Editor’s Note: Newsday selected six millennial activists who go above and beyond to fight for the causes they care about. We are highlighting their hard work on Long Island and, in some cases, on a national and international level. Do you know a millennial in your community who advocates for an issue they care about? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Emily Ladau was 10 years old, she heard the five words that would later launch her advocacy career: “Emily, welcome to ‘Sesame Street!’ ”
The West Babylon native got her start on the acclaimed children’s program educating the friendly, furry faces of the neighborhood about life with a disability and navigating through it in a wheelchair.
Ladau has Larsen Syndrome, which is a hereditary, orthopedic disability that causes dislocated joints and bone abnormalities. She landed the “Sesame Street” job after being recommended by her summer camp director.
From there, her father, Marc, drove the family to Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where Ladau filmed her scenes. Ladau’s mother, Ellen, has Larsen Syndrome as well. She created the Larsen Syndrome Resource Center to offer information and support to people with the disability and their families.
Ellen still has a scrapbook devoted to her daughter’s days on “Sesame Street,” full of photos and handwritten descriptions.
“It was just a really cool experience,” Ellen said. “Disability was not really something that was discussed in our house when she was younger, except in terms of doctors appointments and potential surgeries.”
On “Sesame Street,” Ladau worked with writers to create an authentic narrative for her character. She appeared in seven episodes.
“I realized that if I could do that at 10 years old, then surely that was something that I could continue doing throughout my life in some way,” she said.
Ladau graduated from West Babylon High School and then Adelphi University. She lives in her hometown and is a full-time advocate for the disabled community.
At 26, she serves as the digital communications manager of the Sibling Leadership Network, which offers resources to the brothers and sisters of people with disabilities. She is also the editor-in-chief of the Rooted in Rights blog, where she leads a staff of writers who all have disabilities.
Ladau says that the blog’s goal is to amplify the voices of those with disabilities and tell their stories in genuine ways.
“Disability is not something that is talked about in history textbooks, in classrooms, in mainstream schools,” Ladau said. “And that’s a shame because disability is its own civil rights movement. Our history is young, but there’s a rich culture there.”
Ladau also does some public speaking and freelance writing. Her work has been published in places such as The New York Times and Huffington Post.
“I try to pitch mainstream outlets because I think that the mainstream doesn’t do enough focusing on disability issues in an authentic way yet,” she said. “So my goal is to really get out of the bubble that I think that we’re often in; the echo chambers of disabled people talking to disabled people.”
Ladau feels lucky to live so close to New York City because she’s never too far from the pulse of social justice movements. However, she believes there is more work to be done when it comes to inclusivity and accessibility at such events — feminist gatherings and marches, for example.
“It’s one thing to let someone who has a disability into the room,” Ladau said. “It’s another thing to bring them to the table. That’s what I don’t quite see happening yet in social justice movements for other minorities. And so the really important thing is . . . are you listening to the voices of the disability community when we’re coming to you and we’re saying disability access is a feminist issue?”
Through the power of social media and her writing, Ladau reaches audiences outside of her community to share her experiences.
“I try to be as relatable as possible, and often try to show people that the things that happen to me aren’t actually that out of the ordinary, it’s just that we don’t talk about it,” she said. “Writing, for me, is one of my favorite ways to do that, because I can really figure out the language that will most clearly articulate what’s going on in my life.”
One of Ladau’s career goals is to form a writing mentorship program for developing authors with disabilities, and ultimately take her advocacy to a larger scale.
“I’m probably less optimistic than I used to be” because of President Donald Trump and his cabinet, Ladau said. “I feel that the current administration has been posing setback after setback for the civil rights of the disability community.”
“But I also have to believe that there’s a reason for why I wake up every morning and do what I do, and if that’s to change one mind at a time, then that’s what it’s gonna be.”