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OCAD U sees an accessible future with new Master program in inclusive design

In a major step that will further establish Toronto as a centre of innovation in inclusive design, OCAD University is launching a two-year Master of Design in Inclusive Design program. The goal is to cultivate a brain trust of people skilled in accessible technologies, then scatter them across sectors -- everywhere from government to the arts -- so that inclusion will become a habit rather than remaining an afterthought.

The demand for inclusive design is growing as the disability rights movement raises awareness and makes advancements in social policy, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Baby boomers -- a huge group of consumers who know what they want and are vocal about it -- are inching toward old age. The stubborn divide between disability and the mainstream is finally starting to fade, and a vision of integration is taking its place. 

"Everything's coming together. Our particular approach to accessibility is all of a sudden resonating with every sector, every field. It feels like we've been pushing really hard for 10 years, and things are now going faster than we ever anticipated," says Jutta Treviranus, the OCAD University professor spearheading the inclusive design program. "All of a sudden…the time for this has come, in that the technology is there, the policy justifications are there, and the business justifications are there."

Treviranus is the director of the school's Inclusive Design Institute (IDI) and Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC). They're the new incarnation of the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC), founded by Treviranus 16 years ago and formerly located at the University of Toronto. The IDI, funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation, serves as the regional hub for inclusive design research, and seven other schools are core partners (University of Toronto, Ryerson University, York University, Seneca College, Sheridan College, George Brown College and University of Ontario Institute of Technology). Collaboration with the international design community and similar academic programs in Europe and Asia is also a major component of the Master's program.

Much of the research focuses on individual accessibility and how to implement it. Imagine, for example, using an ATM and being able to choose everything from the font size, screen contrast and language to whether you use voice controls or your own mobile device to make choices. "When dealing with computer systems and computer-mediated interactions, you can be quite specific to each user's needs -- you can create a one-size-fits-one approach so nobody needs to make any particular compromises," says Treviranus. "You can specify what you need and the system can deliver it."

Access to online services -- everything from banking and education to employment and social media -- is quickly becoming necessary to participate fully in society. Existing assistive technologies, while better than nothing, are constantly playing catch-up to applications and platforms that may themselves be verging on obsolescence.

"Assistive technology is not technically or economically viable. It was supposed to be a bridge, but it's crumbling; it's increasing in price and decreasing in reliability and functionality," says Treviranus. "It's no longer an option to be online, yet there's a growing number of people who can't access systems. So we are talking about making sure that standard emerging technologies are accessible."

Toronto is uniquely suited for the new Master's program, says Treviranus. "One of the things people keep opining about in terms of Toronto and Canada is what we don't have, [like] large enterprise companies in the ICT [information and communications technology] sector, and large formalized investments in specific types of research, and those are seen as detriments," she says. "What we do have is a lot of amazing ecosystems of small and medium-sized enterprises and creative individuals, especially when you look in the ICT area. That is the kind of thing we need here. We don't need large, monolithic, homogenous ICT firms that produce a single standard of a product -- we need diversity of design and many different ideas. We actually have a perfect environment to do this type of thing."

Other plusses include a receptive policy framework in the form of the AODA, and a population that's hungry for innovative design to meet diverse needs and is "not scared to insist upon those being met," says Treviranus. She points to Zoomer, a Toronto-based magazine for older adults, as an example of the positive framing needed to advance accessibility.

Students in the Master's program must have a background in information and communications technologies. To accommodate working professionals and international students, courses will be held online using a range of interactive, accessible systems. Students will be embedded in ongoing projects with global research teams and participate in two-week intensive sessions in the summer, held at the University of Toronto's Massey College.

Treviranus says the program will be rigorous and academically demanding, but also fun and imaginative. "There is this notion that inclusive design spurs creativity, and I think that's what we're going to do," she says. "We're looking at the edge and the margin and the full range of human diversity."

The deadline for applications to the Master of Design in Inclusive Design program is May 2.

Jaclyn Law (@jaclynlaw) is a freelance writer and editor who loves those videos of dancing flash mobs. She is the former managing editor of Abilities Magazine.

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