DEI+Disability | Redefining Disability with Etsy’s Beth Wiesendanger
Gain valuable insights from Beth Wiesendanger, a dynamic advocate for DEI and disability rights.
Alycia Anderson: Welcome to pushing forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.
Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.
Welcome back to Pushing Forward. I’m Alycia. So, grateful to have your time and space again today. I’m thrilled beyond thrilled about our guest. I can’t even hardly stand it. We have got Beth Weisendanger. She is the senior manager of diversity and inclusion. I want to share with you a little bit about her mission, which is so powerful. She is on a mission to ensure that people with disabilities are seen and heard and advocated for.
I love that work and relate to it… to leverage the resources and give access to people with disabilities that they might not have had it prior in the workplace. And, you can discuss that a little bit as we move into the conversation, to create opportunities and tear down cultural and systemic barriers and foster community and knowledge and success.
She identifies as a woman, as a progressive, as a community leader, as an organizer, as an activist and as a disabled woman. Yes! When we had our first conversation, Beth, I was so pumped because you are a woman and in corporate America, your entire career leading as a woman with a disability in the diversity and inclusion space.
When they say representation matters! I mean, that’s something that we say a lot in this industry, right?
But I had this real emotional moment with it. It was like when I got my first wheelchair Barbie, I was like, wow, I’m really feeling something here. And, it felt really good to meet someone like you that Is doing the same work, and has a successful career, as a disabled woman.
And, it just felt good to meet somebody in the space that looks like me.
Beth Wiesendanger: Thank you so much for having me. I feel very honored to be here. And like you said, it’s just so amazing to connect with other disabled women who are in positions of power in the corporate space. It’s relatively uncommon to see. Still, I am hopeful that’s changing, of course, but it’s just great to feel like we have community with one another. So, I’m so happy to be here, and very happy to share my story.
Alycia Anderson: Can you share a little bit about… kind of in a picture,,, of the many layers, the beautiful layers, of who you are as a person.
Beth Wiesendanger: I am a double amputee and a prosthetic user on my left side. My amputation is below the knee [on the left side] and it’s at the knee on the right side, and it’s really how I’ve been my whole life. So, when I was born, just due to the way my body was created doctors basically told my parents, “Hey, you have this beautiful, amazing, healthy baby girl. She does have a physical disability. You either have the option of, you know, having her learning to use a wheelchair her whole life, or you can choose to amputate and have her learn to live life with prosthetics.”
My parents, chose the latter, so it’s really how I’ve learned how to walk, learned how to go to school, socialize with other people, learnt to drive. All of it, has been through that lens.
So, you know, it’s interesting when people ask, like, oh, is it hard learning to drive with hand controls and all these things? I really never knew another way. This is just deeply who I am as a person. It’s the only experience that I’ve ever identified with, and it’s just such a core part of my identity.
So, I’m a disabled woman. I grew up in a small suburban town on the West Coast. I’m from California originally. I live in New York now, and while California is a very progressive place, I didn’t grow up with anyone with a physical disability. Really…[nobody] in my family, nobody really in my school and it was also the 90s when I was in elementary school.
And, growing up through those formative years…, which I’m sure is.., you know…, the 90s. They’re very like you’re only as disabled as you feel, and you can do anything you put your mind to, kind of narrative.
So, it was this interesting juxtaposition of being told that my disability didn’t define me, but also experiencing first hand that it was the first thing people noticed about me. And, it was absolutely how they defined me.
And so, I really started to want to seek out other people in the community that felt representative of who I was, and luckily, we grew up with the Internet.
I’m thankful, and grateful for that because I was able to find many virtual communities of folks very involved in disability justice that became my introduction to the world of activism and advocacy. And, through time was exposed to many intersectional communities, intersectional identities, and it really paved the way for me to do what I do.
It was a big aha moment of ah, this is what it means to feel represented, to be with my community, to realize that my identity is not something that I need to minimize about myself, but really what an empowering act to embrace myself as, not just a woman with a disability, but really a disabled woman.
Capital D! Disability, is not a bad word.
Alycia Anderson: Right!
Beth Wiesendanger: Like it was so empowering to feel that way, and it became really my life’s work to share that feeling with as many people as possible. That’s a little bit about me.
Alycia Anderson: I love that you just said disabled women lead with a capital D.
Beth Wiesendanger: It just really hits home to me to think about that disability is not a bad word narrative and I really like flexing that that muscle, so to speak, and practicing that and showing up as saying, like, I am disabled… capital D.
It’s just so important.
Alycia Anderson: We are kind of on this experiment of inclusion right? In every aspect of life… because it really is kind of been for us unchartered territory. Where advocacy is not something you choose that’s required.
Beth Wiesendanger: But, it’s interesting when we talk about again, like this community of firsts, disability, inclusion, accessibility to me is still almost like the Wild West of DEI. It’s unchartered territory, it’s untouched land and we are still, I think, in the infancy of what that work looks like across the industry.
Alycia Anderson: I totally agree, and I think it’s not only unchartered, but. It is still sometimes not chartered at all.
