Are what we call "disabilities" really just consequences of bad design work? That's what Jutta Treviranus teaches her students at OCADU.
I Want Your Job finds Torontonians who make a living doing exactly what they love to do, in any field, and for any salary, and asks them how they did it.
Jutta Treviranus is busy. She’s had meetings at the White House and at the UN. When we met her last week, she was fresh off a visit to Google headquarters. As director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCADU, she leads international research projects devoted to ensuring that everyday and emerging technology is accessible to disabled users. She’s also a professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design University’s Inclusive Design graduate program, and she’s the head of the Inclusive Design Institute. She holds three degrees and is a prolific writer. Like we said: busy.
After starting the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto in 1994, Treviranus moved it to OCADU in 2010 and rebranded it as the IDRC. As the soft-spoken 55-year-old explains, “The IDRC is the largest centre of its kind in the world focused on digital inclusion. Our focus is not on creating new technologies—although there’s plenty of that—but trying to make sure the standard stuff is designed for diversity.”
We spoke with Treviranus about “unlearning” and how inclusive design can make the world a better place for everyone, disabled or not.
Torontoist: How did accessibility and inclusive design become your professional focus?
Jutta Treviranus: I think it was gradual, but the experience that flipped it for me was that when I first graduated, I had a contract with McMaster [University]. It was something called Bill 82, which was an educational integration bill. I was assigned twelve students with a variety of disabilities, and I was asked to figure out how they could be integrated into the academic program. This included individuals who were non-speaking, individuals who were blind but Braille-literate, and someone who was who was blind and not Braille-literate. It was also the beginning of personal computers—the Tandy Model 100, the Apple II were just coming out at the time—and I thought, “This has the potential to be a thoroughly amazing translation device, because it can translate whatever movement someone is able to control into text or speech or whatever, and is also able to translate the educational material into something someone can perceive and sense. I started to play with personal computers.
What makes good inclusive design? How do you teach that in a classroom setting or a lab, or while developing someone’s thesis?
The first course we have in the program is called “Unlearning and Questioning,” because inclusive design actually challenges a lot of the standard conceptions of design. We also, to some extent, challenge the standard conceptions of accessibility. Inclusive design basically means designing for diversity: ensuring that the design we have is inclusive of a much larger conception of the user. Inclusive design has a relative perspective on what is accessible, and on disabilities as well. Our notion of disability is that “disability” is a mismatch between the needs of the individual and the service, product, or environment offered. It’s not a personal trait; it’s a relative condition brought about by bad design.
What we also promote is participatory design. You don’t know if your design will work unless you engage the end user right from the beginning. We talk about not really knowing if a design is accessible until you know the individual and their goals. The other thing we teach is “don’t make any assumptions”—like don’t categorize people into specific diagnostic categories and assume, therefore, that you know what it is that will work best for them.
Shouldn’t all good design be inclusive by definition?
It should be, yes. Ideally, inclusive design should be part of all curricula for anyone who’s creating anything. In fact, we tried to get that into several sets of legislation. I work on legislative design as well.
Rich Donovan calls it simply “extreme users” and “extreme design.” By integrating the principles of inclusive design, we’re not just benefiting the end user who requires an accessible product. It adds usability for everybody, and it leads to much greater innovation. There’s this notion of the “curb cut effect.” If you think about the curb cut on a sidewalk, it’s created for a someone in a wheelchair, but everybody uses it: if you have a baby carriage, on a skateboard, on a bike, luggage carts, whatever. The same applies to all sorts of things. For example, email was motivated by someone wanting to talk to their wife, who was deaf. The invention of the phone is directly linked to Alexander Graham Bell’s work with relatives who were hard of hearing. Many of today’s innovations can be traced back to a motivation to create a more inclusive design.
You mentioned the rise of the personal computer as a watershed moment in inclusive design, so what new developments are you really excited about?
The primary thing that’s happening now is networks, collective production, and crowdsourcing. Many of our projects are now related to something we call the global public inclusive infrastructure. The idea is, because we’re networked globally, we don’t have to redundantly produce particular solutions—we can pool them together.
It’s a full ecosystem: you help individuals discover what they need and what works for them—whatever barrier they’re facing at the moment and whatever task they have—and that becomes a portable preference set that they can carry around in a smartcard. So when you go up the ATM, museum kiosk, government portal, or point of sale, and you’re blind and you need the thing to talk, you don’t need to do anything. It immediately recognizes your needs—it will adjust to fit you, there’s no justifying or explaining, and you take your preference file with you.
Can you tell me about your role as an OCADU professor in the Inclusive Design program?
Part of the reason I came to OCADU was because there was the opportunity to start a new graduate program. I established the program, proposed the structure, got it approved through the Ontario Council of Graduate Schools, and we have the third cohort of students in now. It’s run very differently from other programs, and I think it’s been an interesting process. We don’t fit very well into standard academic structures: I recruit the most diverse student group possible. It’s a huge range of disciplines, coming from different countries, speaking different languages, many of them having experience with different disability barriers. I throw them all together, and they become co-constructors in their own education. The students come together for two weeks initially, and they get to know each other very well, and they do social bonding activities, and then they disperse for the rest of the academic year. They can attend remotely or in person: we have students living in Dubai and China, and they attend class by teleconference.
It’s a two-year program with courses that include foundational principles. Most design assumes a persona, which is a typical persona. We’re obviously not talking about “typical,” so we turn that into an “edge” persona. Another course is inclusive research methods. Research is, in some ways, exclusive: research is designed for the norm, and statistical power is reached by having the majority. So even research methods and philosophy, we need to flip them on their head. That’s where we’re getting some friction, because the scientific method and rigour is so ingrained that people aren’t able to rationally rethink it. We break all rules in terms of research, because the group we’re working with is usually normed out of the data set—they’re the noise, the outliers.
Can you recall a moment during your career when you knew you were on the right track, or that you were making a difference?
I can think of so many! The most recent was during this year’s Unlearning and Questioning course. The pivotal moment was just watching these “a-ha” moments when people start to really get it. You watch this expression on their face. It’s such a larger concept of accessibility and inclusion—it’s about more than a particular group I’m going to “take care of”—and it’s not about service. It’s about issues of humanity and where we are going.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This post originally referred to the ATRC as the Adaptive Technology Research Centre, rather than the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre.