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Expert Interview (Part 1): Human Centered Design and Elise Roy on Transforming Disability into Innovation

Elise Roy says that losing her hearing when she was 10 years old has been one of the greatest gifts she’s ever received.

Early on, she viewed her loss as something she had to deal with and overcome. That perspective has shifted though.

“My disability has become an asset,” Elise says. “Rather than something I have to deal with, it’s a tool.”

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A tool Elise has leveraged in just about every job she’s taken on – as one of the country’s few deaf lawyers, as an artist and designer, and as a human rights activist.

Most recently, she’s started working as a consultant, using her unique perspective to help organizations take a different approach to their design practices. Her goal is to show the groups she works with that incorporating a deeper understanding of how the disabled navigate the world will lead to extraordinary innovation and results.

“I believe that these unique experiences that people with disabilities have is what’s going to help us make and design a better world … both for people with and without disabilities,” she shared in her TED talk.

She consults through the lens of Human Centered Design, trying to develop the best product by defining problems and understanding constraints, observing people in real-world situations, asking questions and then using prototyping to test it quickly and cheaply all while keeping the end users– the customers in focus.

Elise learned first-hand how effective this method of problem-solving is back when she was taking a fabrication class in art school. The tools she was using for woodworking would sometimes kick back at her. Generally, before doing this they would emit a sound. But because of her hearing loss, Elise wasn’t able to hear it. In response, she developed a pair of safety goggles that give a visual warning when the pitch of the machine changed. The product can help protect both those who are hearing impaired and those with no hearing loss.

She points to other widely used inventions that were initially created for people with a disability, too. Email and text messaging, for instance, were designed for deaf users.

The OXO potato peeler was designed to help individuals with arthritis but was adopted by the general population because of how comfortable it is to use. There are tech companies currently developing apps and websites who are looking to people with dyslexia and intellectual disabilities for inspiration on simplifying design and offering an easier-to-use interface for everyone.

Check back for part 2 where Elise goes more in depth with what she is doing with Human Centered Design.

Also, we have a new eBook focused on Strategies for Improving Big Data Quality available for download.

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