storage | design

the wolf in sheeps clothing


Not too long ago, someone from my network referred me an owner of a social enterprise that offers sheltered workshops for disabled students and other projects in some of my fields of expertise. The organization said that they were impressed by my portfolio, and after a few exchanges back and forth, I eventually was invited to a job interview. The conversation seemed to go well, until one of the interviewers asked me about my expectations of my visit. This came as a surprise, since that’s what job interviews are for, but I did make clear that I’m looking for employment, or project based work that would generate regular income. Towards the end, the interviewer revealed that they don’t have any capacities to hire me. Fair enough, but I started to wonder what the point of this job interview was. Much to my shock, the only thing they had to offer was to be in one of their sheltered workshop projects. Essentially, it would mean that I would be working for free and maybe one day in this or next life, one of their clients might have mercy to hire me on a subsidized contract (minimum wage only). I felt very misled and after I called the organization out on it, they claimed that it wasn’t clear enough that I’m actually looking for paid work, even though they were the ones who wrote “job interview” in the subject line. Holy shit… I’m normally a humble person, but with a degree in communication design and almost two decades of work experience, this was not what I expected to happen. How low could it get that people think I would be desperate enough to let myself to be exploited as free labor? So much for a “social enterprise”.

How can something like that be possible in a western country like the Netherlands, which is actually one of the more tolerant ones towards minorities? The truth is much more sinister and the cause of the problem is not only “evil” society. It’s widely known that the employment rates of people with disabilities are low, and EU countries have tried to implement policies to tackle the problem, with some being slightly more successful than others. In the Netherlands, there are plenty of rules and regulations, which are supposed to be providing a sense of “safety” for a widely spread risk-averse mindset among companies and institutions. In such mindset, hiring someone with a disability or health conditions is seen as a liability and a risk, so it’s not a coincidence that one of the policies is called “No-risk-policy”. But what does it mean for the company and especially the potential candidate? Basically, when a company hires someone with a disability, they can apply for a subsidy, where simply put, the company gets money and employees are paid minimum wage. The thing is, that companies could hire people on normal conditions, but many choose not to, since the policies “help” them to save money. This is why people with disabilities have such a hard time finding employment.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. An even larger number of people with disabilities in the Netherlands are either stuck on welfare or are “lucky” enough to have a partner who can support them financially. In order to improve the situation, there are several social enterprises throughout the country. They aim to help finding or provide people with disabilities work. This sounds great on the surface, but it’s anything but solving the problem. Since the organizations are nonprofit, they have very limited capacities to hire people and the ones they avoid to hire the most are the same ones they claim to be helping. Instead, almost their entire business runs on internships and sheltered workshop programs, unpaid. The irony, right? At the same time, they claim to help their participants to find jobs, but it’s mostly by companies opting for a subsidy and end the employment once it runs out, the vicious cycle repeats itself. Even though many disabled workers are capable of working full time, which would save the state/taxpayers money by getting people off welfare. At this point however, neither side has an interest in actual solution, the only incentive is to keep the status quo: companies can save money and can reduce the (real or imagined) risk and social enterprises have a justification to exist. All this at the expense of people with disabilities and other health conditions. This is certainly not what a so called “inclusive” society would look like.

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a (motion) picture says more than a thousand words


Many people keep asking me how I draw with such little eyesight. I have written an article and articles have been written about me, yet you’ll believe when you see it. Below you can watch some videos showing how I do it.

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nose on the paper


This article about me was originally written in Dutch language by Saskia Derks for the HoiUtrecht online magazine. I did my best to translate everything correctly.

Nose on the paper

“When I’m sitting in front of you, I can see you and your outfit, but I can’t see what’s next to you. Most people are able to look around up to 90 degrees without having to turn their heads. My visual field is about 30 degrees. I see so little details that if we were to meet again tomorrow – and you would wear a different outfit – I wouldn’t recognize you anymore.”

Passion and talent

I always tell people: “I put my nose on the paper to see up close what I have drawn. When I look at my screen my nose would leave marks on it. As a child, I always enjoyed drawing, and I quickly realized that my drawings were quite different from those of my peers.

Because of my bad vision (between 20% with glasses and 5% without), which I had for my entire life, almost everyone thought that I was crazy [for wanting to work in the creative industry]. That’s why I started studying psychology. Unfortunately, proper assistive tech wasn’t available back then and the few audio books I had access to were often outdated. In addition, excessive reading caused me headaches [i. e. eye pain], so I eventually had to quit. I was weighing different options for a while, however, I still couldn’t let go of my dream to become an artist/designer. So one day I decided: I’m just going to give it a shot and sign up for an art [design] school. If they won’t accept me, I’ll then would have let go of my dream forever.

Armed with a portfolio full of [random] drawings I went to the meeting. It felt a bit like an interrogation. They asked me a lot of difficult questions and I also faced some criticism. Just when I was about to give up, I got the news that I got enrolled. As you can imagine, I was in shock.

During my years in design school I tried to keep a low profile but that proved somewhat difficult, since older students always kept asking me to help them out with their artworks.

Working life

I [still] lived in Germany when I started working. At first, I had to deal with a lot of distrust and intolerance [towards my capabilities/skills]. I certainly don’t want make generalizations about all Germans, but many of those I met were completely convinced that what they didn’t think was feasible, simply wasn’t possible.

