Toward Centering Access in Professional Design
Bennett, Cynthia L
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Human-Computer Interaction research has long been concerned with foregrounding user needs in the design of technology. Indeed, its professionalized application, often called design, aims to put this philosophy in practice. For example, when designing for people with disabilities, designers aim to gather user needs specific to this population and translate them into accessible designs. Accessibility is gaining increased attention in the field, one indication being that accessibility was one of the most popular keywords describing publications at the 2019 CHI Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. But this dissertation argues that despite increased momentum, perspectives from the people with disabilities accessible designs purportedly benefit are under-represented, and these absences may negatively impact people with disabilities and the field of professional design. As such, this dissertation engages and intervenes professional design with perspectives by people with disabilities. First, I draw out some ways the field may exclude disabled people. Specifically, I analyze cases of professional design where disabled people were observed and invited to assist on design projects. My analysis shows that disabled people and their contributions were often cast outside of design in favor of designer perspectives. By imposing differences, professional designers separated, rather than drew close, the first-person perspectives they sought. In response, I developed two interventions with the aim to rework professional design from lived experiences of disabled people. The first intervention, called biographical prototypes, materializes stories of modification, repurposement, and invention people with disabilities have done in their daily life to make something work better for them. This intervention accumulated a collection of narratives and lessons that informed my second intervention, called interdependence. Interdependence is a lens for analyzing the work people with disabilities and others do to make something accessible. When I applied the frame to analyze field observations of disabled and nondisabled people working together, the interdependence lens revealed two important findings. First, access building was a continuous effort of mundane attunements in contrast to the way access is written in professional design as a fixed state. Second, access building can be ableist—prejudice against people with disabilities. That is, in attempt to open opportunities for someone with disabilities, interdependencies show how this work may foreclose actions which privilege the natural ways people with disabilities work. From my interventions, I learned that professional design may benefit by letting go of access as if it were a fixed state to either achieve or not. As such, I offer recommendations for centering access or, how to consistently, collectively, and accountably attend to what people with disabilities, and others, need to meaningfully contribute to and be adequately recognized by professional design.