Designers have the power to construct our entire world – the way we see it and the way we are able to interact with it. However, design has historically been intentionally exclusive. Elise Roy advocates for designers to start thinking about and considering disabilities while they’re creating. She argues that this kind of inclusivity will make design – and the world – better, more innovative, and more efficient.
Elise Roy is a lawyer, designer, artist, and human rights activist. Roy has been deaf from the age of 10 so she has learned to adapt early on. Roy was a Division I athlete in both soccer and lacrosse at Brown University. While at Brown, Roy began to see herself as an advocate for people with non-normative abilities.
Roy’s hearing limitations have always given her a heightened sense of awareness about how design shapes the social, emotional and physical environment.
Today, Roy promotes design thinking for progressive social change. She is a passionate proponent of applying social impact and human-centered design research to international aid and development work. She details her progressive thinking in her TED Talk “When we design for disability, we all benefit.”
On losing her hearing
Roy begins her talk with no reservations, discussing her hardships being deaf but also what being deaf has taught her.
“I’ll never forget the sound of laughing with my friends, I’ll never forget the sound of my mother’s voice right before I fell asleep, and I’ll never forget the comforting sound of water trickling down a stream,” says Roy. “Imagine my fear, pure fear, when, at the age of 10, I was told I was going to lose my hearing. And over the next five years, it progressed until I was classified as profoundly deaf.”
“But I believe that losing my hearing was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received,” continues Roy.
“You see, I get to experience the world in a unique way. And I believe that these unique experiences that people with disabilities have is what’s going to help us make and design a better world for everyone. Both for people with and without disabilities.”
What her disability has allowed her to do
Roy’s deafness has allowed her to discover design thinking. A tool she thinks can solve world problems, hearing impaired or not.
“I started thinking: What if we changed our mindset,” says Roy. “What if we started designing for disability first — not the norm? As you see, when we design for disability first, we often stumble upon solutions that are not only inclusive, but also are often better than when we design for the norm.”
Roy says that not only disabled design thinkers have the ability to change the status quo. She says everyone is creative, therefore everyone is a designer. She challenges those without disabilities to look to the disabled as teachers that can enhance mindsets and help us solve world problems.
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