PEOPLE: PHD Candidate striving towards elevating inclusion for nonverbal communication and individuals with diverse cognition

Can you tell our readers what a normal day looks like for Ilianna Ginnis

For me, no two days are alike. I work and engage with diverse individuals with a range of needs and as a designer, I find that I need to be flexible and attentive in order to respond to diversities. The individuals I support and design with have intellectual disabilities and diverse cognitive capacities, therefore, design takes on a role beyond aesthetics and begins to become an advocate and a communication partner for individuals with communication and cognition diversities.

Communication is a very important part of my day. The people I mostly work with are non-verbal and minimally verbal communicators who utilise assistive communication and alternative augmentative communication (AAC). I communicate with so many different types of people, individuals who use picture exchange communication, gestures, facial expressions, objects which have unique and specific meaning to them and so much more. Growing up with a sibling who was non-verbal, it was evident architecture does not meet the needs of people who are neurodiverse and use alternative forms of communication. I wanted to change this, so I dedicate every day of my life as a designer and an advocate to ensure people who are non-verbal are heard and represented within the design. I am motivated every day by my younger sister Michelle and all the other non-verbal communicators. I want to see a world where communication access is met in the built environment. 

I am currently a PhD candidate at Monash University as well as an interior architectural designer within an architecture firm in Melbourne. 

I also assist my younger sister every day, as she is my ‘why’.

How important is diversity to you and in the work that you do?

I grew up very close to my younger sister Michelle who has an intellectual disability, and this enabled me to see the world from this unique and diverse lens. Growing up with a sibling like Michelle has been amazing, she has positively impacted my life. Through Michelle, I was able to learn diverse forms of communication and interaction. 

Being that I was one of Michelle’s main caregivers, I would see the challenges Michelle experienced in her environment. Michelle is additionally a non-verbal communicator, which makes her experiences in private and public spaces more challenging, as space does not accommodate diverse communication needs. Space did not accommodate to her needs. For instance, spaces were too bright, or sensory rooms were controlled by adults with no disability, therefore, limiting her engagement with space further. 

I adored looking after Michelle so much I studied to become a disability support worker. This introduced me to even more incredible people like Michelle, who too, was non-verbal and minimally verbal. These experiences further exposed me to the problematic sides of architecture. We experienced a variety of spaces together, including sensory rooms, quiet spaces, shopping centres, supermarkets and even parks. They all had challenges that restricted Michelle and the other non-verbal communicators. 

I didn’t like the way architecture was excluded, so I decided I wanted to make a difference. Spaces designed for non-verbal communication, are designed in their absence excluding them from design, therefore, design outcomes don’t respond to their needs and desires. I studied Interior Architecture at Monash University and completed my honours in developing spaces for no-verbal and minimally verbal communicators. When studying, I saw nothing was developed within architecture practices for the inclusion of non-verbal individuals or even individuals with diverse cognition. 

This has led me here, to begin a PhD within the Design Health Collab at Monash University, creating systems for designers to learn from non-verbal and minimally verbal individuals and consider them in the development of design  

Have you ever faced challenges in your professional career from others because of your identity and if so, how were you able to overcome that?

Not so many challenges with my identity, more so that architecture still does not meet diverse cognition and communication. 

Michelle is my why and the reason I dedicated myself to this work. Growing up close, I was able to see the challenges she still experiences in space. Michelle is my why and the reason I want to make space more accessible to her communication needs. 

I was surprised, as I have grown up around non-verbal communication and my reality consisted of Michelle and children like her. So, for me, Michelle and all the other people were my audiences. However, in architecture systems are designed in a way that excludes diverse forms of communication and priorities spoken language. So, by the time I graduated, there has been no change within architecture in moving towards diverse communication inclusion.

By designing a home for people who are non-verbal, this was my attempt to reveal the potentials and possibilities design has. The home was designed purely by non-verbal individuals, as the designer, I was simply the facilitator, responding to their diverse needs and desires to make the home accommodate their needs. 

Michelle has faced challenges, particularly within spaces. Some of these include spaces being poorly lit, too loud, and over sensory stimulated, claustrophobic, poor circulation, and layout as well as voids to reflect the lower level. In addition to this, public spaces do not cater for diverse communication needs. For example, not all parks have the inclusion of diverse communication and shopping centres do not cater for the needs of communication disabilities. 

These challenges are ongoing for people with intellectual disabilities who are non-verbal and minimally verbal. 

My research aims to create a design process that takes into consideration the unique communication needs of non-verbal individuals. By doing so, designers will include non-verbal individuals and learn from these encounters to include them in the decision making of spaces. The desired result would be for spaces to being to produce outcomes that are empathetic to diverse needs as well as allow communication access for people who are non -verbal. 

ADVICE FOR THE YOUTH

My message would be to be yourself and embrace your diversity as they make you powerful. By empowering each other in creating inclusion, we can create a place with diversity that is recognised.

Just because someone can’t speak, doesn’t mean they have nothing to say. I am working for a future where people like Michelle will be heard and where design responds to their needs and desires, as well as their human rights.

Want to follow and support ?

Instagram: @Ginnis_Design 

Website: www.ginnisdesign.com


About the diversity champion:

Ilianna Ginnis is an Interior Architectural Designer and a current PhD Candidate at Monash University. Ilianna is also a caregiver for persons with disabilities. Ilianna prides herself on designing with consciousness, creating interventions that extend the ordinary intentions of architecture, multi-disciplinary and sensory design for people with neurodevelopmental disabilities. Ilianna maintains a focus on communication, especially behavioral and non-verbal/ minimally verbal, to create design processes which are inclusive to neurodiversity and communication access. She aims to achieve empathy by exploring interior architecture with a fundamental focus on intellectual and neurodevelopmental disability. Her PhD speculates how design processes consider persons with severe and profound intellectual disability and non-verbal communication, allowing designers to integrate users into complex processes as narrators of their own experience.

Image description: Ilianna is looking at the camera wearing a white shirt