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Image / Editorial

Sinéad Burke: ‘We need to educate ourselves on what it is we don’t know’

by Jennifer McShane
09th Nov 2019

Activist Sinéad Burke’s eloquent words on Friday night’s Late Late Show struck a chord with viewers. Her words, much like the woman herself, are emotive and powerful – she has an extraordinary way with them. In particular, her speaking on the wider role we can play as a society when it comes to advocating inclusiveness for all people stood out.

Whenever I, as a woman with a mild physical disability, attempt to convey my experiences to others, I frequently wonder how I might share my thoughts as beautifully as Sinéad Burke always does. So insightful, to-the-point and naturally emphatic, she was born to be a teacher and advocate for change.

A few moments into the conversation with Ryan Tubridy, it’s easy to see why so many – Anna Wintour, Meghan Markle and Victoria Beckham, to name a few – are taken with her.

Related: From Saoirse Ronan to Sinéad Burke, these five Irish women dazzled at the Met Gala

She’s charismatic; a vision in red, wearing a dress by Irish designer Sarah Murphy, and is unafraid to talk about disability as it should be spoken of: something which isn’t ‘other’ but which should be a given inclusive, no matter what the person’s individual needs might be. I’ve spent much of my life, so I’ve been told, underplaying my own needs to make those around me feel more comfortable when, as Sinéad frequently points out, it should be the other way around – only in my thirties finally realising I really don’t have to apologise for simply being myself.


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Sinéad strives to educate, and never apologise, which is probably why she could approach Anna Wintour and set in motion what was to change her life for the better. “When I was standing and she was sitting, we were level, so I stuck my hand out and said, ‘my name is Sinéad. You’ve been editor in chief of Vogue for my whole life and I just wanted to thank you for the way in which you shaped my interest in fashion.'”

Could she have known then the impact this introduction would have?

A monumental moment

Her appearance as one of the Forces for Change on the cover of the recent September issue of British Vogue (handpicked by the Duchess of Sussex herself, no less) was a monumental moment. For her 15-year-old self, for me, and for anyone else who never thought they’d see the day when physical disabilities weren’t just spoken of, but revered, by an institution such as Vogue.


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“Somehow she remembered me and picked me and put me on that category and, along with Laverne Cox is the first trans person to be on the cover of Vogue. I was the first little person to be on the cover of  and for me that’s important, not actually for me personally, but I would have done anything for that when I was 15, walking into a news agency and seeing somebody who looked like me in a space that I could do nothing but dream to be part of.”

“My big interest now is, the 15-year-olds in Ireland, who can now give themselves permission to dream because somebody has done it. And because one person has done it means they can do so”

“It was just such a wonderful invitation and to have an establishment, like Vogue, talk about disability in a really powerful way where a disabled person is now writing that themselves,” she explained.

Related: Sinéad Burke among the faces of British Vogue’s September issue, edited by Meghan Markle

The conversation turns to talk of bullying, where Sinéad recounts a distressing incident in the city centre, after which she decided to go to every school in that locality to give a talk to young students so that others wouldn’t experience the same thing.

“I had to become increasingly more comfortable in my own body – I don’t look like those people, and with that comes a real strength that can be a challenge, but I was told that I was very, very young that I had no hand or part in choosing to live in this body, but how others act towards me, either kindly or negatively, is a decision. And if they choose to go about their lives and try to make me feel small to make themselves feel big or to cause a joke, well then, that says everything about them and not me.”

“So often, ignorance isn’t malicious, we just don’t know what we haven’t been exposed to…  much of it the bullying that you’ve just spoken about is because we feel alone.”

A message

Her message to try to combat instances of bullying all comes down to educating.

“I think it’s a lesson that we all need to learn. We need to educate ourselves and what it is we don’t know and we need to facilitate the curiosity within us, you know, an example that I give is that I’m in the aisle in a shopping supermarket. And child will see me.  And the first thing they will do is point me out and say, ‘look there’s a little woman.’

“And in that instance, the adults will ignore them dismiss them, try to distract them, remove them from the place in which they are – only because they’re embarrassed that this has happened, and they feel that it’s a negative impact on their parenting, instead of actually realising that a child’s natural curiosity.

“And why don’t they say to the child, ‘yeah, that was a little woman. Say hello.’ And that’s what we should be doing.”

In other words, if in doubt, be more Sinéad.