Adobe for All: Q&A with Haben Girma and Sinéad Burke

Abstract human figures overlaying each other

In September, Adobe held its Adobe for All conference, bringing in speakers from around the world and across a spectrum of identities to bring out the values of diversity, equity and inclusion. We asked two of those speakers — disability rights lawyer and best-selling author Haben Girma and lecturer and accessible fashion icon Sinéad Burke — to talk with our head of inclusive design, Matt May, about their advocacy work, and their hopes for the future.

It’s been my experience that a lot of people are uncomfortable talking about disability, especially around disabled people. Some compensate by using fanciful euphemisms like “differently abled,” while others ask questions that can get deeply inappropriate. How do you recommend people get more comfortable talking about disability, and with people with disabilities, without falling into traps like these?

Girma: You’re absolutely right! So many people engage in linguistic gymnastics to avoid disability terms: your “special needs,” your “unique needs,” your “situation.” Sometimes it’s amusing to witness how far people will go to avoid disability words. But that amusement quickly shifts to disappointment. When one goes out of their way to avoid disability words, they perpetuate the stigma associated with these words.

Most of the barriers disabled people encounter are due to ableism, the belief that disabled people are inferior to nondisabled people. Ableism is widespread and includes our language. Discomfort with disability-related words is a symptom of ableism. I recommend taking the time to learn about ableism and moving past disability-related discomfort.

Burke: The first step is to understand that language is both personal and political. Language morphs with time and context and what one disabled person prefers, is probably in contrast to what a different disabled person might use and say. This might sound overwhelming, or that it’s too difficult to even try to figure out the most correct words, but understanding the connections between disability, language and pride is a good start. Most disabled activists prefer to use identity-first language, such as a disabled person, rather than a person with a disability — because it underlines the role of our disabilities in shaping our personalities and our experiences.

“Our disabilities are not the sum of our parts, but they are integral to who we are.”

Sinéad Burke, accessible fashion icon

I would also advise that people educate themselves. There has never been more access to disabled people and their stories. Teach yourself — whether that’s through reading Alice Wong’s, “Disability Visibility” and Rebekah Taussig’s, “Sitting Pretty,” or following disability activists such as Rebecca Cokley, Imani Barbarin, Christine Sun Kim, Mia Ives-Rublee and Vilissa Thompson.

It’s a small start, but we do not know what we do not know. We must embrace our discomfort in learning a new language and in instigating conversations where we do not have expertise. It will be awkward, and the first few might not go as you hope, but the alternative is apathy and division. Making mistakes and learning from them is easy, but avoiding whole groups of people is a mistake we can’t afford.

You both have expressed strong opinions on being considered an “inspiration.” What do you say to people who try to frame you that way?

Girma: Many disabled people don’t like being called inspiring. The word is often used as a disguise for pity. For example, “You inspire me to stop complaining because I should be grateful I don’t have your problems.” This type of “inspiration” is ableist, perpetuating the marginalization of disabled people. We are tired of people twisting a positive word into something hurtful. A few people know how to use the word in an uplifting way. For example, “I’m inspired to add transcripts to my podcasts.” Inspiring people to remove barriers is rewarding.

Burke: We live in an ableist world. This may not have been intentional but with the exclusion of disabled people and their perspectives in the rooms that have and continue to shape culture, policy and design, ableism is inevitable. This is beginning to change, but slowly.

There are still frequent moments when people compare my achievements to their life, saying, “If Sinéad can do that, and she’s just a little person, what can I do? What does that mean for me?” This fits within Stella Young’s definition of inspiration porn, utilising disabled lives as fuel for motivation of non-disabled people, whilst minimising and erasing the worth of the disabled person.

When it happens, I respond in different ways. Usually, there isn’t malice but it’s the conditioned ableism making itself known. I try to frame my achievements and ambition not as something that overcomes my disability or makes me a better, more acceptable disabled person, but I try to point out that without my disability, I most likely wouldn’t be interested in fashion, or education.

Being a little person has shaped my personality and has encouraged my skills of problem-solving, creativity and public speaking. If I wasn’t a little person, I would be a different person. My achievements are not in spite of my disability, but because of it.

Sinéad, how has fashion changed, both as a craft and as a business, around the goal of being more inclusive?

Burke: It’s the middle of fashion month whilst I write this and it’s been so wonderful to see greater visibility of Black models, brown models, plus size models and disabled models - if you haven’t seen Aaron Philip at Moschino, you must! But, as much as the aesthetic of the industry has changed, representation at management level is still required. Many luxury companies have hired diversity and inclusion officers, but how broad is their brief? Are they responsible for talent management and acquisition? Do they also help to shape the communications, the selection of brand ambassadors, and advise the design team on cultural nuances? The fashion industry is a microcosm for the business world at large: As we move forward to build equitable systems, the role of inclusion does not just lie with one person. We each have an obligation to do this work.

Girma: Let’s expand the conversation from rights to justice. There are many things that have not been written into law due to racism, sexism, and ableism. Advocate for justice as much as you can, whenever you can.

Someone comes to you and says: “Okay. I want to help build a better world. Where do I start?” What do you tell them?

Burke: I would ask two questions: What is your dream or your end goal? If you were to work backwards from that, how could you start right now? I think we are each wired to want to change the world, to realise our own potential and to discover ways in which we can be better allies, friends and citizens. But the enormity of what needs to change can feel overwhelming. I wanted to be the first little person to be on the cover of Vogue, it was a decision I made at sixteen years old but it didn’t happen on making the decision. It took a decade of interesting and challenging conversations, research and education and a little luck.

Girma: Start by defining what you mean by a “better” world. Then ask yourself what is missing in that definition. Invite people who are different from you to craft their own definitions of a better world. Continue that exercise until the people creating the definition represent the full diversity of humanity.

It’s your first day as a tech CEO. What’s the first thing you do to start building an equitable workplace?

Burke: When I think about change, I view it through a systemic and intersectional lens. Meaning that I always want that change to outlast me and to impact more than me. I would start by partnering with organisations to create scholarships, bursaries and internships for students and entrepreneurs to support their journey. These organisations would understand and personify the phrase, ‘nothing about us, without us’ ensuring that this project would be speaking with these specific communities, rather than speaking for.

I would also amend the HR policies within the organisation ensuring that each prospective candidate is asked if there are any accessibility accommodations which we can provide. I would create an advisory board, hiring external voices who have an expertise and a perspective that the company is missing and be open to hearing their ideas and criticisms — particularly the ones that are not so palatable. I would encourage a culture of disclosure whereby people feel free to be themselves at work, to identify as who they are. I would move the bathrooms to be accessible and non-binary and ensure that when we would return to the office, that our workspace is inclusive and accessible to all. I would leverage our position to lobby government and local policy — ensuring that our impact and our equitable practice is not just something that benefits those within our organisation and those who reflect our perspective, identity and lived experience.

Girma: I’d start the day with a cup of coffee. Resisting society’s oppressive forces is exhausting work. It’s important for leaders to also role model self-care.