alongside, instead of on behalf of, disabled people. Therefore, as important as it is to step up as advocates, it’s more important to know when to step down.”

We Should Be a Team. A Real One.

My parents instilled in me the value of speaking up for myself, but they’ve also been there every step of the way, handling things at various times through my life when I could not do so. They were my voice when I needed them, but they never claimed to be the experts on my experiences. They’re the experts on experiencing my life along with me. Semantics, you might say, but there’s a huge difference. Even so, I do find myself conflicted at times, because in many situations, I believe my parents – especially my mom – would have benefitted from stronger sources of community and camaraderie than what they had as I grew up.

Every time I recovered from surgery, every time I went to my parents with tears in my eyes because I’d been excluded from something because of my disability, every time I struggled to do something independently and got frustrated – my parents felt the pain, too. And of course, every time I’ve accomplished a goal or done something I didn’t believe to be possible – my parents felt the pride, too. My life deeply affects and intertwines with my parents at every turn. The role they played, and continue to play, in my life is something I value above all else. We always have been, and always will be, the Three Musketeers.

Like any child, though, as I got older, the situations I found myself in were often ones I wanted to keep to myself. Even when my parents needed an outlet, this is something they understood and respected. It’s also something that should be common sense. No child, disabled or not, deserves to have details of their lives plastered on the Internet by their caregivers. I believe it comes down to this: parents have a right to share, and children have a right to privacy. Can’t we meet in the middle?!

I don’t think it’s productive or necessary to ask parents to back down completely and stop sharing their experiences. I don’t want to alienate the parent community, just as I don’t want to feel alienated as someone who is disabled. But I can’t defend or support oversharing, overbearing parents. This doesn’t mean I’m asking anyone to censor the realities of disability, or that I’m denying the validity and importance of the caregiving experience. I’m asking for everyone to hear what disabled people are saying. Hear us if we ask you to consider how the ways you convey stories about disability may be hurtful or harmful. Hear us when we say that we want you to speak with us, not for us. Voicing your experiences cannot, and should not ever, be at the expense of the perspectives of the disability community, or the dignity of your child. We should all be in this together.

What I Want Future Teachers to Know About Students with Disabilities

One of my favorite things about writing on disability is that it ignites conversations and sparks perspective shifts (both mine and others). Recently, I got an email from someone I connected with at a conference, and her questions got my wheels turning.

The email read:

“Since we met last year at the AUCD conference, I have completed my PhD and landed my first assistant professor job. I am writing because I would like your input on how to address vocabulary with my students. I am a certified ‘special’ education teacher. Textbooks for my courses have either ‘special’ or ‘exceptional’ in the titles. The laws and legislation include the same vocabulary. From your perspective, how can I address the ‘special’ vocabulary? What are the three (or more) main concepts/ideas/philosophies you want preservice teachers to know? What advice do you have for me as I prepare future educators? Thank you, Emily. I look forward to hearing from you.”

Tackling Terminology

“Special, “exceptional,” and other sugar-coated words like this are all too common in professional, legal, and academic settings. They’re euphemistic, a way to avoid mention of disability, because disability is far too often perceived as a dirty word.

From my perspective, every child has unique needs in the classroom. And yet, students with disabilities are still differentiated and given labels for requiring certain adaptations or accommodations. The “special” students have extended time to take tests. The “exceptional” students must take adapted physical education. But doesn’t each student have different learning styles and different ways of getting things done? True, not all students have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan. But just because the means may be different from a typical student, the end is the same. The test is done. The class is completed.

Moreover, in spite of attempts to avoid calling attention to disability, “special education” has taken on negative social connotations of its own. Unfortunately, though, there is no universally accepted alternative term. I’d suggest “adaptive education” as another option, because it has the most accurate definition: education that is modified to be suitable.

But since “special education” is the term we’ve got to work with, I feel it’s less critical to focus on a language shift, and more important to encourage a mentality shift. Educators should always remember that students who require various forms of special education are equal to all other students. A phrase does not define a whole person.

What Should Future Teachers Know?

Students in special education programs are going to grow up. I know this sounds obvious to the point of almost being silly, but “special” can follow people throughout their lives. Students who have diverse academic needs still deserve to receive an education that both brings them to and meets their fullest potential.

Second, the best kind of education is inclusive education. I’m not entirely denouncing programs that are targeted for students with disabilities, but all students deserve the same opportunities. Segregating students with disabilities from their peers sends the message that differences are bad, and that separation is the norm, and this is an incredibly harmful line of thinking to promote.

Of course, in inclusive classrooms, differences between students of all abilities will be evident from time to time. In cases like these, I cannot stress enough the third thing I hope teachers will heed: please, please do not tokenize students or call them out in front of everyone. I can’t tell you how many times teachers called unwanted attention to my disability in unnecessary ways, all the way from kindergarten through college. For instance, teachers would say things like “Everyone stand up, but you don’t have to, Emily.” Everyone knew I use a wheelchair and it was obvious I couldn’t stand up, so why point it out? The best bet is to plan ahead to make an activity work for all of your students. That way, it will run smoothly and you’ll avoid encountering accessibility obstacles.

Ways to Educate Educators-in-Training

All teachers start somewhere when it comes to learning about how to accommodate students with disabilities in the classroom. Those who educate future educators are in an incredible position to break the chain of discrimination and inequality, bringing acceptance of disability to all areas of society. I believe the key to ensuring that teachers are prepared is to expose them to an extensive variety of viewpoints on disability. Sure, there are standard textbooks geared specifically towards “special education,” but I strongly urge going beyond them. Read pieces reflecting on educational experiences written by people who are actually disabled. Explain that there are multiple ways that the disability community chooses to identify themselves. Better yet, invite actual disabled people into your class to speak with future teachers and give insight into their experiences! (I’m available for speaking engagements!)

Taking all of this into account, here’s the most important piece of wisdom you can impart to future teachers is: if you’ve taught one student with a disability, then you’ve taught one student with a disability. All of the training, all of the textbooks, and all of the guest speakers in the world cannot ever encompass the full range of the disability experience, or the experience of teaching someone disabled. And this may sound intimidating. But when you really think about it, what this means is quite simple. Disabled students should be treated and taught like all other students, each who have their own personality, styles of learning, and strengths and weaknesses.

It comes down to this: All students are individuals. All students have differences. All students are human.

>