In 2015, I got an email from a friend, colleague, and professor of occupational therapy at NYU asking if I would be willing to work with her on a project with AT&T. Specifically, she was asking me to serve as an "exemplar."
I really didn’t know what that meant. Nevertheless, I accepted.
As we sat around a giant room of roughly forty people, I saw it was going to be a considerably larger project than I imagined. Our manager explained that everyone at this giant table had an equal stake in what was going to be called the AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge. Each of us four examplars (Jason, Gus, Paul and myself) would be asked to share our stories to inspire innovation from developers worldwide.
Instead of simply saying “Please design for people with disabilities,” AT&T used our videos to say: “This is Xian, she walks with two ski poles as canes and would benefit from handsfree technology.”
Or: “This is Gus, he’s a professor, he’s blind, and needs help navigating New York.”
Each story was told in an elegant short-form video, which AT&T shared with the press, (NPR, Fast Company, Fox and many others) and trusted us to speak on behalf of the Connect Ability Challenge.
We got to work with developers testing out innovations as they were being created, ask questions and help developers from NYU, Cornell, and worldwide to see both what was (and was not) working. Many of the solutions that developers assumed would work turned out to be unnecessary or just didn’t cut it practically. As Gus said to us one day, when a developer designed a clunky helmet for him to wear out in the street, “Just because I can’t see it doesn’t mean I want to wear something heavy, bulky and ugly.”
I learned from working alongside him that many things the “sighted” world thought was right for Gus didn’t help or excite him. Most things created with my needs in mind didn’t work either, and I had the opportunity to express this to many of the developers before they submitted their entries. We had 450 entrants at the start of the three-month competition, many of whom we consulted, and by the end, 63 submissions.
Through this collaborative experience, I realized how important it was to work with developers as they were creating so they could save time and innovate more powerfully.
I realized how important it was to dialogue early, because waiting until something goes to market is simply too late to aptly serve clientele with disabilities– not just for NYU, AT&T, but across all innovation, whether a product was expressly made for people with disabilities or just universally inclusive.
I witnessed the importance of collaborating with people with disabilities for innovation again in fall 2016, when I began working with Open Style Lab at Parsons School of Design. My designers observed carefully to create what I like to call my “Dream coat.” As I walked throughout NYC, they watched me put on my coat (when doing so myself, I must be seated) and they noticed something I never had: my usual coat would almost always get caught on the back of my chair as I’d work to put it on.
So, they designed something I never thought I needed– a higher coattail, to prevent the garment from catching anywhere behind me. They designed magnetic closures so I could fasten my coat with one hand while standing (my hands are occupied with ski poles while standing, so using both hands for anything else is not possible). These are design elements they would not create without observation, and I might not have thought of myself. They made a video celebrating my advocacy, as well as the learning process we all benefited from. For the woman who stayed up all night sewing my finished coat, it was her first experience designing for someone with a disability; she has now worked with UNIQLO, AARP and Global Brands Group with a special focus on adaptive fashion and universal design.
So why am I sharing this with you?
- Because AT&T and Open Style Lab showed me the way things should be done. When people with disabilities are hired to consult with creators, those designers and developers create better and more powerful products and services.
- Because 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. have disabilities according to the most recent CDC report (August 2018), and there are many ways companies, innovators and staff can work with people with disabilities.
- Because it is rare. Business cases showing the effectiveness of working with people with disabilities before and as you innovate are so rarely done, and if they are, they’re rarely shared.
But for me, this case is very personal. I not only felt seen and heard in these processes, but I felt loved. That is something you cannot quantify, but it is something I will never forget as long as I live.
I have been considered and designed for in ways many of my friends and colleagues have not and I have seen how it transforms all involved for the better.
We are not only more informed, we are more connected to each other, and the results are more effective, inclusive, and immeasurably powerful.
I wish models like this on every company, as it places you at the forefront of innovation. In fact, if you are reading this newsletter, you have a song in the choir. I’m asking that each of us do our part to seize and create opportunities to harmonize together.
Xian Horn, who has Cerebral Palsy, serves as a teacher, speaker, beauty advocate, blogger, and Exemplar for the AT&T NYU Connect Ability Challenge toward the creation of Assistive Technology.