Agency, ability, access: Co-designing for inclusion

By Benjamin Kumpf, Innovation Policy Specialist, UNDP

Inclusion means removing barriers that prevent people from participating fully in society. Photo: UNDP Armenia

We need to bring in new voices, perspectives and approaches to development. We need to mobilize global and national commitments on disabilities. These are two main messages of this week’s Global Disability Summit, taking place in London. The UK Government co-hosts the first ever Global Disability Summit with the International Disability Alliance and the Government of Kenya. It emphasizes the importance to focus our collective efforts on inclusive processes and to reinforce the pivot from approaching people as beneficiaries, to working with humans that have agency, which is inherent to the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In the international development innovation context, this is framed as approaching people as users. Users of services and actors in adaptive complex systems. A key principle of innovation for development is to design with the user, this includes designing with and for persons with disabilities.

UNDP has a long tradition of working with and for the rights of persons with disabilities. A key element of our work is to work with governments on legal frameworks and policies. In Liberia a National Action Plan for the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities is currently being finalized. In Armenia, UNDP is working with UNICEF and WHO to support the Government with a comprehensive reform to change the medical disability assessment model with a rights-based model, inform by the Convention on the Rights with Persons with Disabilities.

In Armenia, we’re working with the Government on a rights-based approach to medical disability assessment. Photo: Kolba Lab/UNDP Armenia

In recent years, UNDP has complemented its work for and with people with disabilities by embracing technology and inclusive design.

Emerging technologies, from mobile phones to self-driving cars, have great potential to advance inclusivity and access in our societies. To unfold this potential, however, the front and back end components of technologies need to be designed inclusively.

Inclusive design, sometimes labelled as universal design, refers to taking the deliberate decision to consider as many people’s needs and abilities as possible when designing infrastructure, products and services, as well as experiences. Inclusive design anticipates different ways individuals might interact with the world, today and in the future, considering aging and permanent or temporary disabilities.

Some of the examples that we will showcase of UNDP’s work at the Global Disability Summit include:

Putting inclusive design into practice, UNDP Honduras partnered with Fab Lab and the with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry to test whether co-designing 3D printed prosthetics could improve the lives of returning migrants and victims of violence with disabilities. Participants work with the designers to co-develop customized 3D printed prosthesis. The lab also offers vocational training, entrepreneurial opportunities, occupational therapy and seed funding for victims of violence to develop income-generating ventures.

In Honduras, the end users were integrally involved in designing their own 3D printed prosthetics. Photos: UNDP Honduras.

In addition to support for reforms, UNDP Armenia and our Kolba Lab helped incubate a social enterprise that facilitates inclusive access. Matcheli is an open-source application that indicates locations of physical accessibility for persons with disabilities, based on crowdsourced data. The initial mapping took place through a Mapathon in the capital Yerevan, where half of the population resides. Launched in 2016, it now features over 500 locations in Yerevan alone, and its outreach has extended beyond the capital to include cities across the country. The application is open to all users and continues to expand, increasing access for persons with disabilities to navigate cities and encouraging community participation in building this platform. Engaging citizens in designing and redesigning services is also a core component of the world’s first National SDG Innovation Lab, launched jointly by the Government and UNDP Armenia last year.

Based on crowdsourced data, the Matcheli app indicates locations of physical accessibility for persons with disabilities.

Facilitating community participation and inclusive design can help enhance social capital, which in turn has the potential to improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities. Social capital, “a set of resources that inhere in relationships of trust and cooperation between people”, plays a key role in facilitating access to networks, resources, and support that enables people to live more self-determined lives. In Argentina, civil society organizations such as “Enlaces Territoriales para la Equidad de Género” and FUNDASOR have been fundamental in building a more inclusive society. UNDP and the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights partnered with them to increase access to justice for deaf and hard of hearing survivors of gender-based violence. The initiative is based on user-centred design principles and fosters social capital. The survivors co-lead the design of new solutions and develop tools to help facilitate action across the Deaf community. UNDP and partners provide support with integrating the solutions and methods into public policy to increase access to justice systematically.

Meanwhile in Bangladesh, UNDP, the access2information lab and the organization ‘Young Power in Social Action’ joined forces to design DAISY- accessible reading materials. DAISY are open source books, designed to make education accessible to students who are blind, partially sighted, or have low vision from class 1 to 10. These multimedia books were designed with the users of this technology at the helm. An impact study has shown improvement in school results, with over 55 percent success rate. The open source technology allows easy reproduction of the full-text and full-audio multimedia books, Braille books, accessible e-books and other materials.

In Argentina, civil society organizations are leading the charge to build a more inclusive society. The group “Sordas sin Violencia” helps Deaf and hearing-impaired women victims of gender-based violence to access justice and navigate the legal system. Photos: Sordas sin Violencia for UNDP Argentina

These cases outline how people-centred focus, embracing inclusive design, empowering communities, and creating context-fit technologies help advance progress. While co-designing solutions with people with disabilities we continuously learn important lessons:

1) Be aware of power dynamics

Development actors, designers, activists — whoever engages with individuals and communities who face discrimination and exclusion, introduces additional layers of complexity to existing power dynamics. It is our responsibility to do our best to understand them, navigate them and not pretend to have solved them. “Power relations are tricky, and we need to be aware of which kind of attitudes and behaviours we are reinforcing with our acts and presence,” argues Miriam Pastor of Designit

2) Adapt approaches

We have learned that some methods that worked very well with members of fishermen communities in Egypt may not suit persons with disabilities in the same country. Yet, we have learned that a process that led to rich insights in Georgia was equally applicable and effective in Bangladesh. There simply isn’t the user-centred inclusive design approach.

Accessible reading materials bring education within the grasp of students who are visually impaired. Photo: A2i

3) Make inclusion a success factor

What gets measured counts. Making inclusive processes an explicit success criteria of development innovation efforts helps measure ‘leaving no one behind’. “If you’re not making innovation accessible, making it inclusive, and encouraging diversity, then you’re not doing what needs to be done to make innovation as effective as it should be,” argues UNHCR’s Chris Earney. To account for this, it is important to design respective metrics.

4) Design for inclusion from the start

The vast majority of technologies, buildings, infrastructures and services, as well as their respective user experiences, are usually designed with a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. The emergence of self-driving cars, for example, has significant potential to further increase inclusivity in our societies. The technologies and the various components of the ecosystems for autonomous vehicles need to be designed with people with disabilities right from the start. Inclusivity and accessibility are too often ignored or taken as an after-thought, but “when we design for disability we all benefit,” as Elise Roy emphasizes.

From text messages to the typewriter, a broad range of applications have been designed for and by people with disabilities. More and more governments, companies and development organizations recognize the potential of designing for inclusivity from the get-go. There is huge potential to improve all of our lives by embracing diversity and meaningful co-design.

About the author:
Benjamin Kumpf
is an innovation policy specialist with UNDP. Follow him on Twitter: @bkumpf

Tactile ballots allowed blind and visually impaired citizens to participate in elections in Sierra Leone. Photo: UNDP Sierra Leone