By the time Elise Roy ’12 was in her late twenties, she had amassed enough accomplishments to fill a lifetime. After experiencing profound hearing loss at the age of 10, Roy not only became a Division I athlete in both soccer and lacrosse, she also became one of only 44 deaf attorneys in the country. Roy then received the prestigious Georgetown University Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship and began working for the United Nations as a human rights advocate, traveling across the world to further the cause of the disabled.
It was during those travels that she faced an unexpected challenge. This time, it wasn’t about her hearing loss or the next cause she needed to fight—it was about her own direction in life. “I was in Zambia, and I learned that the life expectancy there was only 32,” Roy explained. “That put things in perspective for me. I realized that life was too short not to do something you love so I started the transition to becoming an artist.”
As an undergraduate, Roy had taken drawing, photography, and graphic design courses, but her interest in law left her little time for creative pursuits. “I—somewhat unfortunately— ignored the advice that people give of taking time off between undergrad and law school to make sure it’s the path you want to follow,” Roy explained. “I went straight from Brown University to law school at Northeastern University. I knew from work I did as an undergrad that I liked advocacy and helping disadvantaged populations so I thought law was a good fit.”
Roy was in law school when she began working on the International Disability Rights Treaty at the United Nations, the first such human rights treaty to be passed in the 21st century. She helped write the section of the treaty on the rights of the disabled to participate in sport, recreation, and leisure. After the treaty was signed in 2007, she traveled the world to see it put into action. Her work took her to Southeast Asia and the Gulf region, as well as Africa, where she had her epiphany.
So in 2008, Roy began pursuing creative work, assisting with advertising for the democratic election campaigns. She eventually became marketing manager for a small company in Baltimore, where her job focused mainly on graphic design. Her interest in advocacy and working with the disadvantaged didn’t wane, however, and in 2011 Roy merged those passions with her love of art when she became part of the inaugural class of MICA’s M.A. in Social Design program. Financial support from the Roberta Polevoy Fund of the Baltimore Community Foundation Scholarship helped her along this new path.
“It was definitely difficult transitioning to the art realm. There were a lot of people who discouraged me from doing it, saying why not just make it a hobby? I knew it was a big leap, but I wanted it to be my real job.”
Roy came to enjoy fabrication design, especially through the use of repurposed objects—a love she discovered when renovating her family's bathroom on an old tobacco farm. That new love, however, brought new challenges, including using certain artmaking tools.
As Roy explained, “I never realized many power tools alert right or wrong use by emitting different pitches, which made for a learning curve as someone who has a profound hearing loss.”
She continued, “When you are welding, you have to wear a helmet that essentially blackens out everything but the flame so it’s impossible for me to follow along if the instructor talks. Also, a sound indicates the weld has started. I’ve had more than my share of getting my torch stuck to the metal because I didn’t hear this and react quickly enough!”
The experience led her to focus her thesis on researching the barriers that exist for individuals with hearing loss in the fabrication technology and design realm. She spent a semester working closely with Ryan Hoover, the director of the fabrication studio, researching various tools to identify what auditory information was emitted and brainstorming possible adaptations for the deaf user.
After graduation, Roy secured a job with Housewerks, an architectural salvage workshop in Baltimore that works with interior decorators and restaurant owners to re-purpose objects. She also is founder of Elise Roy, a design firm that capitalizes on the unique experiences and skills of people with disabilities to uncover hidden needs and in the process create some of the most cutting edge solutions out there - both for people with and without disabilities. Clients include the National Science Foundation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.