Liz Jackson: Evolving Disability Into a Creative Practice

March 30, 2012 is the day that altered the trajectory of Liz Jackson’s life and career. That day, Liz went to get out of bed and, instead of landing on her feet, fell to the floor. After leaving the hospital that day, she needed eyeglasses and a cane, which then caused Liz to wonder why there were so many fashionable eyeglass frames to choose from but there was no variety in regards to her cane.

This thought sparked a number of others centered on the rudimentary and ineffectual approach to disability design. Liz found that many companies operate under the pretense that they’re designing for the disabled, when in all actuality, they aren’t. They continue to fall short. A failure Liz believes is best attributed to their misguided focus. Instead of actually working with those who are disabled to create a functional — and fashionable — product, most companies ignore the disability community completely, resulting in designs aimed to inspire their other consumers and ultimately enhance their brand.

The global disability market comprises an estimated 1.27 billion people — nearly one in five people worldwide. Combine this number with friends and family members close enough to have an emotional attachment to the consumer-related needs of persons with disabilities and you have a group with an annual spending power of $8 trillion or more. Needless to say, there is so much potential in this space and Liz has made it her mission to let people know. She summarized it best in her Adobe 99U talk, “We want you to know, we don’t want to be fixed, we want things fixed. We don’t want our diversity and identities eliminated, we want access and equity.” 

As a solution, Liz created The Disabled List, a roster of creative disabled people who are available to  consult with companies throughout the product design process. Since its inception, the project has grown to become so much more than just a list. It’s now a disability-led advocacy group committed to creating opportunities in design specifically for the disabled. Or, as Liz likes to call this community, the original lifehackers. Liz has also gone on to found WITH, a program that places creative disabled talent into top design studios in New York City for three-month fellowships. The goal here –– to create new pathways into design for disabled people.

Having originally gone to school for TV production, Liz’s career has evolved both dramatically and organically once she realized the powerful impact design can have on the disability community. Here she is to tell you more about it:

Tell us about a project or accomplishments from the past 10 years that had a major impact on your life or career.

I can’t think of anything that I have done that I would consider to be an accomplishment. There’s not a talk I have given or a paper I have written that I still agree with. My experience in design is nothing more than a process of self reflection and loss. A loss of confidence in knowing. A loss of believing something to be true. A loss of viewing an accomplishment as an accomplishment. I believe this is what it means to be an advocate in the design world.

What is your favorite color, and why?

I would have to say the color purple. My design career started when I created a blog called The Girl with the Purple Cane. The Girl with the Purple Cane became, not only an alter ego for me, but also a lifeline. She helped me discover my life’s purpose at the intersection of design and disability. Interestingly, I don’t actually like most shades of purple.

What keeps you going when you’re focused on a project? Is there a particular saying or song that gets you moving? 

There is one thing that keeps me going when I’m focused on a project. Anger. I resent how design schools insist on breeding an empathetic and controlled designer. This does not foster creativity, it neutralizes it. Where are design courses on fury? That’s what I want.

What’s your superpower, or one you wish you had?

There is a stigmatizing trope in disability called the SuperCrip that pressures disabled people to overcome, or create a narrative that they have overcome their particular circumstances. We are never allowed to be disabled. And so rather than wishing for a superpower, I instead wish the freedom for myself and my disabled peers to be who we are in our bodies and in our minds.

What design or career advice would you give to your younger self?

I’d give myself the same advice I give designers now, which is this: Every single one of my greatest successes has been a fuck you to someone I respect, admire or wish would include me. Give all the fucks.

If you were given the opportunity to see into the future, what would you want to know?

If I were given the opportunity to see into the future, I would want to know who is included in it. So often in futures studies, disability is written out of the future. But disability is my community, almost all of my friends are disabled. And so I would want to know that there was a place for us in the world in the future.

How do you think design impacts your everyday life? The community?

I now use the words disability and design interchangeably. To me, the words have become synonymous. One informs the other, one is the result of the other. And so, I can’t help but wonder when we are going to engage in the other side of design.

If you hadn’t ended up in the career you are in, what do you think you’d be doing?

I spent the first decade of my career working in television production. I discovered my love of design through my experiences in becoming disabled. While I don’t think I would still be working in TV, I do realize that whatever direction my career would have gone, it would not have been nearly as fulfilling as what I’m doing now.

The capacity design has to create tangible change has inspired Liz to utilize the discipline in a way that will revolutionize an entire community –– and she’s only just getting started. To learn more about Liz and her mission to evolve disability into a creative practice, be sure to hear her speak at the Evolve Design Conference on Oct. 12 and 13.

By Breanne Krager