“How might a person with a disability work as a farmer in Nepal?”
“That’s impossible, they can’t.”
This was the initial reaction we got most often when starting conversations about adapting various livelihood programs for people with disabilities. We were working with Humanity & Inclusion, one of our Amplify partners, to create a tool that helps organizations adapt their current workspaces and training environments to be more inclusive. One of our initial challenges was getting past the “that’s impossible” knee-jerk reaction. On multiple occasions, we found the people with disabilities we spoke to would answer that same question with a “yes, and here are five fast ways to make it happen.”
When you haven’t had to think creatively about your surroundings, it’s easy to instinctually believe that the possible is simply impossible. This is the unconscious bias that was at the heart of our work.
We drove about forty-five minutes outside of Dhanghadi in Nepal and arrived at a small village home nestled on the side of a dusty road. Our team was greeted by a gentleman named Rajendra and his wife, who blessed us and invited us inside of their home and odds ‘n’ ends shop. Rajendra has a mobility issue stemming from severe arthritis that causes him to have a stiff, wide-legged stance, difficulty bending his knees, and a challenge pivoting his lower back. Ultimately, it is hard for Rajendra to move around and navigate most spaces.
After he told us about his shop, he walked us through the farm in his backyard. While many people we spoke to had assumed it to be impossible for a person with a disability to be employed in a livelihood like farming, stories like Rajendra’s completely discredited that. He’d made small changes to his farm, such as widening the paths between crops to make it easier for him to negotiate his space. It was a surprisingly simple solution. As the breadwinner for his family, he couldn’t tell himself it was impossible—he just had to have the creative confidence to make his farm work for him.
This is one of the many stories we encountered through our research with Humanity & Inclusion of people with disabilities making it work—creative confidence at its best. So, our collective design challenge was: how might we inspire a person without a disability to overcome their own bias about what a person with a disability can and cannot do? We believed that this would open the door to collaborative solutions between persons with disabilities and their non-disabled counterparts.
During research, we used a method called “The Randomizer,” which my thesis partner and I designed in grad school a few years ago. This quirky brainstorming activity challenges participants to generate ideas around random combinations of themes, trends, activities, etc. Its power lies in forcing participants to provoking solutions to combinations of ideas and themes they’d never thought of before.
To try and tackle the bias we saw from people without a disability, we created a customized version of the Randomizer which we called the “Adapt-o-Pack.” In this game of creative inclusion there are six cards that have livelihood activities on them and six cards that have different personas of a person with a disability, inspired by the people we met during research. You lay out each of the cards from both categories in a row, one on top and one on the bottom, and place the third set of cards, which are numbered one through six, in the middle of these two rows. Assign each row of categories one of the colors of the two dice you have (for example, the livelihoods cards are the blue dice, and the persona cards are the yellow dice).
Then, play. The first participant rolls the dice and generates a random combination of livelihood programs and personas, such as “Livestock Farming” & “Harriet (who is hearing impaired)” or “Mechanical” & “Vic (who is blind).” Participants are then encouraged to brainstorm solutions for how that livelihood environment can be made more inclusive for that particular persona. Participants are encouraged to generate wild ideas, visualize their concepts, and defer judgment along the way.
When our team tested this concept in Nepal, participants were initially skeptical—locked in a “that’s impossible” mentality. As they generated ideas, went wild, and tapped into their own creativity, we noticed their frowns turning into smiles. It was as though, for the first time, they were seeing the world of possibilities in a place where they thought there were none. They were encouraged, even if for a moment, to think outside of their own lived experience.
Ultimately, many of the ideas the participants came up with in our testing were wildly irrelevant or unrealistic—but the point of Adapt-o-Pack is to help participants visualize possibilities. In many cases, the game helped unlock the simple idea that the organization in question could bring on a person with disabilities into their work immediately with simple adaptations and a willingness to collaborate with this person later on, a mindset shift that can have a significant impact.
It is impossible for a person without a disability to ever truly understand what it means to be disabled. Period. True empathy, however, can often take the form of human connection over a shared emotion or experience. The Adapt-o-Pack creates this moment of connection by tapping into the creative potential of the participant, and encouraging them to, even for a moment, empathize with the type of creative necessity people with disabilities display on a daily basis.
Special thanks to Kerry Brennan & Ivy Hu, my collaborators on this project, and to my thesis partner, James Frankis.