Speakers Series: ‘Tilting the Lens,’ with Sinéad Burke

After a day spent challenging students to think about the words they use, writer, teacher and advocate Sinead Burke presented to the community in the School Center on Monday evening, 7 October.

Head of School Robin Appleby welcomed the audience of close to 200 to the first ASL Speakers Series event of the 2019-20 calendar. She expressed her honor and delight to host Sinéad at ASL. Born with achondroplasia, Sinéad works tirelessly towards accelerating systemic change within the domains of diversity, education, inclusion, design and disability. She consults within the fashion, architecture, technology and design industries to ensure that spaces and products are accessible to all.    

Sinéad is a TED speaker, and her talk, ‘Why Design Should Include Everyone,’ has amassed more than one million views on YouTube. Speaking on the topics of design, education and inclusion, she most recently addressed the Business of Fashion’s VOICES conference. She was the only Irish female delegate at the World Economic Forum’s 2018 annual meeting in Davos, and she returned as a Cultural Leader of the Davos program in 2019. 

Sinéad was presented with The Leadership Award at Eco-Age’s Green Carpet Fashion Awards by Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri. In addition, she is a contributing editor for British Vogue, and was the first little person to attend the Met Gala. She writes for the Financial Times, Teen Vogue and the New York Times and this month begins a new podcast with Lemonada Media called “As Me with Sinéad.” She was one of the cover stars of the Forces for Change September issue of British Vogue and the Business of Fashion’s Age of Influence print issue. She is a member of the BoF500 and according to British Vogue, Sinéad is one of the 25 most influential women working in Britain and Ireland. Finally, by appointment of President Michael D. Higgins, Sinéad is a member of Ireland’s Council of State.

Mrs. Appleby thanked Sinéad for taking time out of her busy schedule to address students in multiple assemblies and for presenting to the greater community on ‘Tilting the Lens,’ the story of Sinéad’s fight to make good design more accessible to everyone.

Sinéad opened by thanking the parents for being catalysts for change, and opined that, given her experience during the school day, their children were a credit to them. The students’ questions had impressed her, and their interest in their interactions had led to valuable exchanges and difficult conversations.

Sinéad loved school from her first day. She realized early that books were her way to architecting her own narrative. Born into a working-class area of Dublin, Ireland, Sinéad soon arrived at the conclusion that language is a tool for empowerment, while at the same time, something that can cause harm.

Telling the story of what brought her into teaching in the classrooms of Dublin, Sinéad shared that her desire to become an educator was never questioned by her supportive family. She knew she had assets to bring to the profession, while others in the business were more concerned with what she would be unable to do. “We don’t choose the color of our skin, or the height we reach as adults, but we do get to choose how we behave,” she said.

Her burgeoning interest in fashion, which took her out of the classroom, emerged from her frustration in not being able to buy clothes that fit her physicality. And her work with major fashion houses in bringing about change is something about which she is passionate.

“The person I have become is because of the body I inhabit and the experiences I have lived. I wouldn’t change who I am, even if I had a magic wand!” Something she would change, however, is to make sure that when big decisions are being made—across platforms and continents—the first question posed would be, ‘Who is not in the room?’

Sinéad’s presentation was a great opportunity for us to delve deeper into this year’s ASL theme of inclusivity. She expounded the need to imprint the subject of inclusion early in students—to get them thinking—“Because who knows where they’ll be and what they’ll be doing in 10 years’ time.”

Asked about her work in improving physical and spacial access for those with disabilities to benefit their daily lives, Sinead was keen to point out that her remit extends beyond the challenges of little people like her, and includes those with autism, those with mental health issues, wheelchair users, and others. 

When parents and students are not sure how to behave, Sinéad encouraged them to ask questions with kindness.

Mrs. Appleby brought the evening to a close by thanking Sinead heartily for an inspiring talk and for giving us a new lens at ASL through which we can talk about and work together on inclusivity.