Design for All feat. Emily Yates

Meet Emily Yates, Head of Accessibility and Inclusive Design at Mima, a human-centered design agency in London. As a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, Emily’s lifelong experience with accessibility drives her work. With 12 years as an accessibility consultant, a master’s in disability studies, and NRAC accreditation, she is a passionate advocate for inclusive design.

In this interview, Emily discusses her journey and emphasizes the importance of lived experience. She shares her commitment to making accessibility central to every project, from auditing town centers to crafting inclusive design guidelines for global events. Emily’s insights offer valuable lessons for creating truly inclusive environments.

Can you please introduce yourself, what you do and tell us about your experience (with accessibility and inclusion)? 

I’m Emily Yates, I live in (an often not so) sunny, and very friendly Glasgow, and I’m Head of Accessibility and Inclusive Design at human-centred design agency, Mima. I’m a wheelchair user and was born with cerebral palsy, so my personal experience with accessibility and inclusive design – or a lack of it – has been life-long. I’ve been working as an accessibility consultant for almost 12 years, have a master’s degree in disability studies and am NRAC accredited.  

My real interest in this area came out of a desperation to travel, closely followed by a smack-to-the-face reality check of how difficult it can sometimes be to do so in a safe, accessible, equitable and enjoyable way. I was the only person not ‘picked out of a hat’ to go on a school trip to Germany age 12 (I thankfully ended up going after my brilliant parents wrote a few brilliant letters to the local council), and successfully applied to an expedition trip through the Sinai Desert after my A Levels only for the female leader to withdraw her attendance (my mum took her place so I could go – yes, she’s wonderful).  

I’m not sharing the examples above to evoke any feelings of pity; I’ve certainly had more than my fair share of incredible adventures. But that lived experience knowledge, understanding and empathy has been at the forefront of my work for as long as I can remember, and I’m really proud to say that every one of our accessibility consultants at Mima has that personal experience of disability and/or neurodiversity.

How important is inclusion to your work? 

It is genuinely central to everything I do, every day. Whether that involves: 

  • auditing a town centre for a local authority in a way that focuses on all nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act (2010),  
  • running a lived experience user group session for a museum wanting to ensure their interactives are accessible to those with varying requirements,  
  • delivering disability awareness training to staff members working on transport systems,  
  • writing inclusive design guidelines for global events, 
  • or continuing to educate myself around new documentation, information and innovation. 

I also want to make sure that I’m leading a team that has inclusion at its very heart. A big part of being inclusive to me is having the confidence to be vulnerable, to challenge when needed, to readily admit when you’ve got something wrong, and to put true energy and effort into improvement. ‘Progress, not perfection’ is a well known phrase within our community, and I feel it’s important to live that as much as we can. 

How are you promoting inclusive design through your work and what are some of the challenges you’ve faced? 

I like to think that there’s three main pillars of accessibility and inclusive design – the physical, or built environment, pillar, the social/operational pillar, and the digital pillar. Mima stands for Micro and Macro – so we zoom in and out of that end-to-end visitor, passenger or colleague journey, ensuring that all touchpoints are focused on and considered, but also that we’re not forgetting wider, umbrella experiences and impacts. So, we might work with an airport to redesign its retail app (digital), multi-faith area offering (physical), or its assistance service (social/operational). In my personal opinion, true inclusion is at its finest when all three pillars are understood, and improvements are made.  

Challenges are probably predictable: a) a desire to make incredible change that is limited by time, resources and/or budget; b) viewing accessibility and inclusive design as a ‘nice to have’ or ‘optional add-on’ rather than a vital cog within a successful business wheel; and c) a lack of understanding causing embarrassment and pausing action.  

It’s therefore our job to a) make what we do as accessible from all angles as possible, b) ensure that clients truly understand and appreciate the value, spending power and loyalty of underrepresented markets in a way that cannot be ignored, and c) lead with a kind, progressive attitude in all instances, and find solutions that are as aspirational as possible, but also feasible and actionable!

What are 2-3 tips you’d share to other designers trying to design more inclusively? 

Don’t forget the useful theories and models: we (rightly) focus heavily on the ‘how’ when it comes to technical design – how large accessible toilets should be, how to choose and install the correct type of tactile paving, how to ensure hearing loops are correctly signposted and can be well-utilised. This is all great and much-needed. But, in doing so, don’t forget to remind yourself of the ‘why’ – the positive impact that such measures will have on often neglected communities. Reading up on the Social Model of Disability, the Purple Pound and Spoon Theory are good places to start. 

Engage with lived experience: listen, learn, ensure involvement is well-considered and useful (rather than tokenistic) and pay people for their time and expertise. It’s the simplest four-step process that will completely transform how you design but, more importantly, the perspective from which you see the world around you.

What are some of the resources you’ve found helpful to develop your understanding of accessibility and inclusion when it comes to your design work? 

Microsoft’s Inclusive Design toolkit is an excellent resource for those wanting to reframe, broaden and deepen how they think about disability and other protected characteristics. The recently released ‘PAS 6463: Design for the mind – neurodiversity and the built environment’ has added some much-needed technical focus on how to design for those who may have less visible impairments and accessibility requirements, and I recently read Lucy Webster’s ‘The View from Down Here’, her incredible memoir of life as a young, disabled woman. It cut through all the seasons of emotions and affected me deeply; I’ve never been so angry and full of admiration in one go. 


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User Experience & Design

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Chris Nasrawi