5 minutes with… Minnie Baragwanath, Chief Possibility Officer at AUT’s Centre of Possibility

1 year ago by

We spoke with Minnie Baragwanath, Chief Possibility Officer at AUT’s Centre of Possibility to learn more about designing with a lens of possibility, the prevalence of access needs in our community, the costs of inaccessibility and the important distinction between designing for accessibility rather than disability. Minnie also shares how vision impairment shaped her creativity, resilience and allowed her to see design flaws with clarity…


Was there someone (or something) that inspired you to pick design as a career path? 

When I think about who or what I am – I am a very creative person. My creativity shows up as a passion for redesigning the world around us. The canvas is creating the conditions for us all to flourish and thrive. That requires enormous creativity. So although I was not formally trained, as a designer a combination of things put me on this path:

I was brought up with a mother who encouraged us to play explore and create and never to accept the status quo and always to question – key qualities for anyone designing or imagining. My mother also modelled leadership in terms of social justice and social equity. If there was something in the world that wasn’t right or fair we were encouraged to use our imagination to restore balance and justice in the world.

The third part is having being born partially blind. The world doesn’t take into account your way of being so to get by in the world survival becomes creative problem-solving exercise.

What project, personal or professional, are you most proud of and why?

I have just changed job – from CEO and founder of be accessible (recently rebranded as BeLab), which has a vision of positioning New Zealand as the most accessible country in the world. I have been reflecting on my contribution to the world around me as BeLab is entering its 10th world this year. 

When it began I didn’t envisage it would be going and growing 10 years later, we have worked with 100’s of business and organisations to become more open, inclusive and diverse… more than 150 leaders with access needs (through our leadership program) that come from the arts, sporting, political backgrounds. We created employment programs for people with access needs who had often been overlooked but still had lots of value to give. BeLab has been a series of amazing achievements. 

How has your lived experience of disability strengthened or enhanced your practice?

Growing up as a young person with congenital blindness and deteriorating sight, in a world that assumes we can see well is challenging. It is so ingrained that people just assume that everyone has 2020 eyesight. It would be the same for deafness or mobility issues.

Take an oven for example, everything about the modern oven is designed in a way that assumes you can see digitial display. With an old analogue oven you could click, turn, count and feel your way with dials but now with everything going digital and LED display… Living with my sight condition, means I almost cant use them.

I look around me and question why things are designed this way. I cant not see, but I can not help but see the flaws in the design of so many products. 

Something as simple as wanting to operate an oven or read a book has given me a very particular way of understanding the world, where I can identify the gaps and where we have failed to consider those in our society without 2020 vision. 

This lived experience has given me a lens when harnessed and honed which can improve design process and the world around us.

How does your approach to looking at accessibility through the lens of possibility look like?

I believe part of creating and doing social change work means we have a responsibility to ensure that the frameworks we are using are relevant and useful to the time in which we live. We are in the 21st century and need to question: Are our existing accessibility frameworks fit for purpose today?

The disability point of view so ingrained, its about deficit, charity, welfare, our building code is full of this ‘minimum standard’ we can design too. It is not a generous way of thinking. It is about tick boxes and ‘oh guess I need to think about those disabled people when we design an airport, oh gosh its going to cost us more’ this all feeds that narrative of deficit.

When we set up BeAccesible, we need to shift the new narrative to a framework of accessibility rather than disability.

If we live long enough, all of us will experience disability or an access need. Disability is not just about people in a wheelchair, it is our parents needing a hip replacement, with the television getting louder and phone font larger. It is those of us with a limitation through an injury. So we need to think not ‘us and them’ or ‘disabled and non-disabled’. This is too binary a world view. 

Instead, we need to shift to a concept of continuum. We are all on the scale between able and disabled – this is a more generous world view to frame thinking around design for people with access needs.

So much of the world has already been designed, without access needs in mind, our houses, cities, infrastructure, websites, clothing our appliances. It is a huge amount of work and energy to redesign/retrofit or fix what has already been designed. 

But we cant leave designing for access to chance. 25% of our global population right now have access needs and have to improvise in their day to day lives – that is 2 billion people worldwide – a large untapped global market that would choose more accessible products if they could.

3-4 years back I was in our hospital system on and off for a year it was a brutal and confronting experience of how far we had to go to create an accessible world when even our healthcare system was so inaccessible. This was a prompt to question how I can be most impactful.

Right now we are at a unique point in our narrative. Rapid change, technology, social media globalisation are opportunities as much as they are constraints. As humans expected to adopt and adapt in a world fast than most of us can keep up with but what does that mean to the 25% of people with access needs?

It occurred to me people with access needs could be propelled forward and experience equity in a way they never before have if we design accessibility within a framework of possibility. Or if we continue to design without possibility people could be pushed right back and lose the little bit of ground we have gained.

So the opportunity right now is to get on the front foot and design a truly accessible future where we can position NZ as a leader and innovator in accessibility for those 2 billion with access needs. If we don’t give it our best shot there is a real risk this group of people cant participate in the world, and are left out of the equation.

Possibility thinking is about future-focused systems design. Creating a framework to accessibility design that is fit for the 21st century and ensures no-one is left behind. It is about deeply designing with people with access needs – not designing for them.

We cant walk in each others shoes… it is like a male putting on a dress and imagining what it is like to be female – you know what it’s like to wear a dress not to be a woman. This is true of designers simulating accessibility experiences – it is never the same – as ensuring blind people or people with access issues are deeply involved in the design process. Designing for accessibility needs to be collaborative, not tokenistic. People with access needs bring immense value to design. 

What are your aspirations for the Center of Possibility at AUT?

  • To create and design a contemporary approach to accessible design practice.
  • To co-design promote, share and grow that approach 
  • To create a community of possibility/access focused entrepreneurs and innovators.
  • To promote products and services that bring possibility design and innovation to life locally and globally.
  • Be the hothouse for possibility design in the world. We can create and grow something in Aotearoa in a unique way – we can be the guardians of possibility. Nurturing this way of creating and thinking.
  • One thing at a practical level is running workshops for organisations on possibility leadership and design
  • In time we want to help attract funding to incubate designers with access needs and to support their practice 
  • Host conversations and events around possibility design and innovation

How do you see the impact of bad design on people’s ability to participate in society?

I think at its worst bad design that excludes people can destroy people’s lives – it can be that bad. 

We need to design with a broader or bigger sense of what design can be… looking at systems and frameworks, looking at our impact. 

Going back to when I mentioned my experience in our health system, I couldn’t access my hospital appointments when I had cancer – I couldn’t read the labels on my medication. Our health system is struggling with the basics – the consequence of them not getting accessibility right is huge. 

  • If you cant access education how do we learn and grow and thrive and connect in the world, to fulfill your purpose? 
  • If you cant get into a building how do we take part, and contribute? 
  • If we cant connect online with our community – it takes resilience to remain positive…  

The cost of bad design and inaccessibility is huge.

To design from a place of deep consideration for others could have the most profound – enhancing life experience.

What are some of the key considerations Aotearoa designers should focus on to make their work more inclusive? 

  • Be aware when designing anything at least 25% of the population at any given time have access needs. (That figure rises to 30% when looking at millennials.)
  • Designers need to question how am I considering that 25-30 % when designing X?
  • If we are not designing access in we are designing it out for that 25%+++.
  • How do we want to show up in the world as a designer? What does designing without accessibility in mind mean for us, and our integrity as individuals and as a community?


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