IDSA and the Society's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council present the third installment in our Disability in Design interview series, below, with Emily Siira (they/them, she/her).
Emily Siira is currently an industrial designer at Milwaukee Tool, with previous career experience at companies like GE Healthcare and Master Lock. Emily is an alumnus of the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD), and has been involved with IDSA since earning the 2016 IDSA Design Foundation Undergraduate Scholarship and IDSA Student Merit Award at MIAD. Using insight gained from living as a person with disabilities, Emily dedicates particular focus to human factors and accessibility in design practice.
Image caption: Emily tests handheld 3D-printed prototypes in a design shop, while wearing a black shirt, light brown sweater, and metallic glasses.
IDSA: Tell us about your education background.
Emily Siira: I consider myself to be a nontraditional student. My education was delayed for several years by medical complications, in addition to the process of transferring to an arts program from a science-based major at a different university. When I began my studies at MIAD, I had never taken a fine art course, so my first year was riddled with learning curves. I was also a bit older than most students in my graduating class, and I completed my bachelor’s degree in industrial design at 26. Though my studies took longer than expected, I found that a varied path to a career helped me grow not only as a designer, but as a person in my practical understanding and experience.
Growing up, I had a unique combination of interests in art, mathematics, and sciences. Because I had been fed misinformation that STEM fields were not compatible with creative endeavors, I initially chose to pursue mechanical engineering as I entered college. My creative curiosity often felt unfulfilled by that curriculum, and about halfway through, my uncertainties were answered in the least expected way; I was faced with a life-changing health ordeal.
How did you become interested in design, particularly physical product design or industrial design?
My interest in industrial design coincided with the abrupt onset of my disabilities. I had been a perfectly healthy athlete my whole life, until I suddenly wasn’t. At 20 years old, I was blindsided by a series of strokes and associated complications due to a previously undiagnosed heart defect. This began a fight for my life against daunting odds of recovery. Through years of rehabilitative therapies, I have relearned much, but not all of what I had lost: language, memory, and mobility. I chose to see a dismal prognosis as a challenge to be innovative, and I have developed alternative skills to compensate for the limitations I was once concerned may hinder me.
After a crash-course on how to be a person again, I decided to re-enroll as an undergraduate to complete my education. My doctors, fiends, and family all thought I might be nuts, because they did not know if an education or career could be possible for someone in my situation; but I had newfound motivation. My journey as a patient in the medical setting exposed me to some of the most grueling and vulnerable aspects of the human experience, which prompted a drive to apply the unexpected insight I had gained to solve problems which impact quality of life for others. This goal inspired me to search and discover industrial design; a perfect balance between my creative and technical interests.
How has disability impacted your life?
Disability has entirely redefined my life and its trajectory. Though it has presented countless hardships, it has also given me unique purpose and perspective.
My strokes came with a series of neurological effects; though hard work in rehabilitation led to a significant degree of recovery, some deficits remain. I still have mild aphasia, which affects my abilities in conversational discourse and language comprehension. I also have limited short-term memory formation and recall. I account for this by asking arguably excessive questions, taking thorough notes, and keeping a meticulous calendar; if it weren’t for smartphones, I probably wouldn’t be anywhere when I am expected.
In the physical realm, I have limited strength and coordination on the left side of my body, but I was lucky to have been right handed originally. I use a leg brace and sometimes a cane for walking, depending how collaborative my brain and leg are feeling each day. My endurance is affected by my heart condition, but fortunately modern industrial design has become rather digitized and sedentary.
The most challenging symptoms which remain as a result of my condition are seizures and cardiac arrhythmias, as they occur spontaneously and sometimes frequently, which can impact the way I feel and function day-to-day. Most colleagues who have studied or worked with me have witnessed a loss-of-consciousness, which in some cases results in strange reactions and dynamics when I am upright; I have found that a sense of humor goes a long way in mediating these situations.
Image caption: A first-person view of Emily’s patient experience. The camera looks down from eye level upon heart monitors, IVs, medical sensors, and many wires.
