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Inclusive design: A medium of care and respect in everyday life | Opinion

DIY Design column

Editor’s note: Everyone designs. While not all design work is compensated, “DIY Design” strives to promote awareness of design processes in everyday life. Each week, Tatum Lindquist explores a new field or theory in the design world and relates it to the UW community as a way to live with intentionality and agency.

Through my experience as a student with the Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE) department, my perception of design has shifted dramatically. Now, I can never unsee design in anything. Literally, anything. From apartment hunting to meal planning to writing an essay, a host of mundane tasks can be considered a design process.

By expanding my understanding of what constitutes design, I gained a sense of agency in my life, and I now use the design process to live intentionally. Whoever you are — no matter your field of study or identity as a designer — you, too, make design choices.

The first time I applied design theory to my personal life was in my study of inclusive design. An expanding field catapulted by Kat Holmes and her book “Mismatch,” inclusive design grew from disability advocacy and identity — so let’s start there.

“My generic definition [of ‘disabled’] is anybody who identifies as disabled is disabled,” Kelly Mack, a doctoral student studying accessibility and adaptive technology in computer science, said. “A lot of times, that means having a body that the world was not designed for.”

Han Feng, a third-year HCDE student passionate about accessibility, said that the label of “disability” isn’t leveraged to target individuals or communities.

“It’s not supposed to be a form of bias,” Feng said. “It’s more of an identity of this person that they have for themselves and make[s] this person unique.”

Historically, disability has coincided with a preexisting medical condition, resulting in blaming the individual for their struggles and reductively construing disability as “bad.” While a number of models exist for disability — including an identity model — inclusive design relies on the social model of disability: the interaction(s) between an individual’s condition and their physical and social environment.

Spectrum of disability graphic

Through the social model of disability, inclusive design emphasizes the responsibility of designers in producing mismatched interactions in their work. It asks designers to question their assumptions and biases, build relationships with historically marginalized communities, and develop solutions with the spectrum of disability in mind.

However, mismatched interactions within inclusive design can expand beyond this foundation in disability.

“Some people assume that inclusive design is only for people with disabilities when, in reality, inclusive design is for anyone,” Jessie Zhang, a second-year graduate student in HCDE, said. “Inclusive design also includes people with different backgrounds, including race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and other factors that make people who they are.”

A comedic example is the “Better Off Ted”episode “Racial Sensitivity,” which demonstrates a mismatched interaction due to the racist motion sensors that detect Ted’s white colleagues but not himself. While this scenario comes from a dark comedy show, the idea that technology can perpetuate racism is far from fictional. Research around facial recognition software consistently finds that Black, female users who are 18 to 30 years old are identified with the least accuracy; such mismatched interactions should not be dismissed as trivial, especially when these technologies can highlight racial discrimination practiced by law enforcement.

Inclusive design removes culpability from historically marginalized communities for faults in design that exclude and perpetuate harm against them. Instead, responsibility falls to designers (computer scientists, web developers, architects) and the institutions (companies, universities, the government) who fail to address their assumptions and to design against systems of oppression

Everyone benefits from inclusive design, and everyone can design inclusively — not just those with “designer” in their job title.

In any context, inclusive design starts with discussion and asking questions. For the “everyday” design process, these questions may include: Who can access Instagram posts or TikTok videos? Where do personal experiences of exclusion often occur? Whose voices are missing from this classroom discussion, and why? Can loved ones access the apartment on the fourth floor for a social gathering?

In my personal life, inclusive design not only helped me identify, value, and meet my own needs, but also those of my loved ones. I found empowerment when putting together a work-from-home space or when structuring my study time with frequent breaks and rewards. I practiced intention by finding a family-friendly, accessible restaurant and bar for my 21st birthday so that my younger siblings and great-grandmother could attend dinner.

We practice inclusive design when we are willing to be wrong, learn, and exercise creativity. Every time I’ve practiced inclusive design, it has been a way to care about and respect others.

Reach writer Tatum Lindquist at [email protected]. Twitter: @TatumLindquist

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