Beth Wiesendanger: I think, any time that we’re talking about diversity, equity and inclusion, we’re often leaving out the “A”, and the “A” to me is access.
And, I don’t even mean, from just the disability perspective, right. When you think about what DEI should be… we’re building equitable systems, we’re creating equitable access to opportunity, we’re allowing people to be their authentic selves, and allowing them to access the same resources and power as everyone else who historically have had and has had access to that power.
To me, access is such a core component of DEI, and when we talk about access, it is impossible to not think about what that means for the disabled population.
Is it a diversity issue 100% because even when you look within the disabled community, once you start adding on layers of intersectional identity. All of the systemic things that we see, increase tenfold. So, talking about disabled identity for men, for women, for women of color, right?
All of this compounds and becomes part of the work.
You know, there are not a lot of people with visible disabilities, apparent disabilities in the workforce. The vast majority of people with disabilities, because of all of the systemic issues and barriers that go into working, to even getting an education, to going to school, to getting hired, to then progressing through the levels of an organization…
Alycia Anderson: You mean that unemployment rate?
Beth Wiesendanger: For folks with disabilities, it’s like 70%, and it’s 30% for people without disabilities. So, it’s just a huge issue in terms of inequity. So yes, 1000% I think that it needs to be, should be, and needs to be a part of any DEI conversation, and I don’t think it always is right now.
Alycia Anderson: Somewhat stagnant in this fear-based place.
Beth Wiesendanger: I mean, I think the fear comes from a place of again, disability makes a lot of people uncomfortable. There’s a lot of internalized ableism that even folks with disabilities have, and its one of the myths. Again, like speaking on myths, is that people tend to think of disability as something very distant from themselves, but in reality I don’t think that’s true.
I think that 99.9% of us know, someone with a disability in our lives, we love someone with a disability, or we have one ourselves. I mean, there are so many things that classify as a disability: having a cancer diagnosis, diabetes, your diversity, like, all of the things that maybe people don’t immediately think of when they think of what does disability look like.
And so, there is this sense of disability as this thing that’s over there in this box that doesn’t affect my day-to-day, and that’s not necessarily true. And, I think when I look at inclusion work holistically across all identities and intersections of those identities there is fear to get it wrong, but just because something is uncomfortable for you to talk about does not mean it’s dangerous to talk about. And, the more that we can be brave in talking about disability and talking about race and ethnicity and religion and all of the things that we need to talk about the more that we’ll be able to progress.
And, I am hopeful. I think that it might feel like we’ve been stagnating, but if you think about the history of disabled advocacy, which really has only been since the 60s realistically, there’s been a ton of change in the last 50 years, but it is much further behind the activism we see for other groups.
Alycia Anderson: Let’s take a quick break.
Alycia Anderson: You’re listening to. Pushing Forward with Alycia. Welcome back to pushing forward. I’m Alycia. We have got Beth Weisendanger. She is the senior manager of diversity and inclusion at Etsy. To your point, I think we need to as a society look back as a society.
We all know about the civil rights movement. We all know the story of women’s suffrage. At least I think most of us. Stories of hope, and the disability rights movement is right up there with our human rights and our freedoms, and we need to understand that story. And then, couple that with like you’re saying, understanding multiple identities and how frankly all of these conversations intersect and…
Beth Wiesendanger: We hope.
Alycia Anderson: …are connected in certain ways. And, when we start having those conversations and we find commonalities and understand that this our common ground, not the thing that separates us. And I think then we’re having a human-to-human experience of understanding.
Beth Wiesendanger: And I think it’s also important to remember, you know, there’s a very common phrase in the disability community in the advocacy space. Nothing for us without us. In so many ways, I mean, if you look at the civil rights movement in the 1960s, which of course did many amazing, wonderful, critical things for the world.
It did largely leave people with disabilities behind, and it wasn’t until the Rehabilitation Act in the 70s that the civil rights of people with disabilities were protected by law. We’re sort of seeing a lag in rights for one group then trickling down one decade later for people with disabilities.
Like, my call to action is for anybody listening who cares about inclusion, who cares about equity, which I’m sure you do because you’re listening to this, right?
Don’t leave out people with disabilities. Don’t leave their voices out of the conversation. Make sure they have a space at the table. Make sure that we don’t get thought about as an afterthought, don’t build something, and then add on something for us later.
True access is about creating a system creating practices, creating programs and procedures. That work for everyone and we are a part of that and we should be a part of that.
Alycia Anderson: Yeah, and, I think a keyword that just popped out in all of that is equity. Like, can you speak to equity versus equality?
Beth Wiesendanger: Equality is more about making sure, like, if you’re imagining in your minds eye a race, equality would mean, everyone starts at the same place and ends at the same place. They run the same amount of distance and it’s a very equal approach to accessing the same opportunity.
Equity is more about fair and contextually appropriate access to resources and opportunities that are required for every individual to attain their full potential.
So, that means that, depending on where you’re coming from, the unique set of circumstances you have, the needs that you have as an individual, you are given the tools to make sure you have equitable access to an opportunity.
So not everyone’s given the same tool, but people are given tools that are appropriate for them to access the same opportunity.
Alycia Anderson: And in that have a better opportunity or chance to reach a finish line together.
