SXSW Education

I attended the South by Southwest Education conference this March. Here’s a few notes from the talks I attended.

Emily Ladau (a writer and activist) and Torrie Dunlap (CEO of Kids Included Together) led an interesting discussion titled "Disability or Special Needs, Which is Correct?" They started off by having everyone write on post-it notes different words they’ve heard for disability or special needs, illustrating the fact that there’s a lot of different ways to convey that someone has a disability or special needs. Emily advocated that we needed to take back the word disability and not view it as a dirty word. Special needs is not actually covered under the Americans with Disability Act and therefore doesn’t provide the same legal protections and benefits when we document a person as having a disability. She feels 'special needs' has a more negative connotation than disability because everyone has needs, some people just have specific needs that others don’t. The term 'differently abled', she pointed out, was just as bad because it implies there is a standard for what it means to be able. They touched on various forms of socially responsible language, such as, person first language (person with autism) or identity first (disabled person, autistic person, etc). With the caveat that a person in a wheelchair shouldn’t be referred to through identity first language (i.e; wheelchair bound), because in Emily’s case her motorized wheelchair is what provides her with her freedom, she’s not bound by it. I found this discussion interesting and helpful. I strive to be empathetic and more aware and sensitive to language. Yet, it can be a challenge not having a personal connection to certain conditions to know what is the right terminology to use that conveys that I care. I've defaulted to always using person first language whenever possible because I thought that's what everyone preferred. But after taking part in this discussion and speaking with Emily afterwards, I also know it's ok to ask which terminology is right for that person because some people prefer to use identity first language. 

Another memorable talk was by from local Minnesotans, AJ Paron-Wildes (National A&D Manager at Allsteel), Erin Giebrink (Accountability Coordinator at Spero), and Brian Giebink and Bethany Deline from HDR architecture firm. AJ started with the story of her son who has autism and using the pattern on a carpet at Caesar's Palace to get him back to the room without a melt down. She talked about the sensory stimulation that can be found in architecture and interior design from the patterns on the floor to the colors on the wall. She's written several interior design books on designing for autism that I'm excited to check out. Her main premise was using empathy for our end users as we design. Something I'm a big proponent for and do as much as possible in my service design work and clothing business. She partnered with Spero Academy and HDR in designing the new Spero Academy school set to open later this year. It was fascinating to hear how they’ve intentionally thought through all the details of their new school. The colors on the wall were tested and picked to cause the least amount of sensitivity and limit people from seeing the inverse and complement color. The flooring patterns lend itself to help with acute visual processing. The layout allows the principle to stand in one spot and have line of sight to all areas of the school for safety. There are even sound proof quiet decompression spots in the hallways and rooms. You can follow along on Spero building updates here. I really appreciated hearing how other disciplines are using a human-centered design approach and empathy to create really meaningful and impactful designs. One of my favorite quotes from that presentation was (paraphrasing), "A parent told us that they didn't really like the beige walls, it felt dated. But we said, it's the best color for all children, and since you're child wasn't born in the 80s they won't know it's dated."

Shannon Phy from The Mattress Factory Museum and Rebecca Covert from the Jumping Jack Theatre both talked about different ways they were engaging children with autism in art and theatre.  Shannon partnered with Wesley Spectrum High School to engage students and have them build installations for the museum. Rebecca and her team tested out their productions with children with different sensory needs at Perry Traditional Academy to make sure they're accessible to all who come to their performances. She talked about ensuring kids were comfortable with the design of the puppet to the use of fabric to depict waves. 

Donnie Welch used a rhythmic and sensory integration method for teaching kids with autism how to write poetry. It was really fun seeing the videos of his students stomping their feet and then repeating their poem that they all wrote together. The majority of the poems were Transformers themed, which was also pretty great. 

Overall this is a massive conference and it was hard to attend everything I wanted with overlapping sessions. It was great to learn more about other industries and people's commitment to improving the lives of others through design.