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This disability activist is pushing Starbucks, Gucci, and others to see the beauty of accessibility

Disability activist Sinéad Burke’s year-old consultancy Tilting the Lens works with Pinterest, Netflix, Starbucks, and more.

This disability activist is pushing Starbucks, Gucci, and others to see the beauty of accessibility
[Photo: Enda Bowe; Lowe’s (Stokes). Following spread: Stylist: Colm Corrigan; stylist assistant: Leah Burke; hair: Lisa Smyth; makeup: Kate O’Reilly. Location courtesy of the Irish Museum of Modern Art]

Getting people to embrace the buzzword accessibility is easy. Actually making real-world products and spaces more inclusive is hard.

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That’s where Sinéad Burke comes in. Last October, the Dublin-based disability activist started the consultancy Tilting the Lens, which works with companies including Pinterest, Netflix, and Starbucks to make virtual and physical spaces more accessible to everyone. Until April, Burke also served as editor-at-large of the new website JuniperUnltd, which sells accessible fashion and publishes content about inclusive finance, travel, and more. (She also found time to publish a children’s book last year called Break the Mould: How to Take Your Place in the World, to encourage young people who feel different or excluded that “the world would be less without us.”)

For Burke, accessibility is more than just a box to be checked. It’s an opportunity to design things that are fundamentally beautiful—not despite their accessibility but because of it.

Though your work touches a lot of industries these days, you made your name as an advocate for accessible fashion. Why is fashion so important to you?

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[The fashion industry] is an amazing case study, because fashion—and luxury fashion—exist to be inaccessible. So if we can find ways to encourage accessibility and show the value of the disability community not just for their spending power but for their skill set, ideas, and perspective, we can do it in any industry.

You’ve been pushing for a fundamental shift in the way we view accessibility. What needs to change?

We still view accessibility through a medical model. Architects and designers [create things] to code or to meet legal requirements rather than thinking about accessibility as an opportunity to be really creative. For me, one of the most beautiful examples of accessibility is the Guggenheim in New York: It’s literally built on a ramp. The museum wasn’t explicitly designed around thinking about disabled people—it was an architectural wonder. But there’s an equity in the experience of the arts within that space. I’d like to bring that kind of thinking, particularly around the beauty of design accessibility, forward.

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Where does the conversation around accessibility need to go next?

I’m on the global equity board at Gucci and co-lead a project to create employment opportunities for disabled people at the company. We often talk about the business case for accessibility and disability, which is $1.7 trillion per year [in disposable income for people with disabilities]. But between 50% and 70% of disabled people globally are unemployed. So [we need to] ensure that we’re also creating space for people to participate equitably within organizations.

Read more about Fast Company’s Most Creative People in Business 2021

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