Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa has become a successful designer and curator, despite suffering from Cerebral Palsy – designing both regular household products and beautiful products for disabled people through her Design for Disability project. Seeing her disability as a positive rather than a negative, she’s also become an energetic advocate for inclusivity in the design world. In last week’s Zoom Dive, she discussed how we should focus on the human aspect of the design process as well as the product itself.
Designer and disability advocate Jessica Ryan-Ndegwa was born and raised in London with Cerebral Palsy, which affects her balance and short-term memory. After graduating from Kingston University with a BA in Product and Furniture Design, her mission has always been to champion a more inclusive society. Her work includes writing, designing, and curating with companies such as the Tate Exchange, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and The Design Museum while becoming an energetic campaigner for disability inclusion. She has always embraced her differences positively and refused to be seen as a victim for her disability.
On having a disability I was born with cerebral palsy. And my CP affects my short-term memory, and my balance and coordination. But I never let that get in the way, or hold back in life. I think this is because my family always told me I could do anything, be anything I wanted to be and that’s a really important message for everyone to hear and believe.
On asking questions I wanted to question this area of design, who is designing for disabled people? and at what stage are disabled people involved with the process, design, and overall outcome?
As a starter, I pinpointed the area of medical design to look at because it’s an area I knew well, it was in the family. I was fascinated by it all because as a child you are just sort of given these tools to use, all white, chunky, plastic, and heavy – I would question, has the end-user been thought of at all really? What you end up with has no connection between how a product is designed, and how it looks. I wanted to tap into that space.
On how glasses, bucked the trend Glasses are actually one of the first medical tools that actually ended up becoming a fashionable item, or a real statement of someone’s personality. Glasses are used for medical reasons absolutely fundamentally but I think when we think of glasses now we think more about the frames, the style, the designer. I want more medical items to have that sort of feeling.
On Jessicas design thinking My thinking always starts with everyone is human, everyone is different. What I have learnt from working with many different charities and individuals is that society is the thing that disables the individual, not the individual who is disabled.
What has ultimately shaped my ideas on inclusion is working with as many different people as possible, and young people with different disabilities, I now have valuable insights into the different experiences of people with disabilities and what they face on a day-to-day basis. From there, you can learn how to support this group through products and services. I am a people person, so learning from people one to one really works for me and shapes my practice.
On starting a business If you’ve got a vision, and if you’ve got a mission, you have to run with it. You know, no matter where it takes you, just keep that in mind, because, and that’s exactly what I have done, over the past 6 years. It definitely opened up lots of different doors and many different opportunities. if you’ve got a business idea that has stuck, if you can see your end goal, just stick with your end goal, and then you know, things will happen.
I was at a stage with my business where I felt a bit lost, What do I do? how do I do it? how do I get paid to do it? I had just jumped into the deep end, you know, with no real plan.
I learned how to present myself and my business through pitching because I needed to gain investment. When you pitch for funding, it’s a very, very different kettle of fish, as opposed to giving a talk or being interviewed. There are areas in a part of my disability where I suffer from short-term memory and comprehension difficulties, so that’s another thing for me to consider when pitching to an investor, I’ll think okay, what’s my business brain telling me to do? What’s my creative brain telling me to do? That was a real challenge for me. But, once I got to grips with telling my story, my way and you do it again and again, always going back to that vision, mission, and strategy, without veering off. You can’t go wrong.
On selling products My initial plan was to try and sell directly to medical professionals, hospitals, and the NHS and those do still remain longer-term goals. I thought I was a B2B business but in actual fact, I have found it easier, and more rewarding to sell to individuals – I realized that it was probably easier for me to shift products either one-on-one or through my website or my social media profiles. That’s the key way the business is scaling at the moment. My vision is still to change the pace of how these products, are designed and how they look, and how they feel, and how they’re bought.
One final piece of advice Follow your heart on things you know that you enjoy doing. And don’t let anyone dampen you, or stop you from trying to achieve what you know you are capable of.
Jessica loves the book ‘Design meets disability
If you missed the talk with Jessica, you can hear it on our Soundcloud page below, the rest of our event series can be booked on our event brite page – We can’t wait to see you there!