Inclusive Co-Designing Session with IDRC and Sidewalk Toronto, A Review

OCAD University Althorp-Designed Extension
The Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University hosted the first co-design event of several with Sidewalk Toronto on August 8th.
"Sidewalk Toronto is a joint effort by Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to create a new kind of mixed-use, complete community on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront, beginning with the creation of Quayside."
I was tagged on Twitter to check out their invitation.

What an opportunity! I convinced my mother to assist me to get there and help me throughout the day so that I could attend. I took a day off from my daily Lindamood-Bell reading comprehension instruction so that I could stay all day. I was a bit trepidatious. Was this a good idea to go? How high will the health price be? Will my brain co-operate or fatigue rule the day? To power me up, I had a mug full of Soma hot chocolate and coffee.

We arrived in the rain. One of the organizers greeted me on the sidewalk; that helpful, thoughtful attitude infused the entire day. Inside, I made my careful way to the glass doorway that I couldn't discern in the glass wall and found it by following people in. The overhead lights didn't play nice, and I felt nauseated. But I knew that as my vision and brain adapted, things would settle down. And until they did, I'd stay seated as much as possible! The organizers had arranged for me to sit at the table at the front of the room so that all the other tables were behind me and I was nice and close to the screen and whiteboard and to where people stood when addressing the room. I had most of the noise and visual activity behind my back, unable to distract me easily. I’d be able to see the text clearly and lip read easily to support my brain-injured auditory processing with my super hearing not being overwhelmed. The guy beside me and myself, both of us with visual issues, got to sit in the same forward-facing seats for the whole day -- I didn't have to relearn the visual landscape around me in the afternoon. Super awesome! Except for the lights and arctic air conditioning, which didn't bother me with my wonky internal overheating, the space and the way they organized it worked well for all or at least most of us with disabilities. A rare experience.

Suddenly, all my doubts fled, and I was fully immersed in the day.

The organizers gave us name stickers with a number and letter on it. The number denoted the table we’d sit at in the morning, the letter in the afternoon. Each table had four people (or five).

They explained what co-design was then got us involved in a warm-up exercise so that we could understand this concept through experience. Each of us was handed a small strip of paper on which was a phrase from a story. We had to join them up so that when we had arranged ourselves in order, we could read out the story. Only when someone asked me if my strip had a pentagon on it did I notice mine and all the others had two symbols on either side of the phrase. These symbols told us who was before us and who next in the story. Two people had only one symbol on their strips. Their symbols were in a position to denote which was the first phrase of the story and which the last. Some of us helped out those who couldn't see the text and symbols at all or who couldn't move easily around the room to seek out those next to them in the story. We arranged ourselves to make those who couldn't move part of our story circle when we had figured it out together.

Neat exercise!

It broke the ice, and even though I was battling my brain which really didn't want me to move, I had a grand time. It's so rare to just be part of a group, not the lesser part while the “experts” or “professionals” kindly include me while subtly indicating I don't belong. On that day, I belonged.

We returned to our tables and began our morning co-design session. I found it difficult to absorb what we were supposed to do in the sense of I understood the whole but not the how. Thankfully because of my brain injury, I have no qualms asking questions as loudly as I need to be heard while being polite.
"the planned activities for the day encouraged participants to reflect on their personal experiences with regards to giving feedback in order to identify challenges in the feedback process and find ways to better engage the community." From Co-Designing Inclusive Cities, Ideas in Progress.

I have to say it was a bit difficult trying to grasp this idea of designing feedback and engagement. Since when does 311, the city, Toronto Council, any politician or bureaucrat, any manager or senior executive -- especially the TTC -- give a damn about user experience unless you're a professional or expert? David Lepofsky has been advocating for visual disabilities for decades, creating videos, tweeting, writing, yet Ryerson University still manages in the age of the AODA to design a space extremely dangerous to those with visual disabilities.

Back to the day! We first had to come up with a group name. I figured being a writer, I should be able to, no problem. My mind remained stubbornly blank. So I brainstormed with myself: where is Sidewalk Toronto? What is nearby? The lake! Suddenly: “Surfing the Design” popped into my head. The group liked. Logan from Sidewalk Toronto really liked. I was chuffed. Another feeling of belonging as an equal with everyone else regardless of ability or if I had a job or not. We wrote our names down under our group name on a provided form and handed the filled-in form to the organizers.

