Community-Based Illustration and Why It's Important

I am a massive nerd when it comes to research, and becoming an illustrator felt like an exciting opportunity to channel my research skills into something new and important.

The Anthropologist and Historian in me sees illustration as expressions of peoples' lived social, cultural and historical experiences wrapped up into something visual. As a result, it can be used as a powerful tool for social justice activism.

So, when I partnered with Refinery29 for their Voices of Disability series, I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to engage with the wider disabled community and create an illustration that speaks to the breadth of our experiences, rather than just my own.

The brief for the project was to create an illustration that showed a disabled person working from home to accompany an article looking at the ableism behind why it took the pandemic to normalise working from home. It would've been easy for me to think about my own work from home set up and illustrate that, but I wanted to take the project further. To me, this illustration was an opportunity to uncover in detail the collective needs many disabled people share when working from home.

To get started, I decided to reach out to fellow disabled folks on the #NEISvoid tag on twitter. For my non-disabled readers, this is a popular hashtag amongst disabled people that basically means 'no end in sight void' referring to living with a chronic illness, disability and/or going through the process of getting diagnosed.

The response I received was phenomenal. I received over 60 replies to this tweet from disabled folks who took the time to tell me about their work from home set up!

After reading through each response and talking to people on the thread, it was then time for my favourite part of the research process - finding commonalities and themes in the responses I received. Having read through all the comments and each photo sent to me, it became clear that for each disabled person working from home, comfort was the most important element of their set up.

Where disability can result in pain and discomfort, the need to occupy space in a way that honours your disability is fundamental to a work set up. And, what better way to honour your disability than to create an environment that centres your comfort?

Comfort, then, had to be central to my illustration. But, how to represent comfort in a visual illustration? Reading through tweets from the thread, I gathered a few key ways in which comfort is created for disabled folks:

  • The option to move position - most people agree that it is important that they are able to move easily from one position to another if their energy is waning or they are in pain. The most common positions that people want to have available to them includes a seated position (ergonomic chair preferred!), reclined position and a lying down position.

  • Comfort props to hand - props can make all the difference in creating a working space that is comfortable and easy to adjust. The kind of props that most people use includes heating pads/hot water bottles, pillows and cushions, a head rest, laptop stand and blankets.

  • Medicine, pain-killers and walking aids nearby - it sounds like a fairly obvious one, but having access to walking aids, medicine and pain-killers can be tricky when you're not in control of your work environment. That's one of the biggest positives to working at home for many disabled folks - you can arrange and have what you need right near you so that it is always within reach. Alongside these essentials, disabled folk also mentioned the importance of having snacks, beverages and other items (like fidget toys!) to hand if they need it.