On Teaching Disability Design, Design Projects, and ‘Disability Dongles’

Liz Jackson defines Disability Dongle as follows: “A well intended elegant, yet useless solution to a problem we never knew we had. Disability Dongles are most often conceived of and created in design schools and at IDEO.”

Irritation at design students making shiny mock-ups of disability-related products is often shared in the online disability community. For instance, Jocelyn Maffin lists wheelchair models proposed by design students that are either not usable or have very little chances to ever be produced. This creates frustration as, at best, these projects do “nothing for me but tantalize me with ideas in a product that will never be made“. In other words, student design projects addressing disability issues fail either because they fail to take into account users properly; because they do not consider structural accessibility issues hence create solutions to problems that should not exist in our current anti-discrimination legal framework; or because they participate to disability-washing marketing (of the self).

I am a design educator, now at University of Sussex, and I was previously organising design and disability workshops in schools such as ICAN and ESAD Reims. I have taught design and disability from a perspective of design history, ergonomics, to both product and UX designers, undergraduate and postgraduate students. Note that I use here disability design (which is also an expression I borrow from Liz Jackson), but I also use the expressions inclusive design, accessible design and universal design, depending on what works best in a given context — here’s the conveniently public Twitter discussion we had on this topic here.

I constantly question my teaching on this topic: in my relatively short career, I met no less than 17 students proposing ‘technologies to guide the blind.’ Depending on the fashion of the moment, these involve drones, robots or smart textiles. I tried a variety of other approaches to disability design projects, collaborative or at least participatory, which each create their own pitfalls.

Why design projects? Design projects are a cornerstone of design education. The ability to conduct an independent design project is in my experience a requirement for any design degrees. Before this, they usually conduct smaller-scale projects: projects demonstrating their understanding of ergonomics; redesigns of apps; design projects based on narrow briefs. The few thoughts below mostly addresses self-directed projects, starting at most from a broad brief given to the class. I hope it can help those interested in this topic. Let me know if you are doing something in this area that I should discuss in this article!

Partnering with a Disability Organisation or Designing for Individuals

I am a firm believer in Participatory Design. Partnering with a disability organisation should be a graal of disability design education, should it not? There are needs that can be met using design, just not necessarily the grandiose projects students initially envisioned.

This comes with a whole new set of difficulties. Disability organisations or disabled design partners come with their own briefs, and students help along. This is for instance what Lieven de Couvreur does in Belgium (and I absolutely love to see students projects there). Although the projects are quite different, I would also include the work done by Sara Hendren‘s students in this category. Except that, typically the end-product will be a prototype, will not be maintained, will sometimes fail to meet the expectations placed in them. In my experience, this results in fatigue: why collaborate with design students, if it means not being sure the final product be worth the effort? As a note, I have never been able to find a way to pay disabled design partners as experts.

From the students point-of-view, the issue is that the briefs they receive does not always match well the marking criteria. It may be considered “too simple,” not to have required enough research, or not having a significant enough market for the product to be viable. If faculty is not well trained on these issues, they can find themselves unable to adequately support students in defining alternative production and distribution means.

From my point-of-view, the key issue is maintenance and ensuring the projects will not be abandoned. This might mean that several generations of students will work on a similar brief, or repair past prototypes. This is great! But it can’t be a diploma project for instance. It is also extremely difficult to do without tenure or stability. The hope I have for UCL’s new MSc on Disability, Design and Innovation is that by focusing on long-term projects they will be able to conduct these kinds of projects.

Critical Disability Design

Another approach to teach disability design is either to propose projects more oriented towards critical design. Here I should acknowledge the work of Sara Hendren and Anne Galloway. These design projects question assumptions about disability and the shapes that disability objects should take, they “ask provocative questions.”

From an educator point-of-view, the risk is always that this type of project might be found insensitive to current accessibility and social challenges, or that it depoliticizes the topic. This has been a criticism of critical and speculative design in the past. I think of critical design as a form of satire, and of speculative design as poetic, provocative, or simply interesting explorations of alternative ways of living. But I agree it can become a way for designers to capitalize on the struggles of others. I never feel sure that I will know where that line is for everybody that might come across a given project. And in the past, I have seen my share of agressive answers to this type of projects. I do not know how to guide students through this, and find this anxiety-inducing. In the past, students have found this difficult to manage as well. I thus personally am wary of encouraging students taking this path.

Focusing on Accessibility

Teaching accessibility norms, although insufficient, is incredibly important. Having students conduct accessibility audits, at different levels of granularity. This is something that should be part of every User Experience (UX) tool and every UX program. When I say accessibility audit, I do not only refer to checking contrast and font-size, but also training students to conduct accessibility pre-studies and interviews. In another design discipline, Ann Heylighen pairs architecture and disabled students to do an accessibility audit of university buildings. Aimi Hamraie’s Mapping Access project seeks to use “mapping as a critical tool for iterative world-building,” broadening concerns for accessibility.

The problem being that whichever app or building these accessibility audits are conducted on do not necessarily act on that feedback. Which can be framed as a valuable lesson: it shows students how much advocacy is needed to improve accessibility in all areas. But as we are involving disabled design partners, this can become exhausting, with little perceived impact.

Providing a Design Brief based on my own Research

What I have been doing recently is making small briefs, grounded in my doctoral research, of design projects that I know will have impact and can be produced.

The issue is that I have a limited number of such briefs. These are based on four years of research. I can not produce the quality research that would be needed to generate even just, consistently, two or three briefs per year. And I can not expect from students to conduct that kind of extensive research even for a diploma project. It is the work required of a PhD…

What’s next?

I find myself in a precarious position: I believe school design projects are also here for students to explore “design spaces,” the possibilities of design, and that by accumulation and review, these may, sometimes, lead to viable products. Although we ask product and industrial designers to consider feasibility in theoretical terms… launching an actual product is something else entirely, requiring skills that students do not necessarily have and should not necessarily be expected to have (we are already asking a lot from them). Moreover, when conducting, admittedly limited, investigations in the design of disability objects, they learn things they would not have if disability had been an off-topic for the reasons mentioned above. They learn about adapted research methods, they have to use ergonomic data related to usability, they learn about the market for disability aids, etc. The fact their final product does not demonstrate mastery and full understanding of the challenges in this area is not, from a teacher point-of-view, always an issue. Their projects still show the development of the skills they will need and I think it is excellent they have a developing grasp of accessibility issues — I definitely did not when I graduated with a master in design.

This being said, I believe there are many other ways to include disability and disability studies in the curriculum other than through design projects that can quickly turn into disability dongles. Disability studies teachers using design (such as Aparna Nair) can help us figure it out. This will be the topic for another post! Ultimately, I do not think we can be teaching disability design well without changing the structures of design education and, probably, of design professions. The issue would be entirely different if more teachers had studied accessibility and disability, if more design students were disabled. The good thing is that there are lots of research and work to be done in this area!

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