Future Focused: Creating better systems to include people with disabilities

Navigate this page:

  1. Introduction
  2. What is a disability?
  3. Disabilities and the Pandemic
  4. Disabilities and innovation
  5. Additional Information on Accessibility and Universal Design

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) was proclaimed by the United Nations in 1992, “The observance of the Day aims to promote an understanding of disability issues and mobilize support for the dignity, rights and well-being of persons with disabilities.” 

The latest theme for IDPD is Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible, and sustainable post-COVID-19 world. With decreased access to many types of services including healthcare, the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerabilities of people who present with disabilities. As we gradually plan for a return to “normal”, it is essential that we take this opportunity to address pre-existing gaps, make improvements, and create a post-pandemic world a place where persons with disabilities are included. 

What is a disability?

The World Health Organization states “Disability is part of being human”. An impairment is not necessarily disabling if the environment isdesigned to be fully inclusive. The Accessible Canada Act further defines disability as “any impairment…or functional limitation…that, in interaction with a barrier, hinders a person’s full and equal participate in society”. As Dr. Liu, Dean of Faculty of Health notes, “By this definition, it’s clear that almost all of us can experience a disability at any time”. By creating a world that includes people through a full spectrum of abilities, it will allow all of us to consistently and equitably participate and contribute to society. 

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Disabilities and the Pandemic

The pandemic has shifted the way we function and live our everyday livesover the past two years, and barriers that are often experienced by persons with disabilities are experienced by everyone during the lockdown. For example, the insurgence of videoconference tools such as Zoom has brought people together virtually to combat social isolation, something Emily Ladau, a disability activist and author of Demystifying Disability, expresses that many people with disabilities are already used to “because the world is not accessible to us.” A study on Experiences of food access among disabled adults in Toronto, Canada found that people with disabilities experience greater risk of food insecurity due to transportation, food access, and socioeconomic barriers. With physical grocery shopping not being an option during the pandemic, the recent emergence of service delivery apps to meet essential grocery and pharmaceutical needs have bridged the long-marred barrier experienced by persons with disabilities trying to obtain services and products from physical spaces that are inaccessible.

Most educational institutions adopted asynchronous learning over the past year, utilizing different technologies and platforms to deliver education.  This has allowed for more flexibility and ability for students to consume information at their own pace. These changes have been particularly beneficial to students who may have cognitive or mental disabilities, or episodic disabilities that impact their physical attendance in class. Offering alternate formats of instructional material has helped many of the 27% of graduating students in Canada who identify as having a disability (2021 Graduating Student Survey Master Report, Canadian University Survey Consortium).   

Priscila Carrara, Student Success Officer, Science, shares how her abilities have been impacted since the pandemic: 

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Disabilities and innovation  

Remarkable examples of innovation have ensued from addressing disparities faced by people with disabilities, such as audiobooks that were initially developed for people with visual impairments but are now widely used by the general population. Alexander Graham Bell’s interest in sound technology was inspired by deaf mother and wife, who were both deaf, and eventually led to the invention of the telephone! 

More recent examples include:  

  • Seeing AI by Microsoft which collects descriptive information on your surroundings through your device camera. Initially designed for the blind and low vision community, this research project harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to describe people, text, currency, color and objects.  Assistance in identifying unfamiliar objects like plants and wildlife, foreign currency, and having images described audibly is something everyone will find useful in this day and age. 

  • Google Action Blocks began with the intention of making it easier for people with cognitive disabilities to use Android phones and tablets.  Actions like booking a rideshare which generally requires unlocking your phone, finding the right app, and typing in your pickup location. With Action Blocks, it can be configured to do tasks with just one tap, for example, call a loved one, share your location, watch your favorite show, and more.  While this works to empower people with cognitive disabilities and help them gain independence, who wouldn’t benefit from an app that can simplify the use of our smartphone?  

Dr. Lili Liu, dean of faculty of Health, shares how the University of Waterloo is in a unique position to advance innovation with disabilities in mind: 

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The experience gained during the pandemic can educate us on how recognizing and embedding the needs of persons with disabilities in a post-COVID-19 world can drive innovation to build systems that are better for everybody. Dr. Liu, Dean, Faculty of Health notes, “More than ever, it’s important that persons with disabilities participate and have leadership roles to help ensure that our campus is equitable, and in turn, future generations of students and scholars experience a more equitable society.” 

At the University of Waterloo, we are continuously seeking feedback from our disability community ensure we are providing services with accessibility in mind. Are you Interested in representing the disability community within the University of Waterloo? Join the Accessibility Advisory Panel.

Additional Information on accessibility and universal design: 

  • Accessibility & Inclusion For All - The World Economic Forum discusses how we can address and learn from accessibility gaps while highlighting the inclusive innovation for tomorrow that benefits everybody. 

  • Why is Accessible Design Good for Everyone? – ARTiculations reviews how practical accessible design solutions can improve the experience and better access for everyone. 

Visit Accessibility at Waterloo's Guides and Resources page to learn more on creating a more accessible campus.