By Katie Nicpon

Online and physical spaces, from public to private, are all the result of design. Websites, cities, parks, museums, theaters, homes, apartment buildings, hospitals, sidewalks, transportation systems – all are the result of design. Who designs these spaces? And who are the users the designer has in mind?

Chilmark is a small town in Martha’s Vineyard. Chilmark was founded by a small population in 1600. A genetic mutation resulting in hearing loss was prevalent in this isolated community, and over two hundred years, the number of people born without the ability to hear grew dramatically. By the middle of the 19th century, one in 25 people were deaf, but everyone in the Chilmark community learned and spoke in sign language, regardless of hearing ability. The society was built on a language that everyone used—in schools, government, public and private spaces—all aspects of society were accessible to everyone. There was no concept of “disability” or “challenge.” Those who were deaf were seamlessly part of a society they helped to build, and was built with them in mind. The society that they built gave rise to a larger contribution outside of their own community. It was the universal language developed here that provided the roots for American Sign Language (ASL).

This example challenges the notion of “disability,” and highlights its existence as the result of a social construction. “Disability” or “challenge” is not an actual condition that people are born with or that are part of their bodies/lives. The only challenge people face are in systems that are designed for one group of people, but not all. “Disability” and “challenge” are the result of an environment designed without everyone in mind.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, 56.7 million people, or 19% of the population, have a disability. The alarming reality of this statistic is that almost one in five people in our country have different (and most likely challenging) access experiences with the physical, social, and online spaces that have been put in place.

When we think about disability as socially constructed, it allows us to change the way we design. When we design our spaces with everyone in mind, and we bring people together from all experiences in our society, we can create sustainable spaces that benefit everyone.

In her academic article, “Toward Inclusive Theory: Disability as Social Construction,” published in the NASPA Journal, Susan R. Jones write that:

“Removing the physical, social, and emotional barriers of the disabling environment suggests that ‘Once people with disabilities are admitted inside the human and moral community, the task becomes one of creating an environment where all humans—including those with impairments—can truly flourish’ (Fine & Asch, 1988, p. 16). Rethinking disability from a social constructivist perspective will bring more inclusive theory-building, and broaden services, programs, advocacy, and research.”

On their “About” page, the Inclusive Design and Research Center (IDRC) at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University also frames disability as “a mismatch between the needs of the individual and the design of the product, system or service. With this framing, disability can be experienced by anyone excluded by the design.” With this definition, everyone faces disability in the systems designed as one-size-fits-all. So how can we set up societal spaces to include everyone?

Inclusive design.

The IDRC defines inclusive design as “design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference.” They also identify steps toward inclusive design dimensions. Although their focus is in digital spaces, I believe that the concepts that they identify can be used toward designing physical and societal spaces as well. Here are some key takeaways:

  1. Understand that each user is diverse and unique. With this in mind, create designs that can adapt to the needs of users’ diverse identities, experiences, and abilities.
  2. Include people with diverse perspectives from the beginning to the end of the design process. Incorporate their perspectives, experiences and feedback into building the designs, and what is built will be inclusive. Also, use accessible design tools throughout your process.
  3. Be aware of the larger context of the design and how inclusion will have a greater impact in moving our society toward inclusion. Users and systems are interconnected, and when designing with inclusion in mind, it has a cyclical positive impact for all users.

What could this look like in our communities? Involving people from all groups to help design the plan for the new community park, or to be part of a focus group for usability testing for a company website, or in giving feedback to help design course curriculum or a lesson plan. Anything that is built to be shared needs to be built by those who will share in it.

Microsoft’s commitment to accessibility statement reads, “There are no limits to what people can achieve when technology reflects the diversity of everyone who uses it.” You can replace the word “technology,” with any word, and you’ll have a powerfully true statement. Especially replace it with anything where people have historically been excluded. For example, “There are no limits to what people can achieve when [government and leadership bodies,] [cultural institutions,] [employment processes,] [health care,] reflect the diversity of everyone who uses it.”

Ultimately, there are no limits to what people can achieve when our society reflects the diversity of everyone who lives in and participates in it. Each of us can be a part of inclusion in our designs and decision-making that will build a society that is accessible for all.