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Inclusive Design: Doing Better When We Have Representation from the People We Are Trying to Serve

Topics: Education Equity

While at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, I happened upon a Learning Lab on Implicit Bias and spoke with its creator, Ryan. We talked about the differences between explicit and implicit bias. He suggested that implicit bias occurs when groups have access to the same technology but have different experiences when using them.

He demonstrated this by noting that students who visit the Freedom Center’s bathrooms often have varying experiences. After asking what he meant, he explained that because infrared sensors optimally work when reflecting off white colors, they sometimes do not pick up darker pigmentation which gets absorbed rather than reflected by infrared light. Ryan repeatedly observed kids of color leave the bathroom wondering why the faucets, soap dispensers, and towels did not work for them and what they did wrong. Of course, they “did” nothing wrong, but it still left them with a very different encounter than some of their classmates.

Intrigued, I polled my colleagues. None with fair skin had experienced this. However, every African-American co-worker I approached acknowledged that this has occurred to them more than once. One exclaimed, “That explains it!” immediately texting his wife like he uncovered the secret to a long-held mystery. The mystery unfortunately was not a solution to an elusive riddle but a design problem.

I have since learned that design flaws are not unique to bathroom sensors. Facial recognition software has misidentified black men 12 times more often than white men, black women 35 times more often and in one notorious incident misidentified African-Americans as gorillas. A similar flaw occurred for early versions of fitness trackers and heartrate monitors, which had difficulty reading skin pigmentation. Had the manufacturers of these devices had people of color and/or those with diverse viewpoints on their design teams, these glitches might have been caught earlier through testing on a variety of skin tones or developing prototypes that took differences into account.

In education, this problem persists. Far too often, well-meaning people and organizations design schools, launch programs and make policies that do not incorporate the voices of those people most affected. I’ve witnessed this in school districts that opened schools and initiated programs without community voices appropriately included and in the misalignment of school and bus transportation policies that do not adequately serve kids.

Happily, districts, schools and neighborhoods have begun addressing this disconnect. In Oklahoma City, Positive Tomorrows, an elementary school was designed in part by children experiencing homelessness. The school recognized that since their students lacked a fixed address, many had never participated in social calendar activities and lacked socialization skills. When designing the school, these students insisted on more open space to hang out and to practice socializing. To embody a concept of home, the school named one common area the “front porch” while calling the playground the “backyard”.  Karen Cator, president of Digital Promise, said of Positive Tomorrows, “This school provides a great example of inclusive innovation – where those who are most directly affected are involved with the design.”

At Grand Mesa Middle School in Grand Junction, Colorado, middle school students created restorative justice circles to address bullying and student to student conflict, a common problem across all middle schools.  Recognizing that suspension was not an adequate punishment to reduce or resolve conflict, the student council facilitated peer support and established norms where students can unpack what triggered the behavior or why something occurred in the first place. Positive results have encouraged the student council to collect data to share with other schools in the district to expand the program.

Positive Tomorrows and Mesa County Valley School District 51 illuminate what can happen when individuals and organizations are intentional and inclusive in the design process.

My colleague who had experienced bathroom sensors that didn’t see him due to his skin pigmentation said it made him feel invisible. When it came to his experience with the technology, he certainly was.  In education, we should adopt universal design principals as done in building development to ensure that we accommodate all children. Unless stakeholders and decision-makers are more intentional and inclusive in their design and implementation work, then too many students will continue to be invisible.

Ironically, while using the restroom at the Colorado History Museum the other day, I overheard one young man say, “Don’t use that sink; it is broken.” Despite there being soap and water in the basin, he accepted that that sink did not function.  After his classmates stated that it stopped working for them when they tried to use it, I shared that some bathroom sensors have difficulty picking up darker colored skin, which all these students had.  One immediately shouted, “That’s racist!”  I almost started a conversation on inclusive design and the need to be intentional, but instead, stopped, smiled and said, “You’re right, it is.”