A New Angle: Design for Disability is speaking up for unheard voices in the creative process

Founder Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa shares how her experience as a designer with cerebral palsy spotlighted the missing links in creating products for people with disabilities – the end users themselves.

16 March 2021

A New Angle is an editorial series that aims to give a platform to creative industry changemakers who make it their mission to disrupt the status quo. Each week we’ll chat to a person or team doing important work in the sector, making it a fairer place, championing vital causes, supporting underrepresented groups and tackling pertinent issues facing creatives everywhere.

This week we chat to Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa, founder of Design for Disability. Jessica was born with cerebral palsy and after studying and practicing product design for a number of years, began to see how people with disabilities were noticeably absent from the creative process, even when it came to designing products that might aid their lives. Here, she tells us more about her own experience and the mission of her platform.

It's Nice That: What is your mission, and what about the creative industry are you hoping to change?

Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa: My mission has always been to champion for a more inclusive society. After studying Product and Furniture Design, I felt there was something lacking in the design process – people who identified as disabled were not having their voices heard. Disabled people were being excluded from the creative process and industry. My current mission is to address this disconnect, especially when it comes to creating products for people with disabilities. My focus is currently on understanding how better to create connection and collaboration between designers and their end users.

INT: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to this point.

JR-N: I’m a Londoner with Kenyan and Irish heritage. I was born with cerebral palsy, which affects my balance and short-term memory. My mother encouraged my relationship with the arts from a young age, probably because she thought it would afford me more independence in the future. This had a lot of impact on my decision making and led me to pursue a career in design, joining the Product and Furniture design BA course at Kingston University.

After graduating with a degree in this, I became a freelancer. People considered it courageous, but I didn’t really have the confidence to believe anyone would hire me. I wanted to discover who I was as a person, find self-validation and explore my career opportunities; freelancing seemed like the best option.

I set up Design for Disability for many reasons. I wanted to understand my place in the creative world as a disabled designer myself. I wanted to find opportunities for growth and I was curious about creating better experiences for others in the same situation.

INT: What are the major challenges you’re facing, and why?

JR-N: My work has naturally progressed into advocating and teaching design practices for inclusivity and much of this happens at live events or workshops. Obviously with lockdowns, events are getting hit pretty hard and so is the opportunity for close one-to-one contact; therefore collaboration is more limited. It’s been difficult.

I think there has been a major breakthrough with the shift to online, though, and I’m excited about what can be done in adversity. The world in a sense has become more accessible to disabled people than ever before, mobility is less of a factor.

INT: How are you tackling those challenges?

JR-N: I’ve been asking myself what more I can offer and it is definitely taking me down some interesting routes. I am currently going through a restructuring phase with Design for Disability and have some new projects in the works that I’m really excited to share with the world, but for now watch this space!

INT: How can the creative industry help your mission?

JR-N: I think it should consider creating more authentic inclusivity in the workplace. I have learnt that the best ways to find opportunities personally is through connecting and collaborating with like-minded people. Thankfully that is still possible, so I’m glad to have a network of support and encouragement in the industry. I believe that is the best thing we can do as creatives at the moment: be there for each other.

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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