Instagram star and disability advocate Sinead Burke challenges industry leaders to create inclusive designs


October 12, 2019 09:14:28

In the corridors of a Brisbane hotel, Sinead Burke happily twirls around in a black and white outfit, custom-made to suit her tiny 105-centimetre frame.

Key points:

  • Sinead Burke is the first little person to appear on the cover of British Vogue
  • Ms Burke has more than 113,000 Instagram followers and nearly 1.4m people have viewed her TED talk
  • She is asking leaders to design inclusive environments, “not look for people to change and transform themselves”

The big, bold pussycat bow on Ms Burke’s blouse gives her courage, as she prepares to speak to her first audience in Australia.

“I’m nervous, so this ensemble really gives me confidence — for me, clothes and fashion are important because they translate my identity to the world,” Ms Burke said.

Ms Burke may be nervous, but she is no stranger to public appearances.

The writer, disability advocate, academic and podcaster from Ireland this year became the first little person to appear on the cover of British Vogue, chosen by guest editor, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.

Ms Burke is also the first little person to walk the pink carpet at the blockbuster fashion event, the Met Gala in New York.

She has amassed more than 113,000 Instagram followers, with her advocacy for people with disabilities gaining rising international attention.

Nearly 1.4 million people have viewed her TED talk, in which she describes what it was like as a fashion-loving adult woman to have to buy children’s clothes and shoes.

Ms Burke was born with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, which occurs in one in every 20,000 births.

Now she is visiting Brisbane as part of an event in the city’s high-end fashion precinct — Fortitude Valley’s James Street.

“I want to talk about inclusive design as a starting point, rather than something that is only considered within a legal framework,” Ms Burke said.

It could be as simple as the design of a bathroom.

“I find it quite difficult being a little person not being able to reach the lock on a public restroom door, not being able to reach a sink,” Ms Burke said.

The design of an airport can also be a challenge, with Ms Burke encountering a problem at the security check point before her 22-hour flight from the UK to Australia had even begun.

“I’m not tall enough to lift my carry bag from the ground up to the security carousel, because it’s at my eye level, so you’re reliant on the kindness of other passengers,” she said.

“If we don’t design public spaces in particular with disabled people in mind where do we give them permission to exist? At home? In care centres?

“This is about giving people access in the same way that everybody else has had for years.”

These were the questions she was asking leaders from a broad cross-section of industries in Brisbane to consider — local government, fashion, travel and architecture.

“There are still historic patterns of looking at disabled people as having to overcome their environment and having to change themselves in order to fit within it,” she said.

“Whereas what we actually need to do is design environments — we need to change buildings, not look for people to change and transform themselves.”

Huge economic potential

So is the fashion industry willing to change?

Co-founder of Australian label Bassike Deborah Sams said it is.

“You see on the catwalks all different types, not just 18-year-old models, but there are all different ages, different shapes, different sizes, different nationalities,” Ms Sams said.

“I think it’s very achievable, but it does really start with understanding what the needs are and being empathetic.”

Ms Burke points out the economic potential of being inclusive.

“We’re living in a world where one-in-four people is disabled,” Ms Burke said.

“We’re also living in an era where the aging population should be of increasing concern to designers and politicians and to anybody who has power in creating the world that we’re going to be living in in 20 years.”

Brisbane’s Deputy Mayor Krista Adams said disability access is a priority for the city council.

“It’s very interesting to hear from somebody with such lived experience like Sinead Burke and the nuances that we really do need to think about when we’re talking about accessibility,” Cr Adams said.

“We’re ahead of the game in Brisbane, but we know there’s a lot more to do.

“Things like universal housing and accessibility should become something that is so intuitive that we don’t realise we’re doing it anymore and that’s where we’re heading.”











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