In the design profession, stories involving disability often cast people with disabilities as Nondesigners and designers as saviors, or the creators of technologies that benefit people with disabilities. however, people with disabilities have always meaningfully contributed to the design profession. As a partial response, Burren Peil, Daniela Rosner, and I introduced biographical prototypes, under-recognized first-person accounts of design by people with disabilities . To guide their development, we drew on counter-storytelling from disability activism and critical race theory. during workshops with disabled activists, designers, and researchers, biographical prototypes engendered an expanded sense of coalition among attendees while prompting reflection on tensions between recognition of design work and exhaustion and disinterest in becoming tied to design and research professions that have neglected accessibility for so long. We end by reflecting on how the prototypes—and the practices that produced them—complement a growing number of design activities around disability that reveal complexities around structural forms of discrimination and the generative role that personal accounts may play in their revision.
Thinking of trying the activity? Please feel free to be in touch with questions or your experiences creating and sharing biographical prototypes among people with disabilities, designers, researchers, and the public.
The Promise of Empathy: Design, Disability, and Knowing the “Other”
In this 2019 CHI paper, Daniela Rosner and I critically examined empathy-building which has become an important precursor to good design in user experience and Human-Computer Interaction fields. Promising to foster understanding, activities spanning observation to the simulation of bodily impairments aim to help designers imagine what it might be like to be someone else, often their intended users.
While altruistic, we show how empathy-building may actually distance people with disabilities from the design work we are trying to bring them closer to. For example, designers who use disability simulation techniques such as blindfolds to empathize with blind users may not need to consider the user with disabilities; instead, they may focus on their own experience wearing a blindfold. To make this argument, we examined publicly available accounts of empathy-building and popularized design thinking toolkits to describe how designers (as the empathizers) position their work to address the experiences of people with disabilities (as the empathized). Such separation can position people with disabilities as inspirations, in turn subverting their firsthand perspectives and important contributions.
In response, we argue for letting go of empathy as an achievement— something to build, model, or reach within design. Instead, we draw from decades of disability scholarship and activism to recover empathy as a creative process of reciprocation. Specifically, we suggest strategies for maintaining ongoing partnerships premised on listening and sharing firsthand experiences.
Interdependence as a Frame for Assistive Technology Design and Research
Independence is a very important word for people with disabilities. The Disability Rights Movement in the United States premised on people with disabilities asserting their equal rights and taking charge of defining and securing their own accommodations. As such, assistive technology design and research has adopted this important goal, leveraging computing power to enable people with disabilities to live more independently. During this collaboration, colleagues Stacy Branham, Erin Brady, and I responded to a somewhat different trend we were noticing in our research with people with disabilities. We were intrigued how often our participants worked together to make objects, spaces, and experiences more accessible for and with others with disabilities. Drawing on Disability Studies scholarship and Disability Justice activism, we decided to call this phenomena interdependence to honor and build upon the important disabled people who have written about the term outside the assistive technology field. We then came up with four tenets that outline what interdependence can offer if taken up as a frame for assistive technology, and we hope any, design and research.
First, interdependence focuses on relationships as a foundation where access is built or not built and assumes all parties in an interaction are contributing to and shaped by that interaction in some way. Second, interdependence makes available the possibility that multiple humans, objects, and environments can come together simultaneously toward these ends. Third, since interdependence assumes all parties interacting are contributing, it makes more visible the often underrecognized work done by people with disabilities. Finally, in recognizing this important work, interdependence challenges predominant hierarchies that prefer ability. Read our Best Student Paper Awarded ASSETS 2018 work for examples from all of our research that contextualize these tenets. Finally, we present interdependence to complement, not replace, independence as we recognize many people with disabilities are still fighting for basic rights to make choices about their own lives.