Why design should include everyone

August 14, 2017

Sinead Burke is acutely aware of the barriers people with disabilities face every day. Standing at 3’5”, the disability and women’s rights activist said that, “I often forget that I’m a little person,” in a recent TED talk. “It’s the physical environment and society that remind me .”

Burke, who was born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, says the physical reminder can be eliminated through accessible design. “Design is a way in which we can feel included in the world, but it is also a way in which we can uphold a person's human rights. Design can also inflict vulnerability on a group whose needs aren't considered.”

Public restrooms are a important example of, “where design impinges upon dignity,” said Burke. Even in accessible bathroom, where she can reach the door lock, the sink, the soap dispenser, the hand dryer and the mirror, she still cannot reach the toilet,  designed to sit higher for wheelchair users. “This is a wonderful and necessary innovation, but in the design world, when we describe a new project or idea as accessible, what does that mean?" she said. "Who is it accessible to? And whose needs are not being accommodated for?”

Design affects Burke in subtle ways, too. Simply being missed by a barista waiting in line to order a coffee can be a humiliating. “’Next, please!’ they shout. They can't see me. The person next to me in the queue points to my existence and everyone is embarrassed. I order as quick as I can and I move along to collect my coffee. Now, think just for a second. Where do they put it? Up high and without a lid. Reaching up to collect a coffee that I have paid for is an incredibly dangerous experience.”

It also limits what she can wear. Burke shops in the children’s department as women’s clothing requires too much alliteration. “I want garments that reflect my personality,” she said. “I want shoes that affect my maturity, professionalism and sophistication. Instead, I'm offered sneakers with Velcro straps and light-up shoes.”

Burke, who is studying for her PHD in human rights at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, concludes by challenging her audience to rethink the common notion that design is a tool for creating function and beauty. “Design is an enormous privilege, but it is a bigger responsibility,” she said. “I want you to open your eyes.”

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