Designing for Neurodiversity Inclusivity

How can we design inclusive programs that support neurodiversity?

The Disability Justice movement has increased the recognition and adoption of inclusive spaces and accessible interaction for people who are neurodivergent or on the autism spectrum. It continues, however, to rely largely on individuals to disclose their diagnoses in spaces where they may initially be uncertain of support. 

María Emilia Lasso de la Vega is the Training and Programs Facilitator and Technical Facilitation Manager at Ethos. Her background in higher education and knowledge of design helped develop her holistically inclusive approach to taking care of others.

Addressing the unique needs of every person 

Working with diverse cohorts as a college residence hall RA, María quickly recognized that every person—neuronormative, neurodivergent, or however they openly or privately identify—has a unique preference for interactions or needs a unique accommodation

Rather than only adjusting her meeting process when seeing a student who had disclosed their neurodiversity to the college, María chose to conduct all her interactions, with all her charges, with the assumption that they required some kind of accommodation. This led her to design her office for every student’s safety and comfort

She angled the guest chair so students with autism—and anyone else made uneasy by eye contact—were not required to stare directly across the desk at her. She decorated her desk with sensory toys, kept the lights low, and avoided scents in the office space. She asked every student if they preferred the door open or closed, and she set her monitor on a swivel to accommodate anyone who benefited from seeing as well as hearing necessary information.

All these accommodations succeeded in making many different people underneath the neurodiversity umbrella feel welcome not only because their needs were met, but also because those needs never felt like an imposition—the shared space was deliberately, inclusively designed from the beginning.

Intentional inclusive design in digital spaces

The concept of starting with inclusivity makes sense in digital shared spaces as well as physical ones. Too often, accessibility is an add-on after a program or platform has been built out, requiring a lot of reworking that could have been avoided if the seven principles of universal design were integrated from the beginning.

María is adept at utilizing the inclusive features of the software integrated into her programs and stresses that the best digital designs don’t just cater to people with disabilities. Like her office at the college, they are built for anyone who might benefit from what they offer. 

For instance, closed captioning is essential for people who are hard of hearing, but it’s also a useful feature for anyone tuning in from a loud room. Live transcripts are also ideal for those with auditory processing disorders, but people with average auditory experiences might find them useful for note-taking.

At its center, inclusive design strives to ensure a space—be it digital or physical—is as easy and intuitive to use as possible. By understanding and incorporating these features into every program, facilitators can create communities of care that are safe and inviting for all.

Anyone striving to implement better inclusivity into their community of care will benefit from María’s deep dive into her own approach, and her integration of the seven principles of universal design, in the latest episode of the Care Work podcast.

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