Dr Joanna Baker-Rogers is a Chartered Environmental Scientist, a disability scholar, keen amateur runner, public speaker, activist and disability champion. She also has an invisible disability.
To help create a more inclusive society that recognises the range of achievements that can be made by everyone – disabled or not – she created Diversity Designs, a range of clothing and accessories that use empowering images of diverse women. Here, she tells us more about the brand and how it all started…
My business has its origins in my two passions: championing disability and running. At the tender age of 50, I found myself with a host of qualifications and 30 years of work experience.
My first career, as an Environmental Scientist, had been rewarding. Having achieved my doctorate in special needs education, I had tried to forge a career teaching at university. I nearly made it, but luck wasn’t on my side. So, as I couldn’t find a niche to fill, I decided to create one.
As I have mentioned, I have two passions. Firstly, I am a keen runner and have been for more than 10 years. I have surprised myself and quite a few others with my dedication to my beloved sport.
My second is championing disability. For me, we are all human, whatever labels we have or identify with. What I think is important is that we focus on everyone’s abilities and celebrate their achievements. This is why I write disability the way I do!
I have long pondered how I can bridge the divide between my two passions. With Diversity Designs, I think I have done that.
Disability and imagery
Type in the word ‘disability’ into a search engine and what imagery do you see? Frequently, you see variations of the wheelchair sign and walking sticks. I don’t have a problem with that. Both may be needed by anyone with an impairment who has difficulty moving around unaided.
However, what I do have a problem with is the lack of inspiring and empowering images of disabled people in our society.
Parasport has shown us that someone with an impairment can participate in sport and achieve at the highest level. Anyone who has watched the Paralympics or the Invictus Games will know this. If disabled people are achieving amazing things in sport, where are all the inspiring and empowering images of them doing so?
Why are we only confronted with images of wheelchairs and walking sticks? For me, it’s because disability is a little bit scary, not fully understood nor embraced by the majority of the population who aren’t disabled. This is not a criticism, it’s my observation as to where society is regarding its thinking on disability.
What I think we need is a more inclusive society that embraces, celebrates, and welcomes the diversity of the human in achieving this goal, inspiring and empowering disability.
Imagery needs to become part of mainstream culture. Increasing the imagery of para-athletes that people see every day can make a significant contribution to this aim. You see it, register it (maybe subconsciously), and the imagery just becomes part of the daily landscape (just as it should be!)
When I started my business, I was unable to find any clothing or merchandise that did this. To put this into context, I have a store on Zazzle, a global print-on-demand website.
A conservative estimate is that Zazzle has 300 million products on sale. If you search ‘parasport’, only my images appear, and that’s less than 100! I think that in 2019 this is an astounding and very disappointing statistic.
This is where Diversity Designs comes in. It’s a range of clothing and accessories that embraces all girls with a focus on bridging the gap between running and disability. I am very proud to say that my Run, girl, run! collection includes images of wheelchair athletes, arm amputees, blade runners, and vision-impaired runners.
The T-shirts are to be worn after you have changed out of your running gear, to celebrate your latest achievement and to encourage you to run again. In addition, I am hoping that seeing other Diversity Designs products out and about – e.g. tote bags, phone cases, and water bottles – will open conversations with other people, who might like to join the wonderful world of running.
Whilst the Diversity Designs range has a focus on disability, my aim is to create products with imagery of all girls who run. You turn up at a running event and there are girls of all shapes, sizes, races, and ages and sometimes, even, abilities.
I created the curvy girl image so that I could celebrate my running and to enable other girls, like me, to do so. I want the designs to be totally inclusive of everyone and to celebrate strong, resilient women.
The designs are therefore applicable to professional athletes, such as Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill and Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, as well as mums and their daughters. The Diversity Designs range is, therefore, unique and a world first.
My overarching business, Busy Life, has a Diversity Designs store on Zazzle for merchandise and one on Teemill for clothing. The #Animagelikeme that I use, I think, says it all.
In addition, each product includes an affirmation or a phrase that can promote good mental health. So, by buying one of the Diversity Design products you are helping to overcome social barriers, championing the rights of people with disabilities and contributing to achieving a more inclusive society.
At present, Diversity Designs consists of the Run, girl, run! collection. The Run, boy, run! collection is now in development. For the future, the plan is to create new collections that present empowering and inspiring imagery for other sports.
Feedback from the disability, parasport, and running communities is incredibly positive about the Diversity Designs range. In July 2019, I am very proud to say that my Diversity Designs range won a #creativebizaward. In launching my range, I thought I would be joining a conversation. Instead, I am starting one and I am hoping you will all join me.
The Diversity Designs accessories are available to buy at the Busy Life Diversity Designs store on Zazzle and T-shirts and tote bags on Teemill. Both stores can also be accessed through the website Busy-Life.co.uk.
By Dr Joanna Baker-Rogers
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