Designer, lawyer and artist Elise Roy says, “When we design for disability, we all benefit.” I cannot agree more. We all have some senses that are more heightened than others. We are used to supplementing them with correcting lenses or hearing aids to amplify our senses that are not functioning too well. Whether it is the books with large prints or the ability to text message over our mobile phones, we have experienced how these inventions have benefitted us all.
In today’s knowledge economy, we have an opportunity to redefine disability if we are careful enough to design with empathy. Although we agree that we need to be more inclusive, we struggle to find meaningful ways to make this a priority in real life. The question is, how do we change the narrative?
We are all disabled
A starting point would be to recognise that we all stand a chance at experiencing disability. Whether as a result of ageing, illness or unfortunate accidents, we could lose our perfect vision, hearing or mobility.
In today’s knowledge economy, we have an opportunity to redefine disability if we are careful to design with empathy. We also may experience disability through what our loved ones go through. My own experience as a parent of an eight-year-old son on the autism spectrum has taught me why we need to be more inclusive in our thinking. Understanding neurodiversity has not only improved my understanding of his special needs but has also helped me recognise his special abilities.
If we can design our infrastructure, education, jobs, and the social system in general to accommodate the various needs of people living with disabilities, we will immensely benefit from richer perspectives and a happier world.
Framing laws for inclusion
Historically, the law has been used to fight discrimination. Take, for example, the women’s rights movement — despite facing resistance from many factions, the power of the law has been used to provide women with equal entitlements at the workplace and give them equal rights to inheritance of property. These entitlements would have never been granted if not for the provisions of the law mandating them. Change in societal attitudes has always followed change by way of progressive laws.
The RPWD Act 2016 is silent on the requirement of employers or schools to provide adaptive technology. In a digital era where adaptive technology is seen as the game changer for PWD, this is a grave omission.The tools of law, if used with empathy, can fight for inclusion and empower the disabled community in their fight for equal opportunities. For example, in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) mandates employers of persons with disabilities (PWD) to provide employees with reasonable accommodations. These include adaptive technologies—computer with voice output for an employee who is blind or has low vision, real-time captioning for conferences for employees who are deaf or hard of hearing—so that the employee can effectively discharge their functions.
On the other hand, in India, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 (RPWD Act) is silent on the requirement of employers or schools to provide adaptive technology. In a digital era where adaptive technology is seen as the game changer for PWD, such a grave omission in the provisions of the law will set our growth as an inclusive society back by a few decades.
Our legislators and policy framers must design with inclusion in mind—they must equip persons with disabilities with the rights to realise their full potential. Any other halfhearted measure will only be a huge disservice to the millions of people living with disabilities in India.
The power of designing for universal access
The Equality Act of 2010 of the United Kingdom requires all taxis to be wheelchair accessible. By mandating such inclusion, the UK government not only ensured that accessibility standards are met but also that such accessibility does not mean huge expenses for taxi owners and manufacturers.
The functionalities required for an accessible vehicle were viewed as any other functionality in the car—such as a child lock feature—because they were included in the design blue print. Had this not been mandated by law, the costs of adding the feature on an ad hoc basis would have been prohibitively high.
Today, such vehicles not only provide greater independence to persons with disabilities, but also benefit the elderly, people travelling with luggage, people with knee problems, and so on.
While the Indian RPWD Act does require the government to take suitable measures to provide access to transport, it remains to be seen if this law will be implemented effectively.
Designing for access to the workplace
Our recruitment approach must become more inclusive. In 2013, we started a programme called ‘Autism at Work’ at SAP, where I work, to employ people from the autism spectrum. Currently, we have about 127 people from the autism spectrum working in 20 different roles across 10 countries. By 2020, SAP intends to employ a total of 650 such employees. SAP created process variants implemented through the ‘Autism at Work’ programme to source, screen, train, onboard and retain individuals in the autism spectrum. These practices accommodate different-enough practices to create a meaningful comfort level for candidates and employees in the autism spectrum.
This is only a small step in the right direction. We have realised that if we identify the right roles for the right people and make some reasonable accommodations, a person on the autism spectrum ends up being a high performer within the employee pool. For example, in roles such as software testing or IT technical infrastructure management, people on the autism spectrum, who have an innate ability to focus and a great attention to detail, have performed extremely well.
But job performance is not only the only area where the programme is meeting expectations; other benefits like employee retention (more than 90 percent), innovation (two patents co-filed by a colleague with autism) and better customer/community relations through the creation of the Autism at Work Summit.
Rethinking the problem statement
Every innovation we embrace starts as a simple attempt to solve a problem. Audio books were originally designed for the visually impaired. How a fully-abled person uses it today—to make their commute more productive—is merely another application.
Designing solutions with a broader problem statement will only help develop better products. Can we, perhaps, reframe the problems that we solve on a daily basis?
During the 2016 Rio Paralympics 1500 meters race, the top four finishers in the T13 category (which caters to visually impaired competitors) ran faster than the gold medal winner in the regular Rio Olympics. In a truly inclusive world, the results of the race in the Rio Olympics would have seen a different winner. And that’s what designing for inclusion would truly mean.