Monash University’s Dr Kirsten Ellis won the Social Impact Advocate at last year’s Women Leading Tech Awards.
With just one week to go before entries close for this year’s Awards, WLT sat down with Ellis to talk about the importance of her work and moving from research to advocacy.
WLT: What was it like taking the award home?
Dr Kirsten Ellis: I was really pleased to get the Social Impact Advocate award because because I’m officially a researcher. But my work has moved into advocacy. It’s not just doing the research, it’s having an impact with the research. And I feel very privileged that I have a voice because I will work with people who don’t always have a voice. I help enable people with disabilities to have a voice in the tech industry.
WLT: Is it a problem that researchers sometimes do not get to create tangible change?
Ellis: I’m fortunate and I’ve chosen to do work that’s very hands-on and high-impact. I want to get it out to people with disability as well because, all too often, work that affects people with disabilities happens without their input and without a benefit going back to them.
If we work out that doing one thing or having a website work in a particular way but that doesn’t get back into the tech industry to inform future designs, then we’ve failed in our job. A lot of our story is working directly with people with disabilities so that we know what they need, rather than just guessing.
I got to stand up and speak when I received the Award and I said that it’s the job of the tech industry to include people with disabilities, not just ‘Oh, we designed something and we’ll get you to come in and have a look’ but then say ‘It’s too late to change it.’ Have someone with a disability on your team. We had a blind researcher in our team and every conversation changed but then it became second nature.
WLT: What steps would you recommend others take to make their organisations more inclusive of people with disabilities?
Ellis: I would make the teams working on projects representative of the groups that the projects are built for. There is a lot of diversity across the people who use technology, so therefore the more representation we have in groups creating the technology, the better the design will be.
You also need to be flexible. If you only take full-time workers who can work on-site, you’ve already dropped a lot of potential team members because it’s not how they work. We’ve now proven that we can work in different ways.
WLT: Does implementing those kinds of changes require humility on the part of business leaders?
Ellis: When I was growing up, I was told education was the great changer and that only through education could we improve society and the community. That’s great for people who get the opportunity to have a great education. But what about all the people who don’t make it into higher education?
Now I believe it’s relationships. If you can have a relationship with someone with a disability or different culture, then you realise how you’re similar rather than different. Those relationships allow you to see the different contributions that people make.
WLT: What has changed with Tape Blocks and Wallara since you won the award?
Ellis: We have a van! We have an inclusive maker space at Monash where we invite people in. But we found that people weren’t coming in because it was too hard. For example, we had someone in a wheelchair who wanted to come in. On the way there it was fine but, if they wanted to go home at the end of the day, there was no guarantee that a wheelchair-ready taxi would arrive.
With the van, we can take all our equipment to participants on different sites. They’re equipped with 3D printers, electronics, all the best toys. That’s really exciting because it’s removing a barrier that, three years ago, I didn’t realise was such a big barrier.
WLT: What advice would you have for women and other underrepresented groups entering the tech industry?
Ellis: We need lots of different voices and perspectives. The more we have, the better the tech is going to be for everyone. We need the underrepresented groups because you have a different voice and you need to recognise the value that you bring.
I’d also say do the stuff that you’re interested in and passionate about, even if it’s not trendy at the time you’re doing it because, in 18 years time, it might become trendy. Do the research because amazing research has an impact on people in the real world.
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