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HCDE Dissertation Defense: Cynthia Bennett, "Toward Centering Access in Professional Design"
WhenFriday, Dec 13, 2019, 10 – 11:30 a.m.
Campus locationStudent Union Building (HUB)
Campus room214
Event typesLectures/Seminars, Special Events
Event sponsorsHuman Centered Design & Engineering

HCDE faculty, students, staff, and invited guests are welcome to join the department for a dissertation defense presentation.
RSVP by completing the very short survey at this link. RSVP is not required but encouraged to help us foster a more accessible presentation.

Dissertation title: Toward Centering Access in Professional Design

PhD candidate: Cynthia Bennett

Dissertation abstract:

Accessibility is gaining increased attention in the field of human-computer interaction. For example, organizers of the 2019 flagship HCI CHI conference described accessibility as one of the most popular keywords on submitted papers, and courses on Accessibility and Inclusive Design, such as those taught at UW, are proliferating. Across this work, accessibility typically refers to the process of foregrounding the needs of people with disabilities in the design of technology. In its professionalized application, designers aim to gather user needs specific to people with disabilities and translate them into accessible designs.

This dissertation engages and intervenes in such 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 recognized designer perspectives. By imposing differences, professional designers separated, rather than drew close, the first-person perspectives they sought.

Second, I respond to these insights by developing 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 an 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.

Based on this work, I argue that despite increased momentum, professional design under-represents perspectives from the people with disabilities, the very people whom those accessible designs purportedly benefit. I further suggest that these absences may negatively impact people with disabilities and the field of professional design. In particular, 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.

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