Beth Wiesendanger: Right, you’re measuring how… if everyone got to the finish line, versus, did everyone start at the same place.
Alycia Anderson: Totally, I love it. Yeah, I think that’s really important.
So, we are launching this during disability pride month. Like, can we talk about what disability pride means to you personally?
Beth Wiesendanger: Disability pride to me, means that we are allowed to celebrate our identities, our successes, our challenges as disabled people. Without fear of that impacting our opportunities for the future.
And I say that specifically because, you know, even in organizations where I’ve been vocally present as a disabled woman, right. So many people who are more junior to their career, who are in positions that aren’t, maybe, diversity equity and inclusion based, people who are just starting out breaking into the industry will reach out to me and say you’re the first person I’ve ever seen be visible and vocal about having a disability.
I really admire that but I am still not in a place where I even feel comfortable disclosing to my manager, to my teammates, maybe even talking about it with their friends and their personal life.
And so, I think that disability pride is expression and action and the ability for us to hold a space and feel safe doing so. And, I don’t think we’re there yet, so to me, true disability pride is a goal post that we’re working to get towards.
Alycia Anderson: I don’t think we’re there yet either, and from a personal standpoint, that’s been a challenge. My entire life is getting to that place of feeling safe to be seen as and recognized for who I am. It’s been a lot. It’s been a lifelong process for me to get comfortable with my own identity and have power in it to be in that space, you know.
And so, I think that those people that are approaching you, that’s the powerful work.
I spoke a couple weeks ago and a girl that had spinal cord injury raised her hand afterwards, and she was like, kind of speechless. And, she didn’t know how to articulate what she was feeling. Other than saying… that she’s ready to give her disability a voice.
And I think that as you go through this, like exploration of yourself, you get to these spaces of like, oh.
Oh! OK, I feel a little safer, like I’m going to dip my toe, and it’s powerful! It’s really powerful.
Beth Wiesendanger: And I would be remiss in saying, in not calling out the fact that, my ability to be visible and vocal is a privilege.
I have been able to go to school and get an education and be hired in the workforce and you know, I’m a white woman. And of course, that has given me more power and privilege than people who don’t have those same opportunities have been afforded.
And so I feel again, like, a lot of responsibility to leverage the power I do have, to use the space that I do have, to try and carve out that space for other people.
And, I do think it’s really important that people feel individually comfortable enough with their disability, proud enough of their disability, to be vocal about it, and to give their disability voice, as you said, which I think is so beautiful.
But I think an even more challenging, but perhaps even like more pressing goal, is to make sure that we are creating spaces that allow for folks to have that comfortability.
If you’re in an environment that isn’t safe to disclose, isn’t safe to exist. It’s not safe for you to be vocal and visible, right? So my hope is that we can really change the world, for lack of a better term, which seems like a very lofty goal, right? But like the workplace world, the industry, the way that people with disabilities are perceived, that needs to change in order for people to be able to show up and be themselves.
Because there is a risk. So, a very real risk for people who are younger just starting out may not be in a safe space to use their voices in that way. And so, that’s a huge part of my personal mission is to make spaces safer for all people to be who they are and to be proud of who they are and to show up in a way that says I can celebrate pride in my identity.
Alycia Anderson: You remind me of when I was a little girl and I would go to camp. I’d go to sports camp once a year and it was the only time that I would be around other kids that were just like me. I talk about this a lot. The only time I would feel like I could blend into a crowd. Wasn’t sticking out. I didn’t have to explain myself, that’s. How I feel when I’m. With you, it’s it you feel like. I get to go to camp and like I don’t. Know just be together. So it’s. Really, it’s. It’s really, really nice. So I. Love that about us.
Beth Wiesendanger: Yeah, you don’t have to cover, right? You don’t have to.
Alycia Anderson: No covering! No. And, that is creating space, right, for other people. This might put you on the spot, but I like to end with the pushing forward moment and disabling ableism moment. Something that’s gonna inspire our audience to be a better ally, a little nugget to take back to their job or their home, or their kids, or…
Beth Wiesendanger: I feel so passionately about providing the opportunity for people with disabilities to be in the workforce. This is like, how things will change.
It is not by people without disabilities creating more inclusive environments for people with disabilities. It’s nothing for us without us. It’s disabled people creating environments for disabled people.
So, hire disabled people, hire them, hire them frequently.
Hire them for every role, not just diversity, equity and inclusion roles. And don’t just hire white, male disabled people, like really think about intersectional disability. And put your job opportunities where your mouth is, so to speak.
And if you look around at your team right now, whoever you are and you don’t know anybody on your team with a disability, that’s a problem.
And you should feel a sense of urgency about that. You need to be approaching this issue like you woke up late for your meeting. That’s like, the urgency we need when it comes to disability inclusion.
Alycia Anderson: I think that’s a great place to end. Beth, thank you for your time today for your friendship, just for it all. I’m inspired thoroughly by everything that’s you, and I appreciate your time. So thank you so much. Thank you to everyone else out there. Who spent some time to share this amazing conversation with us! Pushing Forward with Alycia, and that is how we roll.