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Designers encourage amplifying marginalized voices for greater accessibility

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Design trailblazers encouraged students to bring marginalized voices into the design process at the “Designing for Inclusion” conference hosted by Stanford Womxn in Design (SWID) on Friday and Saturday. 

The online event showcased the diverse applications of design thinking. United under the conference theme of inclusion, speakers discussed issues of race, gender and disability discrimination, sharing their own efforts to increase accessibility across the board. 

Antionette Carroll, CEO of Creative Reaction Lab — a nonprofit combating inequities in Black and LatinX communities through education and civic engagement — opened the conference by saying, “If oppression, inequities, and inequalities are designed, they can be redesigned.” 

Carroll, a self-proclaimed “redesigner for justice,” explained that design is more than a “poster campaign.” Like many of the speakers, she acknowledged the intersectionality of her work and the importance of centering traditionally under-represented groups in design spaces. “My living knowledge is my superpower,” she said. “No one can tell me where I belong. I determine that for myself.”

The conference featured several opportunities for participants to engage in design themselves. Disabled designer and activist Jen White-Johnson led the group in creating their own messages centered around disability and social change using a collaboratively designed font

Graphic created during SWID conference using “New Latin Wave 2021” collaborative font, reads “You are not defined by what you cannot do”. (Photo: One of the participants of the collaborative project)

In addition to centering marginalized voices, panelists also advocated for increasing the accessibility of design. SWID took several steps to increase the conference’s accessibility, including a live-captioning feature. Mary Bellard, Principal Innovation Architect Lead at Microsoft, said wide-scale accessibility for people with disabilities “is never going to happen overnight.”

She encourages people to see accessibility like a muscle — “an ability you have to strengthen.” Emi Kolawole added that creating better solutions to issues of accessibility is a matter of “bringing people in who know the problem to work on the problem.” Kolawole is a former lecturer at Stanford’s d.school who runs experiments and finds business opportunities as a “Firestarter” at X, a company started by Google founders to create technology to improve the lives of people,

Picking up on the theme of co-designing with people with disabilities, a panel featuring multiple disabled designers explored their perspectives on disability and design. Aubrie Lee ’14 is a professional namer at Google, developing brand names and consulting on marketing teams. Interested in language, Lee finds “disability and disabled are not perfect terms,” but refers to herself as a Disabled person, capitalizing the “d” to signify it as a part of her identity. To her, increasing disability accessibility is not always a matter of the newest, most creative invention: “We need the simple solutions often times more than the shiny object,” she said.

Both Lee and Elizabeth Guffey, a professor at the State University of New York, Purchase College, emphasized the importance of reducing the burden of accessibility activism on disabled people. Guffey advised designers to see their work not just as creating solutions but also “as a way of teaching other people to think about these problems.”

Participants were invited to think about problems of accessibility at Stanford, particularly with regard to the new ResX neighborhoods. In collaboration with student groups Stanford Disability Alliance, Women in Computer Science and Design for America, attendees brainstormed possible solutions to issues of accessibility, coming up with concepts such as creating digital social events and centering social spaces around ADA-compliant housing. 

Independent diversity, equity and inclusion consultant Lily Zheng ’17 closed out the second day event with a reminder that social change is a long, ongoing effort that often cannot be accomplished during four years as an undergraduate. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Zheng said it is more effective to “increase existing accessibility and join in with efforts that are occuring.” 

“It’s often less a question of invention and more a question of execution,” they said. 

SWID Vice President Internal and lead organizer of the conference Sarah Kim ’22 said she hopes designers at Stanford left the conference with a greater understanding of the history of design and disability activism beyond “the Stanford bubble.” Echoing Zheng’s concerns about circular, repetitive activism, Kim emphasized the importance of building off of the work that designers and activists, such as those featured in the conference, are already doing. 

SWID Co-President Leilani Tian ’22 said she hopes conference attendees take away that anyone is capable of design work. “Anyone is an expert of their own lived experience,” she said. 

This article has been updated to reflect that Elizabeth Guffey is a professor at the State University of New York, Purchase College, not Stanford University.

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Marli Bosler is a writer in the News section. She is a freshman from Kirkland, WA, and she enjoys making Spotify playlists in her free time. Contact The Daily’s News section at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.