Federation Diversity Spotlight: Jess Ryan-Ndegwa on advocating disability through inclusive product design

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June 4, 2021

Words by Angelica Bomford

In this Diversity Spotlight, we take a (virtual) break with Jess Ryan-Ndegwa, product designer and owner of advocacy platform, Design for Disability. We get her thoughts on why it’s so important to embed inclusively into everyday design, as well as tapping into her insights on what she believes needs to be done to make design more user-centric and considered. We also get her advice on how to maintain a positive mindset, and the benefits she has taken from being part of the Creative Industries Federation collective so far. 

Fed: Did you always want to be a product designer? 

Jess: I’ve been lucky to have grown up in a creative environment as there is a good mix of musicians, artists and designers in my family. I studied art and music at school and after completing my A-levels in textiles, art and music, it was a natural progression for me to study foundation at Kingston University. My mother had a big influence on my love for the arts and when I lost her suddenly during my foundation year, it left me at a slight loss with what type of career path I wanted to take. She usually helped me figure things out. Product design resonated the most with me.

Fed: Can you tell us more about Design for Disability?

Jess: Design for Disability is a platform that discusses and embraces inclusivity in design through product design, workshops, blogging, talks and events. I believe that designers who identify as disabled have a voice that deserves to be listened to, and should have a seat at the table, especially when designing for disability. My current mission is to address this disconnect. My focus is on understanding how to strengthen and better create connection and collaboration between designers and their end-users. 

Design for Disability developed after my final major project at Kingston where I wanted to focus on understanding my relationship with my own disability, as I have cerebral palsy. This naturally led me to becoming more curious about the relationship between disability and design.

Fed: Why do you think its so important to embed inclusivity into everyday design?

Jess: Design has the power to connect with people, it shows empathy or lack thereof. People know when the designer has considered their needs. Inclusivity is about everyone having the opportunity to engage with a product or service and feel like it has considered them. We all want to feel included. 

Fed: What more do you think needs to be done to improve inclusivity in design further?

Jess: The world is changing. This last year especially, with the impact of COVID-19, there has been a major breakthrough with the shift to online. The world, in a sense, has become more accessible to disabled people than ever before; mobility is less of a factor. It shows how there is always a silver lining, and this gives me hope that we’ll learn to adapt to whatever comes in the future. It also shows new trends and behaviours, and I think design needs to take these changing patterns into account. 

However, in any case, it always comes back to listening to others, finding solutions to real everyday obstacles and substituting them with interactions that are more joyful. Being inclusive doesn’t mean designing for everyone, but it does mean considering as many different types of users as possible. For me the concern is whether these users feel represented or can access information in the same way as others. 

Credit: Roger Brown for A New Direction

Fed: What has been your most memorable career moment so far?

Jess: I feel like there has been so many memorable moments, but one which will always stick with me was whilst I was writing for A New Direction and the Tate Exchange. A New Direction is a London-based charity who create opportunities for children and young people within the creative sectors. I had the opportunity to work alongside their SEND schools network in collaboration with the Tate Exchange. 

I worked with a selection of schools whose students were on the autistic spectrum and came in for a day of relaxation. I was able to sit by a school whose young people were all non-verbal, and just observe and appreciate them having their own conversations through this tactile display that was hanging just above them. They were allowed to be themselves; there were no barriers.

Fed: You always try to stay positive no matter what – what is your advice to other people who might be struggling to maintain that mindset?

Jess: I would say to stay true to yourself. Personally speaking, I have always been a positive person and with whatever challenge comes my way, I always like to view it as an opportunity and say, “well what can learn from this?”, as opposed to “well this is too hard for me to do”. Life can throw curveballs and it’s about being ready to adapt to situations in the best possible way, even if you get it wrong sometimes. Try out as many things as possible and don’t be discouraged if things fail – it’s all a valuable learning process and experience. 

Fed: What do you find to be the most valuable thing about being part of a collective like the Creative Industries Federation?

Jess: I think one of the most valuable things about being part of a collective is that everyone can bring their own unique perspective to the table. Every individual is different and the one thing I have personally learnt, is that it’s much better when you have a mixture of insights and views as this allows for a wider understanding of the needs of your users. Being part of a collective like the Creative Industries Federation is fantastic and I’m excited to see how collaboration can further develop my particular wants and needs for the creative industry, especially those to do with inclusive design. 

To find out more about Jess’s forward-thinking product design and how she is influencing more inclusive creativity, head to designfordisability.co.uk