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Defending the vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic

IDRC virtual meeting

Interview with Dr. Jutta Treviranus, director, Inclusive Design Research Centre, OCAD University

For decades, Dr. Jutta Treviranus, director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC) and a professor at OCAD University, has been working towards more inclusive and accessible technology for people who are at the vulnerable edges of our society.

A current IDRC project, We Count, funded by the Innovation Science and Economic Development (ISED program) addresses barriers to participation and employment for persons with disabilities in the rapidly growing data economy.

How does the current pandemic affect the work of the IDRC?

Recently, Dr. Treviranus authored an essay, It’s time to drop “Darwinism” and listen to Darwin and his successors on human evolution and she appeared in an interview, ‘Designing a Future Where Everyone Counts; on The Laura Flanders Show to discuss the current environment.

  1. In your recent interviews, you’ve talked about Darwinism and the pandemic. How does this all come into play with your research and the work being conducted at the IDRC?

People who are devalued or marginalized by society are often the most vulnerable to systemic threat. Some people, including politicians, have rationalized this as a necessary sacrifice or inevitable part of human evolution.

At the IDRC, we know that including people who currently face daily challenges is essential to the evolutionary advance of our society. Designing with people who can’t use or have difficulty with our current systems, helps us to innovate. Human difference provides a range of perspectives when faced with the unknown. Designing our community so that it works for people who  are most vulnerable will mean that we have a community that will support us when we are most vulnerable. This helps a society to survive unexpected threats.

At the IDRC, we co-design with people who can’t use mainstream designs. We design systems that recognize and adapt to the range of human difference; and we strive to create systems that will benefit us all and take into account the changing complex ecosystems that make up our current and future reality.  

  1. How does the ‘survival mode’ mentality of the pandemic affect issues of inclusivity and accessibility for persons with disabilities?

We, at the IDRC, often say that people experiencing disabilities are the stress testers or ‘canaries in the coal mine’ of our society. They show us where our society is broken or faulty. They also have a head start on resourcefulness and creativity, because the challenges we are all facing now have been a part of their daily experience.

I’m hoping that as we come out of this, we, as a society, will better understand the incredible value of redesigning our communities with the many people who have experienced living in the margins of society.  

  1. How is the IDRC working these days to address and respond to current challenges?

It almost seems that we have been preparing for this crisis for many decades:

  • Because we wanted to make it possible for as many diverse people around the globe to participate in our work, we created and refined processes to participate remotely.
  • Our work on open online learning with our FLOE and SNOW projects prepared us to help move schools online and support struggling students and teachers.
  • Our projects that provided tools and resources for cooperatively governed platforms for essential workers, such as caregivers, prepared us to help the current frontline workers.
  • Projects such as We Count prepared us to support decision makers in avoiding blind spots, and in making decisions that are not biased against people who  are not average, especially when we use artificial intelligence or data analytics.
  • Our ongoing accessibility services prepared us to help create communication and online resources that can be understood and used by all diverse recipients.
  • Most importantly, we are prepared to help redesign a society that is better at addressing the many complex and unexpected challenges ahead.