Meet Emily Vilcsak, a visionary advocate dedicated to transforming lives through tech-enabled solutions tailored for underserved communities. Emily’s remarkable achievements have not gone unnoticed, earning her the prestigious Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal in recognition of her impactful contributions. With a passion for empowerment, she has spearheaded programs reaching over 20,000 individuals, showcasing her commitment to creating positive change. Notably, Emily is the mastermind behind Fresh Deliveries, a revolutionary barrier-free food access initiative. Amidst the challenges of the pandemic, this program delivered an astounding $103,000 worth of food to community members, embodying her dedication to ensuring no one goes hungry. In addition to her impactful work, Emily advocates for the use of spectrum-based language within disability communities, fostering understanding and inclusivity. Join us in exploring Emily’s inspiring journey and the transformative impact she continues to make in the lives of others.
Could you please introduce yourself and share some background about your disability?
I’m Emily Vilcsak (she/her), a 25-year-old enthusiastic entrepreneur with a trio of ventures under my belt: Emily Vilcsak Enterprises (EVE) encompassing EVE Communications, EVE Empowerment, and Disability is Not a Binary. While I manage these businesses, I’m also furthering my education by pursuing a master’s degree in communications and technology. Adding a touch of adventure to my professional journey, I’m also a digital nomad, exploring the beauties of South Africa.
My journey with disability began at a young age when I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at just two years old. More recently, I was diagnosed with ADHD in August 2023. An exciting development in my life has been my transition from using an AFO (Ankle-Foot Orthosis) for 25 years to a Bioness L300 Foot Drop System, a functional electrical stimulation device. This device has brought newfound freedom and possibilities into my life over the last month and a half that I’ve been using it.
In what ways does your disability influence your daily life, particularly when it comes to using digital products or services?
One of the most significant impacts of my disability is the way I type – with just my right hand and left index finger—used to press the shift key. Over the years, I’ve become lightning-fast at typing with a one hand, thanks to my constant interaction with the computer. To help manage my ADHD symptoms and stay organized, I rely on Notion, which is a game-changer for managing tasks and projects across all aspects of my life. More recently, I’ve also embraced Speechify and it’s voice-to-text app, Dictation, to boost productivity and speed up my typing process. Embracing my disability in my early 20s has actually improved my productivity and led me to advocacy and thesis research in my graduate degree.
Which digital devices, platforms, applications, or websites do you use regularly, and have they been helpful in addressing accessibility challenges?
I rely heavily on a range of digital platforms that have been transformative in enhancing accessibility for me. These platforms, such as Figma, Slack, Notion, Speechify, Dictation, and Zoom, have become indispensable tools in my daily life. They’ve played a pivotal role in making my work, academic pursuits, and advocacy efforts significantly more accessible and efficient.
For someone like me, these platforms aren’t just tools; they’re essential aids. They help bridge the accessibility gap, making it easier for me to engage fully and contribute effectively. The impact of technology in this context cannot be overstated, as it empowers individuals with disabilities like myself to participate more actively in work, education, and advocacy.
What specific design features do you find most beneficial in digital interfaces considering your disability?
Voice-to-text and text-to-speech functionalities are my absolute favourites. They’re shining examples of how making digital products more accessible benefits everyone, not just those with disabilities. These tools not only assists me in typing, but can also help non-disabled individuals increase their productivity and reading speed. It’s a win-win!
What advice would you give to product designers, who often struggle to understand the needs of users with disabilities, on enhancing the accessibility of digital products?
My advice would be to involve accessibility advocates and disabled individuals from the very beginning stages of research and development. Their life experiences are invaluable, and it’s crucial to compensate them fairly for their time. Their expertise is a result of years of experience with digital products and their own disabilities. So, listen to them, collaborate, and make accessibility a core part of your design process.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us or any additional insights you’d like to offer?
Absolutely! It is crucial to remember that making spaces accessible benefits everyone. This applies not only to physical spaces but also to our digital world. I encourage everyone to look for ways, big or small, to make their designs more accessible. It’s a journey worth embarking on because, in the end, it makes the digital landscape more inclusive and welcoming for everyone.
Thank you for considering my application for the DesignWhine special issue on accessibility. I’m genuinely excited about the opportunity to share my experiences and insights, and I can’t wait to be part of this meaningful initiative. Let’s keep pushing for a more inclusive and accessible digital future!
This article was last updated on December 19, 2023; Originally published on December 11, 2023