Empathising with Persons with Disabilities
(These)abilities Lab #2, Part 1
Last Sunday, I had the humbling experience of helping out at the kickoff session of (These)abilities L.A.B #2 (Lowering All Barriers). L.A.B. is a series of workshops aimed at applying design thinking to enhance the ride-hailing experience for the visually-handicapped & hearing-impaired.
(These)abilities is a design & technology company that aims to “Disable Disabilities” through technology and design, by designing & building products that level the playing field for Persons with Disabilities (PwDs).
I’ve always believed that the key to creating meaningful design is empathy. Hearing the stories and experiences of PwDs really opened my eyes towards the things we take for granted in our everyday lives, while reminding me about a certain level of complacency that designers are often unaware of.
Most importantly, I learnt about society’s involvement in the lives of PwDs in Singapore, from both the government and the public’s perspective. Inclusion was a word that came up often, and something that we still have a long way to go before being a truly friendly and accepting society.
Here’s sharing with you anecdotes and observations from the session, as well as some personal insights.
The session kicked off with a story boarding session on the travel journey, first for persons without disabilities, then re-imagining the scenario for the visually and hearing impaired.
Visual Impairment (VI)
- It is uncommon for those with VI to travel to new places, because of complications that arise when there are different routes to take. People with VI are highly reliant on their memory of directions and steps, as well as obstacles to look out for.
- People with VI often seek public assistance for steps in the journey that are highly inaccessible, for example in knowing when their buses have arrived.
- While there are amenities that aim to increase accessibility for those with VI, there is still much to improve on. A participant with visual impairment shared that the tactile steps at train stations sometimes lead to nowhere. Stations with multiple lines also pose a problem as there is no differentiation between various routes.
- Audio signals at traffic lights are selective and constrained. A participant with visual impairment mentioned how the audio signals at the traffic light on his way home turns off after 8PM, after complaints from residents in the nearby vicinity about noise pollution. He lamented on how the state favours the opinion of the majority population, even though it compromises on both the safety and accessibility of PwDs.
Hearing Impairment (HI)
- By breaking down discrete events though storyboarding, a participant realised his reliance on audio feedback when locking his bicycle, which he has always taken for granted.
- I was pleasantly surprised that some of the participants with HI drove cars. When asked if there were any visual indicators for drivers with HI (like L-plates for provisional drivers in Singapore), they were expressively appalled and vehemently against it. The reason being that if they were to meet with an accident, the fault would be directly placed on them due to their disability. This made me ponder about how those with HI are currently being perceived by the public, and vice versa.
Technology for PwDs
We spent some time fiddling with the magnification and screen reader/ VoiceOver functions on the smartphone, designed for the those with low vision and visual impairment, respectively. They took some getting used to, especially with swiping gestures and double tapping in place of single taps, which would turn on dictation. We were also aware of how some elements like maps cannot be represented through audio.
While these are features to support those with VI, adoption rate is still relatively low, which is understandable.
Visual Impairment (VI)
- A participant with VI was excited about the capabilities of beacons — which emit Bluetooth and navigational information though audio. While the technology is already available, infrastructural support is needed to install such beacons at public spaces.
- When asked about something he wishes he could have for the future of transportation, the participant spoke of a personal robot that could double up as a personal assistant (a la Siri) as well as a navigational guide (a la Beacon).
Hearing Impairment (HI)
- In place of phone calls, those with HI use video conferencing apps like Skype and FaceTime to converse with each other. They use a variety of such apps and are aware of their difference in popularity in different countries (e.g. Line and WeChat are more popular in Taiwan and Korea).
- Video apps like Youtube provide subtitling (closed captions) options.
- For daily communication and expression with those who don’t know sign language, they use an app called Yeller, which is simply an app that lets the user input huge white text on a black background. An example would be to place their order in F&B outlets.
With high reliance on audio (for VI) and video (for HI) mediums, current phone plans with extended data packages are not sufficient, even as they have been specially extended for PwDs.
Ride hailing has come a long way with the introduction of apps that allow for cab booking, reducing the barrier for PwDs. They would be able to communicate their destinations beforehand, as well as avoid the trouble of flagging cabs on the road.
An important takeaway was when designing for an experience, it’s necessary to zoom in on the journey, taking into account different case scenarios that may arise. This would include offline interactions like cab pickup and drop-off, as well as how various stakeholders (driver and rider) interact with each other and exchange information. Ultimately, the app interface only forms a part of the entire ride hailing service.
Throughout the sharing, multiple pain points and design gaps were identified. I’m excited to see what the participants will come up with in the following sessions!
PwDs and the Society
Someone shared that he has been taking the same bus with the participant with VI (E) for over a decade, and finally spoke to him thanks to this session. According to him, the entire neighbourhood knows of E and his visual handicap. This struck me and led me to wonder how we could go beyond just awareness as a society, but to reach out and reduce stigma towards disability.
I was also heartened by the strong community for PwDs. One of the participants with HI organises movie gatherings. There is also an ongoing movement by The Singapore Association for the Deaf for recognition of the Singapore sign language (including slangs like kiasu and kaypoh- which I learnt how to sign!)
This article from Fast Company recognises that design, as a discipline, has so often tended to focus on a mythical idea of the average consumer. It advocates for inclusive design, where disability is an engine of innovation.
Inclusive design, by bringing a diverse set of users into a design process that typically strips away differences and abstracts them into what seems user-friendly to the maximum number of people, can actually help with the fact that our capabilities change throughout the day.
— Kat Holmes, Microsoft’s Principle Design Director
Good design necessitates empathising with others, in order to innovate on things that we might never have created ourselves. Perhaps it’s a step towards being a more inclusive society, one thoughtful design at a time.
I’ll love to hear it if you’ve had any experiences with PwDs! If you’ve enjoyed this article, please like and share it around :)