IDSA and the Society's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council present the first installment in our Disability in Design interview series, below, with disabled designer Ariel Pershman (she/her/hers).
Ariel is a disabled designer studying at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts, Class of 2024, and co-founder of Mira Eyewear. She is also co-leader/graphic designer for Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring (DREAM) at UW-Milwaukee. Follow Ariel on Instagram (@thepershinator).
IDSA: Tell us about your education background.
Ariel Pershman: I am a non-traditional student who has been in and out of college since 2015. Not counting semesters here and there at technical schools, I've attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (initially as an Electrical Engineering major), Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and now I attend and will be graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
How did you become interested in design, particularly physical product design or industrial design?
Growing up I was always a maker. I did summer camps at my local science museum and at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, was in Project Lead the Way in middle school, joined FRC Robotics in high school, and was very into computers and fabrication. At the same time, I was very into art. I had a cheap Wacom drawing tablet, took classes in cartooning, and constantly doodled on all my homework. It never crossed my mind that I could be an artist or designer; those career paths weren't lucrative and my parents wouldn't support me. So, I thought this meant I was going to be an engineer. After my first year in the Electrical Engineering program at UIUC, I realized that I funneled my way into the wrong life path. It wasn't until I stumbled upon the documentary Objectified that I knew I was meant to go into industrial design.
How has disability impacted your life?
I don't think any answer I could write would encompass the vast amounts of emotional, mental, neurological, and physical pain, trauma, and time that is necessary to live with my disabilities. Publicly I acknowledge some of the conditions I suffer with, such as my ADHD or Chronic Debilitating Migraines. There are days that I am vulnerable and overwhelmed, and I need my support network to validate and reassure me. I am strong and assertive, but I also have to set boundaries and limits on what I am capable of accomplishing. My disabilities have delayed my collegiate education and required me to reevaluate what paths I am able to take for my future career.
How has disability inspired and affected your pursuit of design?
When I was diagnosed with chronic migraines, I didn't have an immediate epiphany that screamed "you were meant to do this!" It was more like a gradual understanding that there were very few people like me in design. My first semester at MIAD I was selected to be a part of the MIAD alumni mentorship program, and I was paired with Emily Siira. It was the first time I ever met another disabled designer, especially one who worked in the medical field. Knowing her and sharing our mutual struggles gave me the confidence to pursue disability design.
Photo caption: Ariel Pershman looks into the camera, lifting up her eyewear with red tinted lenses and white rimmed frames. Photo courtesy of Ariel Pershman.
"Designers with disabilities, we need to come together for our activism. The internet has given us a large platform to find each other, commiserate, and advocate. Allies, we have limited energy and resources. Your voice is required to pave the way for our inclusion."
What challenges have you faced through school and in your career? What resolutions have you found helpful in school and work environments, and what still needs to change?
I've always struggled with getting and receiving help, and this was magnified when I "became" disabled. Suddenly, I was registered with disability services and needed accommodations, and I was forced to advocate for myself. I was constantly put in the position of a professor invalidating my struggles, while at the same time, I was conflicted in defining my own limits. In high school I was a gifted honors student, then I was a college student on academic probation, and then I was told that not only is everybody else in the class going through "something," but that if I am not able to compete then I wasn't meant to be in design. There are no part-time industrial design degrees, classes completely change each semester, and if you downsize your class schedule you will be graduating in 8+ years from a four-year degree. Despite Covid-19, there have been very few changes to the way curriculum is accessed in industrial design. There is no hybrid or online undergraduate industrial design program. If you have any classes online, they will not be close-captioned and 99% will not have a transcription. All-nighters are encouraged by professors in order to fulfill deadlines. And, if you suffer from a disability that would prevent you from doing physical prototyping in a fabrication lab, you will not graduate.
In industry, Knack Design is the only consulting studio that I know was fully remote before the pandemic. However, since 2020 there have been more jobs and even internships converting to hybrid or remote. At the moment, this means that I could theoretically have a remote industrial design job without incurring migraines, but I can't graduate unless I worsen my physical health in an undergraduate program.
There are a very limited amount of masters programs that are focused on disabled design. There are no official, paid industry positions, every professional I've conversed with has created their own position to focus on disabled design within their company, whether it's Xbox or Nike, or self-employed doing consulting work. There are bespoke adaptive technology initiatives, but for the most part they are non-profit.
What are some of your favorite examples of successes and failures in universal design?
I sincerely believe one of the worst failures of modern universal design has been online classes. While the pandemic has grown the availability of online courses, the fact that the majority of online courses are structured almost exactly like a lecture hall is demotivating and underutilizing the platform. Online classes should be an opportunity to invest in inclusive learning methods, interactive modules, and innovative practices.
What are your tips for designers with disabilities, and for those who collaborate with them?
Pay the designers and users co-developing and testing your product. Involve them from the very beginning of the design process as an equal stakeholder. Don't hire diverse candidates for exclusively DEI or inclusive/accessibility design roles. Disabled designers don't need to be pigeonholed.
Designers with disabilities, we need to come together for our activism. The internet has given us a large platform to find each other, commiserate, and advocate. Allies, we have limited energy and resources. Your voice is required to pave the way for our inclusion. We are not your inspiration, we just exist.