Medium – SOUR: 'Let’s look below the SOURface'

This article was originally published on Medium: SOUR

Thirty years ago, on July 26, 1990, one of the most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.

The ADA was modelled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and designed to reduce the instances of discrimination against people with physical and intellectual disabilities. The bill requires employers, businesses, and public spaces to provide reasonable accommodations for their differently-abled employees, customers, and visitors.

Before the ADA, Americans with disabilities could be refused service in restaurants and grocery stores. Wheelchair-bound travelers were unable to take trains or buses because most would not accommodate them, and employers were free to discriminate against disabled candidates at will.

Despite the progress over the last 30 years, social stigmas for the disabled remain. Today, one of the largest hurdles is changing how disabilities are represented in the media and popular culture. A key next step will be normalizing disabilities so that they are not viewed as a “limitation”. Negative and stigmatizing attitudes about people with disabilities need to change.

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Pattern or Bias?

Michael Shermer argues in his book, How We Believe, that human brains have evolved as pattern recognition machines. What this boils down to is — humans are visual learners by nature. We look for clues and patterns that help us make sense of the world, and we tend to be uneasy with chaos and chance.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes a lot of sense. Your chances of survival are higher when you see patterns even if they are not there — as opposed to not seeing patterns that are there. Pattern recognition is a skill set that humans acquired to tell us something valuable about our environments so we can make predictions that will ultimately aid in our survival and reproduction. Essentially, we use patterns to derive meaning without having to do detailed inspections. Unfortunately, this same tendency to see patterns in everything can get us in trouble.

Our drive to find meaning combined with our uncanny ability to pick out patterns makes it unbelievably difficult for us to change our minds even when faced with new or contradictory information. We are not born to “think outside of the box”.

This ‘cognitive shortcut’ we take when gathering or interpreting information is called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias describes our underlying tendency to notice, focus on, and give greater credence to evidence that fits our existing beliefs. This is problematic in our world because confirmation bias leads us — all of us — to make poor decisions because it distorts the realities from which we draw our evidence.

What this means is, what many have come to recognize as disability represents only a fraction of the total disabled population — 90% of all disabilities are not “visible”.

But…then what does a person with a disability look like?

When all the visual cues and narratives available to the general public about people with disabilities revolve around wheelchairs, canes, seeing-eye dogs, or hearing aids, a “box” is created in which we all place this definition of what having a disability means. We might even begin to equate disability solely with mobility issues. The reality is, while some disabilities are visible to onlookers, others are not obvious.

People with disabilities are the largest and most diverse minority within the population — representing all abilities, ages, races, ethnicities, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds. [source]

Disability is infinitely diverse, and so are the many ways in which it is present in the world. The diversity of disability goes far beyond our neat definition of it. There is no “look”.

Consequently, what needs to change is two-fold:

1. The narrative, or the concept, that a person with a disability should pass a “visibility test.” Getting rid of these assumptions is a giant step in normalizing disability.

Statistically speaking, the majority of people with disabilities worldwide do not use an assistive device and look or act “healthy.” So, let’s adapt this story and make it more complete; more encompassing. Let’s create more representation and more inclusion.

2. We must design for accessibility and inclusion in ALL our spaces, products, and services.

Spaces, products, and services should inherently serve as many people as possible. This should not be an afterthought. While accessibility is a core objective, inclusion means much more because it enables people with diverse characteristics to use a product or service in a variety of different environments.

Does diversity = inclusion?

Although used in tandem with diversity, inclusion is a concept of its own. Diversity refers to the characteristics and traits that make people unique. Inclusion refers to the behaviors and the social norms that ensure people feel welcome. Diversity focuses on the makeup of a population, a workplace, a school, etc in terms of demographics such as gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability, and so on. Inclusion is a measure of culture.

“Diversity is the mix, and inclusion is making the mix work.” — Andrés T. Tapia, The Inclusion Paradox

Andrés T. Tapia explains in his book, The Inclusion Paradox, that achieving inclusion is one of the most difficult things to do. It’s harder to achieve than diversity. Tapia argues that we have gotten very good at creating diversity in appearance, but not diversity in thinking. And ultimately, that is what inclusion is about; a culture in which everyone feels included, respected, and comfortable. That is the path inclusive design is now trying to etch.

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Inclusive Design, a quick breakdown

Inclusive design, universal design, or human-centered design. What does it mean when we talk about or create with all of these design methods?

These methods were developed to ensure that everyone enjoys the products and services that designers create. A good designer is one who has a capacity for empathy and wants to create designs for all people. But, a GREAT designer will include the people who he or she is designing for within the process of design.

What we really need are designers who have experienced barriers. We need to stop accepting into our design teams a homogenized set of individuals with very specific competencies. We need design teams with individuals who can each contribute a different perspective.

Inclusive design doesn’t mean designing one thing for all people. Actually, what you’re designing is a diversity of ways to participate in an experience so that everyone can have a sense of belonging.

Inclusive design is about recognizing the mismatched interactions between people and their world. It is about seeking out the expertise of people who navigate exclusionary designs every day of their lives. It is about designing not only for but with.

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