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October 11, 2018

Helen Keller Centre Co-design Session: Summary and Results

As part of our continued efforts to include diverse perspectives in creation of inclusive cities, IDRC partnered with Helen Keller Centre and organized an embedded co-design session at their North York Centre. The session was held on September 28th, 2018. Two individuals from the deaf blind community participated in a 2.5 hour long co-design session from 9:00 am to 11:30 am with assistance of their interveners. Three IDRC members were also available to facilitate this session.

Activity Overview

The co-design activity was developed in collaboration with the Helen Keller Centre members and also based on the learnings from the Deaf Culture Centre co-design session in order to tailor the activity to the interests and needs of the deaf blind community. The activity had three parts: individual reflection, sharing individual notes, and small group discussion.

Individual Reflection

Objective: Reflect on personal experiences living in today’s neighbourhood
Duration: 30 minutes

Participants were given a worksheet to complete based on their personal experiences. In this activity, participants were asked to describe the first thing (emotions, challenges, etc.) that comes to their mind when thinking about the items listed on the worksheet. Some items on this checklist included: crossing the street, being driven, and when navigating a space alone. Interveners read out the questions and each item for the participants and also took note of their responses.

At the end of this activity, participants were given 15 minutes to share their responses with each other. Interveners read out the responses. Some responses inspired the participants and they asked their interveners to add a few more notes to their worksheets.

Small Group Discussion

Objective: Discuss and brainstorm ways to improve the city for their community
Duration: 1.5 hour

Participants were given the following 4 questions to discuss and answer.

  1. As a group describe situations when your needs and capabilities were NOT considered in the design of the neighbourhood: (For example when you are outside, on the subway, at the park, at school, etc.)
  2. As a group describe positive experiences you had receiving support from others in your community when navigating streets in your neighbourhood
  3. As a group think about different ways you can educate the city about your community’s needs: (List as many ideas as possible)
  4. As a group think about different ways that the design of your neighbourhood or technology can help you thrive in the community

Interveners were also encouraged to participate in the discussion as their responses were providing a different point of view.


Individual Reflection

Describe the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the following places/ activities/ scenarios (Emotions, challenges, etc.)

The participants responded individually to the list of following items:

  • Crossing the Street
  • Walking on the Sidewalk
  • Being driven
  • Waiting for Public Transit
  • Entering or Exiting Buildings
  • Inside elevators
  • In a supermarket
  • In a gym
  • At a neighbourhood park
  • Being the only deafblind person in a large crowd
  • Navigating a space by myself

The participants reported experiencing anxiety and fear when navigating the streets, as it had become increasingly difficult for them due to their deteriorating eyesight and hearing. The participants expressed a sense of loneliness and isolation from others when in crowded public spaces. They feel more hesitant to move around in a space due to the inaccessibility of that environment and the lack of support and understanding from others in public spaces (e.g. insufficiently trained staff in public libraries). Some examples of inaccessibility in public spaces included narrow sidewalks with cobblestones and street litter that makes it difficult to navigate the streets. Other examples include lack of multimodal signage or cues, which makes it increasingly difficult for them to find closest transit stops, safely cross the street and sense elevator doors opening. They also commented on the inconvenience caused by inconsistent transit drop offs and poorly lit interior spaces (e.g. stairwells, elevators) with clutter that acts as a barrier for navigation. The participants also expressed losing their independence and having to rely on others to be driven around the city, and to require an intervener to help them shop for groceries or use the gym. One participant expressed feeling like a “desert island in a sea of people” in public spaces and reported avoiding certain spaces because of their deteriorating eyesight and hearing and the lack of accessibility in many public spaces.

After the individual reflection, the participants commented on the following topics in a small group discussion.

Needs Not Considered (Group Activity)

The participants expressed that public buildings are often not accessible for the deaf/ deaf-blind community as they are often dark or poorly lit. For example, public washrooms are dark and don’t have enough contrast. In schools, classrooms are also poorly lit, which makes it very difficult for deaf blind individuals to follow the lecture and be able to participate. The participants also mentioned that the technology used in classrooms is not accessible. For example, powerpoint presentations are commonly used with lights turned off which makes it difficult for them to lipread or see when another student raises their hand to make a comment. Other accessibility challenges in indoor spaces included revolving doors or doors that open in different directions that cause confusion, and automatic doors with small buttons that are hard to press or often don’t function.

In outdoor spaces, the participants reported experiencing difficulty navigating an ever changing environment, for example ongoing construction, landmarks being moved, snow banks or ice that creates challenging and unpredictability in the space. The participants also expressed the challenges of navigating around street furniture (e.g. trees, light posts, etc.) that act as obstacles in their travels. Further, the overwhelming city noise around them adds to their challenges when navigating the city. These factors also impacted the participants’ independence, and they often had to ask for help to locate the nearest subway stations or bus stops.

The participants also reported that “able bodied” individuals often don’t know how to behave around them, and often stare or doubt their visual impairment if they seem to be navigating well with a cane. They also expressed that those who attempt to help often do not know how to because they lack knowledge about the accessibility needs of the deaf/deaf blind community.

Positive Experience Receiving Support From Others (Group Activity)

Some of the positive experiences shared by the group included people on public transit offering them a seat or opening doors for them to walk through easily. The participants agreed that most people are accommodating when asked. For instance, one of the participants requested a well-lit area to dine in at a local restaurant and they provided special seating with extra lighting for them.

Ways to Educate the City (Group Activity)

The group felt that cities are often built by and for people with sight and hearing, and for the aesthetics rather than the function and accessibility of the structures. They expressed the importance of including the deaf/deaf blind community in the design process and doing extensive research prior to the building process. They also commented that public education and enforcement of legislation is necessary to ensure that people don’t block sidewalks for people using a mobility device or park in accessibility parking spots. They also suggested encouraging neighbours to shovel snow for those who have difficulty.

Design and Technology of Neighbourhood (Group Activity)

The group discussed building interior spaces that more welcoming, brightly lit, and incorporate high contrast and tactile surfaces. Participants also suggested developing safer navigation systems for blind individuals, such as tactile surfaces or braille dots at intersections and subway platforms. They also discussed better incorporation of lighting to ease navigation, which could include a rope lighting system above the sidewalk that would allow the individual to follow the path/track illuminated by the light above. Another suggestion was to incorporate high contrast colors and textures in street signage and at crosswalks to ensure safety and independence of pedestrians with visual or hearing loss and to maintain consistency in the design of infrastructure.