Image caption: GE Healthcare’s Venue Point-of-Care Ultrasound Family. 3 Ultrasound scanners of various sizes are positioned next to one another, each displaying medical scans on-screen. Designed by: Emily Siira and GE Healthcare Global Design Team
How has disability inspired and affected your pursuit of design?
Disability has given me very personal inspiration and impactful context for doing what I do in design. At its core, industrial design is about understanding humans, their behaviors, and their needs; it is about the empathy of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, in hopes of making their world a little better. Suddenly becoming disabled like I did throws a person into this role, which provides incredible insight and practice at understanding different perspectives.
Having disabilities has exposed me to many lesser-known facets of life and opened my eyes to the vast variety of users who must be accommodated to achieve truly accessible design. This type of insight is invaluable in practice, and it’s why I believe that people with disabilities make great designers and design allies.
Disability is too often seen as an unmentionable topic, and it absolutely shouldn’t be. Disability itself is universal because it can affect anyone at any point in life, and statistically it will, whether by injury, disease, or components of aging. People with disabilities currently comprise 25% of the US population, and upwards of 15% globally, yet individuals in this sector overwhelmingly perceive themselves to be unseen in society and overlooked by its constructs.
Disability is an indiscriminate consequence of being human, but talking about it can also make it a unifying factor. Many people with disabilities are open about their situations. Involve us and our perspectives in your design practice, and it’s guaranteed that you will learn something new that can improve experiences for many peripheral demographics. You’ll also walk away with strengthened allyship to a group which might well be a quarter of your market.
"Disability itself is universal because it can affect anyone at any point in life, and statistically it will, whether by injury, disease, or components of aging."
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?
Due to the nature of my disabilities, I have never been able to conceal them, even though standard practices of professionalism nearly encourage this. Throughout my education and career, I have often fielded uncertain reactions from colleagues, supervisors, and administrators having never before encountered a student or employee with the type of disabilities I have. This unfamiliarity about how to accommodate and support my condition in the classroom and workplace sparked the realization that I was navigating uncharted territory, and that I needed to pave my own way to acceptance in these environments through self-advocacy and demonstration of equal performance capability. This was easier said than done, as it was sometimes me versus an entire administration or HR department.
The perceived challenge with my disabilities is that they have effects external to my own being; when I lose consciousness due to a seizure or heart problem, the environment I’m in and the individuals in proximity are also affected. As a result of these circumstances, I have been faced with attempts to limit or exclude my participation in both academic and professional environments. In academic environments, semesters off were mandated by administrators until I could get my health under control, even though I explained that my condition was not curable, and even though I was maintaining a strong GPA with the same course load as other students. With past employers, involuntary medical leaves were invoked under the claim of safety concerns. These restrictions continued even though I submitted documentation from physicians proving medical clearance for school or work, and signed waivers releasing liability for illness or injury. Limitations on role-relevant travel, offsite visits, and work hours were additionally imposed in order to manage liability and external perception of the entity I represented. These constraints put me at a marked disadvantage in the requirement to deliver the same caliber of work in the same amount of time as others in my role; despite this, I adapted with the generous support of my design colleagues, who would compile written summaries, photos, and videos from offsite visits.
With each compounding hurdle, I would attempt to clarify the inequity of the situation; more often than not, I received disappointing responses questioning why my condition had not improved, or why I was still trying to attend school or work with such significant disabilities. I would additionally be asked to solve complaints about disruptions my condition caused, and to alleviate the anxiety and fear of students and employees who spend time in my presence. In response to inquiries like these, I state the obvious; that my medical symptoms are not within my control, that I have the same right to participate in all aspects of life as anyone else, and that I do not exist simply to manifest administrative chaos. Though I know that I should not have to excuse or explain my disabilities, I am also aware that the radical change necessary to reshape the way disability is treated in society will be very incremental.
The adversity faced in school and employment has at times made my disabilities feel increasingly insurmountable. It would be dishonest not to admit that I have periodically felt that my fight for inclusion was futile and thought of abandoning my pursuits in design. Fortunately, I am not alone; I have met many excellent individuals along the way who have fought tirelessly alongside me in this journey, and they each have my sincere gratitude. MIAD’s Industrial Design Professors, among a handful of others in the college, believed in me wholeheartedly and went above and beyond to ensure I had an equal opportunity for education. Many design managers and colleagues have done the same for me in the workplace, which has helped my career progress despite obstacles. If it weren’t for this support network, I may not be a practicing designer today, which is a testament to the importance of allies to the disabled community.