On our tables were three pieces of paper with one word on each. A fourth rectangular piece was blank. The words were the contexts we were supposed to co-design, the blank one in case we didn't like any of the three suggestions. Ours were Street, Heritage Building, Clinic. I had no interest in having anything to do with health care. I deal with enough of that in my life. I was surprised to see no TTC or public transit. Our group settled on Street (more on this in a separate post).

Accessible Pedestrian Signal with a tiny yellow boot on top
We had to each come up with a scenario related to this context then decide whose story to focus on for the next step. I found this confusing. How do you create a story about crossing a street? Far easier to list all the impediments. The list grew so long that we broke up into two groups of two to divide the work to get it done in the allotted time. At the end, we recombined our efforts. We were given huge sheets with charts on them to write down an action taken, then what barrier we encountered, then what we did next, and repeat for the next action in a sequence of actions. Me and my partner worked on using Accessible Pedestrian Signals to cross the street and how difficult it is to get them fixed and installed. (The city has budgeted for 40 retrofits per year. Pathetic.)

Once we completed these charts, we were asked to look at this story of the Street from another person’s perspective. We chose looking at it from the point of view of a City Councillor.

Lastly, we were asked to write down our wishes from our stories on Post-It Notes. These were stuck onto the whiteboard next to our group names. When we presented our stories and wishes, Logan checked off the Post-Its that were referenced in our oral presentations.

During lunch, I noticed a hand-printed line had popped up at the bottom of the whiteboard: “Extra Wishes.” I wrote in “TTC” and “Garbage.”

My partner and I and my mother remained at the same table for the afternoon session, but the other two were assigned to a new group at another table. Two new members joined us, and we all agreed to focus on the TTC for our afternoon co-design session (more on this in a separate blog post). I was really pleased to see my mother join in enthusiastically and become part of our co-design group.

St Patrick Station with lone person
Like with the morning group, we had to come up with a group name and write our names underneath it on the provided form. We chose MASS Design, for the first letters in our names and for, well, mass transit. We were asked to choose one wish from the whiteboard and work out a prototype for it. We refined our TTC wish to redesign the TTC for cognitive, visual, and auditory accessibility.

To facilitate our co-design of a prototype, they wheeled into the centre of the room a table-full of crafts. One of our members fetched some pipe cleaners, and I began to use them to delineate the TTC subway lines and streetcar routes on our table on top of our papers. She quickly got up and found a board, cut it to size, arranged neatly on it the pipe cleaner design I'd roughly laid out, and tacked it on with colour coded pins. Awesome! I'm pleased to see that IDRC highlighted it in their summary.

Another member, in her neat handwriting, wrote down all our ideas as we collaborated. I have to say there's nothing more exciting and satisfying than creating with others who enjoy sharing ideas, sharing “power,” and are simpatico in co-designing. We were the only group to create a physical prototype as part of our co-design.

When we'd completed our co-designs, each table was given a chart that had been folded to show one box in which we were asked to write in our concept and a description. Each table passed their chart along to the next table in a clockwise move, along with notes and prototypes. We received a small hand-drawn flowchart from the group at the table behind us, along with the chart with their concept written on it. We had to flip that chart over and fill in the feedback boxes in a “design crit,” basically constructive criticism of their design following the format written on the chart. Some of the feedback was to be about what was missing, some on what was good.

At the end of the allotted time, we passed our design crits back. We were asked to review the feedback in order to tweak our co-designs. Some of the feedback on our design we had already taken into account. Reading can be a challenge, eh? But some feedback we hadn't thought of originally; we wrote down our responses in the last box on the chart.

After that, presentation time! As we presented, Logan passed a mic around to the presenters. Some were a little, uh, verbose. After each presentation, he opened the floor up to anyone who had questions or comments for the presenters or other members of the presenting group. Meanwhile Gillian (who I think was with IDRC) wrote down our ideas and points on a chalkboard next to our group names. We squeaked to the finish line in just under the 5:00 pm mark.

I paid the price in fatigue, pain, and stiffness that rendered me almost immobile over the next three days, but no regrets, for I had a blast!