After Sinéad Burke’s Ted Talk on ‘why design should include everyone’ last year went viral, the Irish writer, academic and broadcaster is now creating spaces and conversations across the glove to advocate for inclusion in design, fashion and beyond. 

Q: Tell us about doing the Ted Talk. Did you anticipate the reaction you received?

A: It was terrifying. I did a rehearsal the night before and I forgot two sections. It wasn’t going well so I went to the TED headquarters an hour before, locked myself in the disabled bathroom, stood in front of the mirror and told myself two things: “Nobody will tell a story by the way you can, because it’s your story. And the reason why you’re nervous is because you’ve heard things like, “Ted will change your life”. But by being nervous, you’re limiting any possibilities that it might happen.” I started my blog almost 10 years prior to that moment so it took me a long time to reach that pinnacle. I had to tell myself, “stand on the red dot, revel in it and enjoy this moment because something like this may never happen again.” There was no point in making it a negative experience for me and everybody else, so I just tried to take a deep breath and I loved it. And in return, it did change my life.

Q: How so?

A: On the back of the talk, I was invited to speak at the BoF Voices conference, which was a huge moment in terms of them wanting to shift the lens not just from design and architecture but also specifically to fashion. Speaking with Imran Amed at the BOF, to really shake up that dialogue, was a moment. Then I was invited to go to the World Economic Forum and I was the only Irish female delegate there. I spoke about disability for the first time with the world’s political, economic and business leaders and it was an extraordinary moment. Seeing how people could take my nine minutes of content and feed it within their own particular domain and use it as a vehicle to challenge their audience, and for me participating in that, was enormous.

Q: So many people resonated with you…

A: Regardless of what product we buy, or what advocacy we follow and support, it’s usually because of a person. Giving some of yourself and showing your vulnerability, particularly when that’s not an experience that people are familiar with or are used to due to a lack of representation, for me, that can be very powerful.

Q: Why is design such a focus for you?

A: Growing up I always used the phrase: “The world was not build for me”. Yes, I have a genetic condition called achondroplasia, but it is not my disability that limits my potential, it’s the world. Had the world been built for me, or at least for me in mind, it would be entirely different. But what I’ve come to realize is that instead of placing all the blame and responsibility on construction, it’s actually prior to construction when my lack of access was forgotten. It was in design, in the blueprint. It was in these powerful rooms where conversations were had about policy, access and architecture, in which it was not considered. I think if we could change the world around us, and give people the same opportunities, everything else can stand from there.

Q: You were recently invited to fashion week. How does it feel to be included in an industry that can be very elitist and exclusive?

A: It feels very surreal. Fashion is an industry that everybody interacts with because we all legally have to wear clothes and it’s the one industry that touches our skin. So it’s always been of real importance to me, and so if it does have that much importance, why is everybody not included? Being at fashion week was extraordinary and the teenage me would never have believed it. Valentino invited me to their show in Paris and we had a conversation about accessibility and they created a staircase up to my seat covered in the carpet of the runway. That consideration is so important because I am not sure it’s been done before. But we now need to move beyond that as quickly as possible. It’s now about having the conversation with brands about amending their business models or including diverse models within their marketing campaigns and making sure people are having a dialogue and facilitating the development of campaigns and products from the earliest stage possible. The fashion industry is incredible, but change is always slow. It takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight that we’re going to have disabled people represented within every intersections of the industry, but I believe that can happen eventually.

Q: What is your biggest daily challenge?

A: The biggest challenge is the design of physical spaces. If we’re sitting here on a sofa with a low table, which aesthetically looks good but I can’t reach the table. It has no function for me. What has made all the difference in this situation is the people who work here. That moment I sat down, they realized that this space did not fit and their immediate question was: “What can I do to help?” Minority voices spend all their existence explicating their vulnerabilities and it is a gift when somebody says: “What can I do to help?”

Q: What motivates your activism?

A: I am currently doing a PHD on education and human rights. It’s about giving children a say in maters that affects them in school. It’s linked to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 12 that disposes that children have a legal right to have a say about matters which affect them. From my earliest of days, I was born into the most amazing family who cultivated within me a cold sense of justice of what is fair and what is unfair, and I think working with children, that only hardened. I am really driven by what is equal and how I can amplify the voices that don’t, as of yet, experience the equality that I am fortunate to do so. I’m really driven by justice.

Q: What advice can you give to anyone who feels like they are in an impossible situation?

A: If I were to go back to my younger self, I would tell myself to turn the monologue in my head on mute. Because I think, as people and as woman, we are incredibly hard on ourselves and often the rest of the world would not say the cruel things we say to ourselves. You need to be your own biggest champion because that is the only way in which you can prepare yourself further. To quote RuPaul: “If you can’t love yourself, how are you going to love someone else?” And I live by the words of RuPaul.

Q: What is your favorite sorbet flavor?

A: There is an amazing place in Ireland called Murphys Ice Cream and they do both ice cream and sorbet and there is a Brown Bread ice cream flavor. I know it’s not a sorbet, but have it with a scoop of mango sorbet and it’s delicious.

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