Image caption: GE Healthcare’s Venue Fit Point-of-Care Ultrasound System. The image contains 3 rendered views of an ultrasound system, which has a compact touch screen mounted on a tall cart equipped with scanning probes, storage space, and accessories. Designed by: Emily Siira and GE Healthcare Global Design Team
What are some of your favorite examples of successes and failures in universal design?
If a product or system works well for people with disabilities, it will almost certainly provide the same, or even an improved experience for the general population. A simple example involves ramps vs. stairs; while ramps are absolutely necessary for ascent by wheelchair users and others with mobility challenges, their convenience is appreciated equally by able-bodied users, such as those using infant strollers, wheeling luggage, or transporting heavy objects. Accommodating more users only has positive consequences.
In context of current events, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a surprising positive impact on the accessibility of interaction and collaboration. People with disabilities which limit mobility and transportation now have new options for employment and social engagements through remote work and expanded options for virtual gathering. That said, many of us in the disabled community are also frustrated by society’s sudden change of heart when the majority of the population needed to be accommodated. So many people with disabilities, myself included, had previously been told that remote work wasn’t an option because it was too disconnected or inefficient; however, it was suddenly acceptable when able-bodied people needed to be protected from a health concern. The past two years have proven that remote work is in fact so flexible and efficient that many employers are choosing never to revert back to fully on-site arrangements. Accommodating more employees also only has positive consequences.
Image caption: Milwaukee Tool’s lineup of handheld and wearable lighting products. The image displays multiple red and black flashlights, headlamps, and compact magnetic lights. The product family is posed on top of cinder blocks and metal beams on a jobsite. Designed by: Milwaukee Tool Industrial Design Team
What are your tips for designers with disabilities, and for those who collaborate with them?
My advice to all designers is to bring your whole self to school or work. If your life involves a disability, that part of you deserves to be valued and respected just as much as your design skills. Because systemic change is a slow burn, you might still have to advocate for that, but you aren’t alone. We’re sharing our stories to promote awareness that allies are everywhere!
Having a disability can place a person in a vulnerable position in a rather public way, and while that can feel disheartening, it can also be a positive attribute, especially in design. Empathy is in the job description for industrial designers, from a standpoint of understanding the user; in my experience, designers make excellent allies to the disabled community because they’re a group driven to learn and understand by nature and by training. I put this theory to the test during my senior year at MIAD; I decided that there was nothing to lose in sharing my experience at a time when I was unsure if I would graduate or be employable. I had been invited by a professor to take a chance at the IDSA Student Merit Awards during a time when I was combatting challenges with my speech and mobility. Though I had no idea if I would be capable of speaking coherently, I took the stage anyway and presented my portfolio and background story to an audience of designers from around the Midwest. To my absolute shock, I was approached by a couple designers from GE Healthcare and Stryker following my presentation, because they were interested in the way my background as a patient informed my design work. This mutual interest in the intersection of design and disability led to an interview with the GE Healthcare design team, and ultimately a job there after graduation. Being myself was an entirely unexpected foot in the door to the design industry, and it can be for others too.
To those who collaborate with people in the disabled community, some of the greatest support you can offer is akin to the design process you already know; listen, learn, and adapt when working with us. If a person opens up to you about a disability or other factors of diversity in their life, they are taking a chance by exposing a very personal side, because they feel that the benefits outweigh the risks for success in the collaborative environment. Keep in mind that a person’s disability, challenges, and needs are as they say, and comments like, “well, I can’t tell” or “you seem normal to me” are not the compliments that they may seem. While it may be well-intentioned, this type of response can be perceived as invalidating to a person’s differences and experiences. Apply the same empathy you use in design practice to your everyday interactions with everyone, not just those you know to be in the disabled community. Many disabilities are invisible, and you never know what someone is experiencing behind the scenes. Broadening your understanding with perspectives that are different from your own will only benefit your design practice.