How My Son’s Disability Helps Everyone
Updated: Mar 13
Imagine designing an inclusive workplace for a woman with five kids and a two-hour commute into work. Or an avid skier who needs to hit the slopes with every dump of fresh powder. Or how about the middle manager who simply thinks diversity and inclusion initiatives are a waste of time. Designing inclusive workplaces for these “extreme” employees is an excellent way to build inclusivity for everyone.
Design thinking is a powerful tool to innovate on challenging social problems like workplace diversity and inclusion. The design-thinking process seeks to first build an intimate understanding of the employee experience. From here, teams generate ideas and ultimately develop solutions that are more meaningful and impactful. Often, when we begin with a deep understanding of the “extreme” employee, we end up with solutions that benefit everyone. For example, we may observe a person with a physical disability struggling with the heavy front door of their building. A lighter door will be more inclusive for them, but also for many other able-bodied people. Or what if we designed an inclusive workplace for the extreme deniers – employees who believe diversity hinders performance. It’s a bold idea that would, undeniably, lead to inclusivity for all.
A human-centred approach not only gets to better solutions, but it also empowers those who prompted the change in the first place. A personal example illustrates this point:
I have identical twin boys, age 12. My one son was born with microtia, an under-developed ear, and unilateral hearing. Last night at dinner he asked me, "Mama, will I be held back when I go to high school because of my little ear?" It's a typical kind of question I'm asked as my son navigates his world with a visible difference. Of course, I comfort him and point out how well he does at school and how incredibly awesome he is. But I was also able to show him how he (the “extreme” student) has created an environment that benefits everyone.
Here’s how: Nine years ago when I first walked into his Junior Kindergarten class, I was struck by how loud it was. So many kids, so much noise … and so hard for my son to hear. Diving into the first empathy stage of design thinking, I observed him in the classroom and at home. He was exhausted from the sheer difficulty of trying to hear. Something had to be done. Always the optimistic problem solver, I consulted with his teacher, the principal and hearing experts to generate ideas. Through this process, we landed on a few solutions including buying acoustic panels and recruiting my engineer husband to build twelve durable soundboards to be mounted on his classroom walls. Voila! They absorbed the clatter of thirty preschoolers!
These soundboards, as well as the FM speaker system used by the teacher, allowed my son the learning environment he needed. But they also created a better hearing environment for everyone (his kindergarten teacher kiddingly threatened to never let my son graduate to Grade One so that she could keep the soundboards)!
Fast forward to today. My son's school recently built a new wing and the soundboards are in high demand. We designed and built a product for an extreme user (my son with a hearing loss) and they are now in six classrooms helping create a better learning environment for both students and teachers. When we design for disability (and any extreme user),
Sylvia Apostolidis, President, The Jasmar Group
The Jasmar Group is a behaviour change consultancy that helps organizations build team belonging, culture, and performance.
Interested in a new approach to building a diverse and inclusive workplace? Book HERE for a free consultation with Sylvia Apostolidis.