Being an almost blind designer is something most people can’t wrap their heads around and according to many, such thing is impossible.
On the other hand, some people treated me with a lot of compassion, sometimes too much for my liking. I don’t want to be defined by my disability, I would like to be appreciated [as a person] and taken seriously as a professional. All I want is a regular job to be able to support myself.

Around the world

In the last years I have worked in Thailand and the United States. I have beautiful memories about Thailand, because there I was judged by my work and talents, which got me great opportunities. Here in the Netherlands I’m also doing well, even though I encounter laws and regulations that can be quite hindering. For example, I have been offered jobs a number of times but employers wanted to apply for a job subsidy. Though I understand their point of view, there are disadvantages for me. I’d be under the thumb of the UWV [Dutch employment agency] and get paid only minimum wage, while all my sighted colleagues make a lot more [for the same work]. Obviously, I don’t want that.

Tips from Agnieszka

“Know your strengths, but know your weaknesses.”

“Know how to adopt and be flexible.”

“It’s not for other people to define who you are and what you can do.”

Bonus material

Agnieszka gave a little tutorial on how to draw an eye. Give it a try and share your drawing with us on Facebook! Good luck!

About Agnieszka

Agnieszka Czajkowska is 41 years old. She has been living in Woerden for a year, where she has been working as a graphic designer. She was born three months early. Due to an oxygen overdose in the incubator, her retina was severely damaged, causing a condition called “retinopathy premature”. As a result, she has been visually impaired almost all of her life. Regardless of this, she succeeded to travel on her own as an expat for many years. She has been working around the world and has built a beautiful portfolio.

Agnieszka also specializes in [inclusive] accessible design and branding. Based on her own experience she knows how to cater to a visually impaired audience, both online and offline, or as she’d put it: “I would like to bridge the gap”.

Agnieszka is currently working with the Municipality of Woerden to help them improve the accessibility of their (online) services. As “design by pxlgirl”, she is always open for new projects, either as a freelancer or an employment contract, as long as it is not subsidized through the UWV.

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the hero and the loser


whenever there’s a headline about achievements of people with disabilities, many would often say how “brave” and “inspirational” they are. It’s implying the notion that having an impairment is somewhat of a burden. A lot of activists try to counteract by turning a disability into a part of one’s identity of which they have to be proud of, yet they criticize anyone who in their mind is reducing a person to that very crucial part of their identity.

let’s face it, having any kind of impairment is not fun, much less something to be necessary proud of. Whether you like it or not, your life is tough(er), you have limits that you can’t cross and you get reminded of that every single day. The people around you are sometimes overwhelmed, insecure or downright rejecting. Dating can be a bitch and a half, because you’re seen as some kind of asexual being and you’re expected to be grateful to have gotten the leftovers from the bottom of the dating barrel. As for your career prospects, you can pick between a sheltered workshop/welfare or be married to someone who can provide for you. Then you would sit in your armchair watching TV about some fellow cripple who “made it despite all”. As much as you wish them the best, you know too well that you and 99,9% of your kind will barely get out of the woodwork.

is there anyone to blame for this? The answer is not as simple as one would want to think. It’s so easy to say that it’s all society’s fault but that’s only partly true. Yes, life is hard, and not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone else too. On the other hand, entitlement and too much optimism cause that people are unable realistically determine their own abilities. Having to face the pull from both sides, one keeping you down, the other lifting you up leaves you either depressed or manic, either way having unrealistic expectations about what you can or can’t do.

your advocates and activists aren’t making it any better, ironically enough, they even willingly or unwillingly enforce either side. Many of them are blinded by their ideology, claiming to know what is the best way make people with disabilities a part of society. There are tons of charities and organizations competing for their good deeds for the day. But in order for them to function, they need to maintain the divide and keep pushing for a victim-mentality among those they deem helpless. The few selected heroes are used as a scapegoat for a misguided media representation, showing a problem that has been already created by those who claim to fight against it in the first place.

in all of this debate about people with disabilities, one thing is missing: the people themselves. It’s all about them, but rarely with them. Each and every one is different. Each and everyone has different needs and desires. Don’t expect the world to adapt to them, but let them have the agency to adapt to the world instead.

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how to design accessibly?


insights | design by pxlgirl

there are a lot of organizations out there focusing accessibility. The goal is to make life easier for those who are limited in any shape or form, let it be disability, ageing or disease. When it comes to information technology, web development is already relatively well covered.

as much as organizations and charities try to advocate their cause, they often lack professionally done and well-thought design solutions and communication strategies. Due to the misconception that design cannot be “seen” by their audience, most don’t consider it as important. However, conveying the message in the right way is crucial. People who have low vision or learning difficulties need a clear and easy visual language making sure that the content is understood. This requires conceptional thinking and some out of the box design skills for the web and far beyond. If you’d like to know more, check out my presentation slides on accessible and inclusive design, along with a series of articles on this topic.

the few design/advertising agencies dealing with accessibility try their best to cater, but the lack of proper content creation and often restrictive guidelines make such jobs rather a burden than a pleasure. As a result, the end product is often a rotten compromise, which is anything but benefiting the actual target audience. Not to mention that most designers ignore this matter altogether.

how can this gap be filled? This is where I comes in. Being visually impaired and a designer, I can provide insights and perspective first hand. I can help organizations and charities to (re)brand their identity so that the audience can connect with them. I can also help agencies with accessible solutions for their projects and show them ways how to satisfy the clients’ needs without cutting on design quality. Feel free to contact me.

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