Sinéad Burke has designs on a more accessible world

Sinéad Burke with former US vice-president Joe Biden.

From visiting the White House and the United Nations to taking selfies with former US vice-president Joe Biden, Irishwoman Sinéad Burke is blazing an international trail.

Her recently-delivered TED Talk, on why design should include everyone, has now amassed more than 750,000 views as the Trinity academic aims to break down all sorts of barriers.

“I am incredibly proud to be a little person, to have inherited the condition of achondroplasia,” she said.

“But I am most proud to be Sinéad.

“Achondroplasia is the most common form of dwarfism. Achondroplasia translates as ‘without cartilage formation’,” said the PhD student in her talk.

“I have short limbs and achondroplastic facial features — my forehead and my nose.

“My arms do not straighten fully, but I can lick my elbow.”

Sinéad delivered her talk in March but it has just recently been made available online, with views already heading for the 1m mark.

In it she talks about the practicalities of living and moving around in a world that is not designed for her.

She talks about having to use upturned bins to access locks, or approach complete strangers for help.

“I often forget that I’m a little person. It’s the physical environment and society that remind me,” she said.

“Using a public bath- room is an excruciating experience. I walk into the cubicle but I can’t reach the lock on the door. I’m creative and resilient.

“I look around and see if there’s a bin that I can turn upside down.

“Is it safe? Not really. Is it hygienic and sanitary? Definitely not. But the alternative is much worse.

“If that doesn’t work, I use my phone. It gives me an additional four to six-inch reach, and I try to jam the lock closed with my iPhone.

“Now, I imagine that’s not what Jony Ive had in mind when he designed the iPhone, but it works. The alternative is that I approach a stranger. I apologise profusely and I ask them to stand guard outside my cubicle door.

“They do, and I emerge grateful but absolutely mortified, and hope that they didn’t notice that I left the bathroom without washing my hands.

“I carry hand sanitiser with me every single day because the sink, soap dispenser, hand dryer, and mirror are all out of my reach.”

Sinéad’s TED Talk won why design should include everyone has been viewed more than 750,000 times.
Sinéad’s TED Talk won why design should include everyone has been viewed more than 750,000 times.

The academic also spoke of how her dignity is impinged upon by casual everyday things most people take for granted, such as ordering a coffee.

“Queuing, I’m standing beside the pastry cabinet and the barista calls for the next order. ‘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,” she explained.

Sinéad also talked about having to buy clothes from childrenswear and being unable to move from standing to sitting on a chair “with grace,” instead having to crawl on her hands and knees.

The activist said she wanted to use the platform to offer her perspective and insight into how the world is designed.

“Design is an enormous privilege, but it is a bigger responsibility. I want you to open your eyes,” she said.

Sinéad, who has a large social media following as ‘Minnie Melange’, also travels the world, sharing stages with the likes of Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell and former US vice-president Joe Biden.

She recently had a meeting with the fashion editor of the New York Times, Vanessa Friedman, who she described as “one of the most analytic critics in the industry and consistently articulates the economic and social value of fashion”.

Sinéad said they met at New York Fashion Week (NYFW) this year, when Ms Friedman noticed the Irish academic was unable to see from where she was sitting.

“We met at #NYFW in February as we were both attending a fashion show in a swish NYC hotel,” said Sinéad.

“I was seated in the second row and honestly, just delighted to be there.

“But Vanessa realised that I wasn’t able to see and she spoke with the brand’s team and asked them to change my seating arrangement so that I could view the show unobstructed — in the front row,” said Sinéad.

“It was an incredible gesture and the definition of being an ally.

“She mobilised her privilege and power to ensure that the show was accessible to my individual needs,” she added.

Sinéad has also recently written for Teen Vogue about the challenges of living in a world that is not designed for you.


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