top of page

Why including people with disabilities in design is a win for all

'Aesthetics and accessibility don't need to be at odds with each other,' says disabled designer Alex Haagaard

Sarah Jama is the co-founder and an organizer with the Disability Justice Network of Ontario. (Sarah Jama)

Benches seem like simple items to include in public spaces. But as a way to deter homeless people from using those spaces, benches are sometimes removed or simply not included in the design for public spaces.

For Sarah Jama, that means the difference between using her walker – the healthier option – and using her motorized wheelchair. 

Jama has cerebral palsy, and using her walker means she gets more exercise. But without a place to rest along her route, using her walker is not an option. 

"If there were more benches along the way, I'd probably get used to just getting on the bus with my walker and getting off," she said.

Benches are just one of the many bad designs that Jama works around.

Jama is an organizer with the Disability Justice Network of Ontario (DJNO) and she's based in Hamilton.

Sarah Jama addresses a gathering while a student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. (Sheldon Steele)

Original Life Hackers

For Jama, working around bad design means a lot of planning ahead for otherwise simple trips.

"I have to consider whether or not I'm going to be doing multiple things throughout the day, or whether or not I'm going to be taking the bus or going on foot. Because all of those things will impact whether or not I take my walker or take my chair," explained Jama.

"I have to look at the weather, whether it's going to snow or rain, because if it snows that means I'm likely not going to be able to use my power chair. And if it rains that means it's going to be harder for me to get on the bus because usually the buses are full when it rains," said Jama.

"So a lot of these decisions I'll make before I leave the house."

Jama and the DJNO are currently pushing to have city sidewalks cleared of snow, something that is currently the responsibility of businesses and homeowners in Hamilton.

"I started using a wheelchair mainly because I could never guarantee that there would be seating when I needed it."​​​​​​- Alex Haagaard, The Disabled List

Alex Haagaard works with The Disabled List, an organization that describes disabled people as the "original life hackers."

Like Jama, Haagaard must hack and plan ahead for every trip outside.

"I'm what's called an ambulatory wheelchair user. I can walk for short distances," Haagaard told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "I started using a wheelchair mainly because I could never guarantee that there would be seating when I needed it."

"That's literally why I use a wheelchair, to be honest," they added.

The Disabled List

Haagaard says that designing for disabled people doesn't always include people with first-hand experience. And that's something The Disabled List is working to change.

Alex Haargaard is the Director of Communications with The Disabled List. (Alex Haagaard/Twitter)

The Disabled List was started in New York by design strategist Liz Jackson as a way to include disabled people in the conversation about design, with the hope that partners would design with them, rather than design for them based on able-bodied assumptions.

Jackson spoke about The Disabled List on CBC Radio's Spark

"As designers are spending more and more time trying to come up with a specific fix, that's time and resources that are not allocated to actually innovating access," Jackson told Spark host Nora Young.

Haargaard says designing for accessibility needs to be considered as a creative opportunity, rather than a way to address issues after a design is done.

"Aesthetics and accessibility don't need to be at odds with each other."



bottom of page