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Sinéad Burke

Designing the future


When I was younger, I had a mantra: “I live in a world not built for me.” It was an effective way to communicate the social model of disability, meaning that as a little person and being born with dwarfism, the root cause of the inaccessibility that I experienced was not due to my disability, but because of the world around me. Within the foundations of our concrete jungles, my independence was never permeated by bricks and mortar.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised a flaw in my earlier thinking. It is not within the building of our world that I am excluded, but inaccessibility is the result of a lack of holistic imagining within an earlier stage of development: design. The world is not built for me, because the world is not designed for me. This design manifests within the simplest of tasks; being able to reach a doorbell or the lock on a toilet cubicle door. It means the simple task of ordering a coffee is not simple, because it requires an audit of the local options to figure out which coffee shop has a low counter or an accessible bathroom.

Many of these physical challenges can be ameliorated by the kindness of strangers. Often, my independence is brokered by the mood of the person standing next to me in a queue. Will they offer to help? Would they be upset or willing to help, if I asked? Maybe they’re disabled, too, or perhaps English isn’t their first language... How long can we be comfortable living in spaces where independence and agency require a negotiation?

The design of our world has resulted in disabled people spending time and investing emotions to try to fit in with, and assimilate themselves into a flawed system. I believe that we should not have to change for the world. The world should change for us.

So, if disabled people were at the helm of designing the future, what might it look like?

How would independence manifest for you?

For me, it begins at home. I am so lucky to live with my family; siblings and parents who would do anything to help, but also, remind me of when things aren’t really out of reach and I don’t really need help. But, living in a home where disability is in the minority means that even in the place I hibernate, I spend a significant portion of my life mapping out the acrobatics that are required to reach and climb. It’s shaped my personality and harvested resilience, but it’s made me dwell on what a home designed for me might look like. I imagine low kitchen counters, where I don’t need to kick a stool from the hob to the sink to drain pasta. I dream of ceiling-to-floor bookshelves that are categorised by the Dewey System, paired with a beautiful wooden staircase that allows me to ascend and descend from General Works to Geography. I also fantasize about a walk-in wardrobe where garments magically hang at a height that I can reach, but don’t crease and crumple because they’re too close to the floor. I deign to have full-length mirrors and furniture that I don’t have to climb on. This design dream is but a Pinterest board… for now.

Thinking from a broader perspective, I want us to learn from this moment. I want the learnings from this global pandemic to become a movement. A new way of working, including and collaborating. I want us to ask questions such as, ‘Who is not in the room? Who is not being considered?’ and find ways to bring those voices and perspectives to the table, to shape policies and decisions but mostly, design.

For so long, the design of our world has explicitly excluded disabled people. That exclusion may not have been intentional or deliberate, but it was a consequence of how we envisioned the world and the people who live here. Juniper’s purpose is to facilitate conversations and thinking rooted in designing the future - in creating a new blueprint for a world that is a safe, inclusive, and equitable place for everyone.

How will you design your world?

Sinéad Burke
Editor at large

Sinéad Burke is a teacher, writer and advocate. Sinéad works towards accelerating systemic change within the domains of diversity, education, inclusion, design and disability. She consults within the fashion and design industries to ensure that spaces and products are accessible to all.

Sinéad is a TED speaker, her talk ‘Why Design Should Include Everyone’ has amassed over one million views and resulted in her achieving some ‘firsts’: Sinéad is responsible for the introduction of the term for little person, ‘duine beag’, into the Irish language, she was the first little person to attend the Met Gala, and is the first little person to feature on the cover of Vogue. Sinéad has addressed the Business of Fashion’s VOICES conference and the World Economic Forum too. Sinéad was presented with The Leadership Award at EcoAge’s Green Carpet Fashion Awards by Gucci CEO, Marco Bizzarri and by appointment of President Michael D. Higgins, Sinéad is a member of Ireland’s Council of State.


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