From educating primary school students in Dublin to being the first little person to attend the Met Gala, Sinéad Burke is a teacher turned fashion guru and Vogue cover star. Having always used her voice to advocate for disability, Sinéad speaks with Lorne Gillies about the importance of empathy and inclusion in society.
The first step to becoming more empathetic is listen to the experiences of others. Listen to their campaign for change, listen to what it’s like to live in another person’s shoes.
This is the premise of Sinéad Burke’s debut podcast, As Me with Sinéad. During the podcast, Sinéad sits down with celebrities including Victoria Beckham, Jamie Lee Curtis, Adwoa Aboah and more to discuss what it’s like to be them – a real, intimate take on their lives. Asking just four questions, Sinéad’s role is to listen and discover the person behind what is seen in the media.
The podcast is both powerful and uplifting, with deep conversations challenging biases and deepening humanity.
“[The podcast producer, from Lemonada Media and I] had this very honest conversation about me being a disabled woman and constantly asking strangers for their assistance and help in order to live independently, that has created in me an empathy,” explains Sinéad.
“This isn’t in fact a weakness, it is a strength and I could be the person that harnessed those qualities within a conversation with others where they could be vulnerable and be themselves.”
During the introductory minutes in the first episode, Sinéad says: “My independence is based on stranger’s kindness.”
We all strive to be independent, and discussing disability and listening to the needs of others is imperative for an inclusive society, aware of disability.
“If you think it you can, be it,” Sinéad emphasises. “For as long as I can remember I have wanted to see my narrative reflected in a children’s book.
“When I was a primary school teacher I wanted to see that in the library; I wanted to have a doll that looked like me; I wanted to go to a film and see someone like me who was the protagonist and not the butt of the joke.
“In many ways some of these things have changed, but in some other ways things haven’t changed. I think having different perspectives and people having the agency to tell their own story will not only shape their own self-portrait, but could shape the world; because, what is the potential when you realise that we are allowed to exist and our ideas are important, and that disabled people should be part of every element of society and we’re no longer only allowed to exist on the periphery, we’re allowed to be the leaders of our own life,” emphasises Sinéad.
Through working on the podcast, conducting successful TED Talks, a career as a teacher and campaigning for change, Sinéad is achieving her ambitions and reaching her goals.
At the age of 18, Sinéad realised her love for fashion and started her own fashion blog. In 2019, at the May Met Gala, Sinéad walked the red carpet as the first little person to ever attend the iconic event – but the move was more meaningful.
“It was never my desire to be the first at anything, and I never realised in many ways that I was the first,” says Sinéad.
“It was understanding that the Met Gala was more than just a party, it was a symbol of fashion acceptance and it was about delivering the spotlight onto people that we should be listening to, to have that influence.
“When I was younger it would have been great to see someone, who looks like me, on that red carpet because it would have given me permission to believe that I could do that, too.”
From the Met Gala to appearing on the cover of the September issue of British Vogue, Sinéad is campaigning to change perceptions.
She fervently adds: “It’s not good enough that in 2019 that you can still be ableist or not provide accessibility in locations. This is just a stepping point and we need to go further and listen to the voices that have been excluded. We need to go to a model of disability.
“Society needs to consider the language that we use to talk about disability, and how we treat or see disabled people and really look at disability as a form of human identity and with pride.”
Working in the spotlight, Sinéad is using her voice to advocate for change, but putting a spotlight on disability shouldn’t fall to everyone who identifies as disabled.
“It is not our job to educate the world, but I choose to be an advocate,” continues Sinéad. “I want to put my voice to good use because I don’t want to be having the same conversations in 10 or 20 years; individuals like me and many others who are leading this charge can help facilitate that.
“It’s all about individuals who want to be allies and want to educate themselves on the language and perspective of disability,” Sinéad adds.
“So much of that information is available, people can go and do the research but then be encouraged to make mistakes and learn from them. Creating the space where people can ask questions is all about finding the balance of disabled people who want to participate in the dialogue but not feeling like they have to either.”
Education is integral if we are to live in a world where all our differences are celebrated, and not what ostracises people from different communities.
Through Sinéad’s podcast, listening to the stories of others, discussing disability and helping people to learn: the conversation around disability, inclusion and being empathetic to the needs of others is sure to change to create a more inclusive society.