• Transform magazine
  • November 29, 2023


Five minutes with Anna Johannes

Thumbnail WEB Tedx Female Athletes 110

Anna Johannes is a former bronze medal-winning Paralympian who now works as a strategist at branding consultancy Interbrand. She speaks to Transform about the concept of inclusive design, her time as a Paralympic swimmer, and how her life experiences will be of use in her new role at the New-York based consultancy.

How have your experiences in life informed your opinions about inclusivity as something which should be strived towards?

I was born without my left hand and forearm, so I didn't really get to choose to not be passionate about disability. It's kind of followed me around, obviously, and given me so many opportunities that I never saw coming. My experiences from being a Paralympic athlete and being around people with disabilities all my life and then, even since I retired, still carrying that with me, whether I'm on the board of Adaptive Sports New England or actually coaching future Paralympians once a week at our swim programme, these life experiences just helped drive me forward.

I did try and escape the disability world a little bit. I worked for Speedo for a little bit, so I didn't get away from the swim world! I then took a roundabout way to finally get here just because it's not something that you can ignore and I've just really gotten so much more passionate about bringing the experience from the Paralympics and different non-profits into the corporate world and making this a priority.

Tell me about your transition from bronze medal-winning Paralympian to strategist at a global brand consultancy. Was this a career move you envisioned for a long time, or was it more the case that as things evolved it became obvious this was right for you with your expertise and experiences?

I didn't necessarily choose to retire. I had a last-minute surgery that took me out of contention before trials and it was hard to get back on track after 2013. I hung on so long because I knew the value of being a Paralympian and I just wanted to be able to use that to make a difference. Then it got to a point where I just had to retire, and it was hard to transition. You're a whole different person. You're giving up your entire life and changing who you are completely.

I took that to probably more of an extreme than I needed to. At first I tried to close myself off and just be a corporate machine and be a sales rep or fundraiser, and then I realised that you can't; you don't ever really retire. Swimming, being a Paralympian, these experiences live with you. I was able to - especially in recent years - just bring that passion and understand that my strengths in the pool could translate into strengths into the business world.

It took a little bit while, but I definitely didn't see this coming to be honest. I just was trying to survive after being retired but I just don't know how to shut up about disabilities!

What does the idea of inclusive design mean to you?

Inclusive design, I think for me, just means design. You know, I think it's so interesting that accessibility seems like a niche thing. There's not enough [people with disabilities] for it to be demanded at this point, so I think inclusive design for me is just regular design. I use products that weren't made for people with disabilities but benefited. So, inclusive design means just products that work for everyone and you can get them anywhere.

Do you feel this is an area of branding which has been neglected up until now? If so, why is that?

Yeah, it stems from just centuries of ableism. I think 2020 taught people, especially Americans, about systemic white supremacy, racism, homophobia; all these things are just baked into our society and ableism is part of that. In the United States, we even have laws up until [1974] called the 'ugly law' where people with disabilities were legally required to hide their disability or not go into public if they can't. There are these things that we've covered up and have just been inherently part of the systems that we're used to. It all starts with education because you don't know what you don't know, and you can't blame society and your average American or your consumer for not understanding this. But once you realise the benefit, or just that you are being exclusive by not doing inclusive design, you can't unsee it. You can't unbake a cake, so it's re-focussing it and just making it part of everyday life.

It seems you are still a pioneer in this field. Do you worry that this may become merely a ‘box ticking’ exercise for brands going forward, or do you believe they will truly appreciate its value and potential?

I think it's both. I think there's some brands like Apple and Microsoft and even Nike who are embracing it and understanding not just the human aspect of inclusive design, but the business aspect of it. It's not just like something nice to do to help a disabled community, but something that needs to be done like sustainability. I think the 'check boxing' is the corporate world's response to so many different things within DEI, and I think so many marginalised groups feel like a checkbox, especially when you're the only one in the room talking about your marginalised community. It just takes work.