In partnership with the Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility, WE is inspiring youth to raise awareness about inclusion and accessibility within their own communities.
By Zoe Demarco
Sitting on the floor of the WE Global Learning Center’s Hartley T. Richardson Empatheatre, 11-year-old Veronica Cousens stared at the blank piece of paper in front of her. Coloured markers scattered the space around her as other students from McMurrich Junior Public School grabbed for their favourite colours.
The mix of fifth and sixth graders—members of McMurrich’s WE Schools Club—had been asked to draw self-portraits showing how big their hearts are. The finale of a collaborative workshop between WE and the Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility, the exercise wasn’t meant to display Veronica and her peer’s artistic abilities, but instead was meant to show off their capacity for empathy.
The series of 15 standalone workshops was aimed at teaching middle and high school students about accessibility in Ontario to help them learn to make their own communities more inclusive.
Seizing the nearest marker, Veronica got to work.
The workshop began with students sorting words and phrases such as “visually impaired, “hard of hearing” and “slow” into “hurtful” and “acceptable” categories to help them learn respectful language to use when discussing disabilities.
Another activity had students create a timeline of accessibility legislation. By matching relevant laws to the years they were created, such as the creation of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the group learned about the history of accessibility in Canada and around the world. Veronica was surprised to learn that the Declaration on the Rights of Disabled Persons, which states that people with disabilities have the same rights as other human beings, was only made by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1975.
Creating inclusive designs
The apex of the workshop was a Dragon’s Den-inspired inclusive design challenge. Products and services that are created by adopting inclusive design standards are usable by as many people as possible, regardless of their individual human differences, such as physical and mental abilities, gender, language and age. Examples of inclusive design include automatic doors and audio stop announcements on public transportation.
As part of the challenge, students were presented with scenarios that depicted someone with a disability facing a barrier, and tasked with creating a solution to help them overcome it.
Veronica’s group was given a scenario in which a teenager who had injured both of their hands wanted to write in a journal. Their solution? A headset that was able to record speech and transfer those words into a notebook through an accompanying robotic arm.
“It was pretty interesting and cool being an inventor and coming up with a design that could actually change someone’s life,” said Veronica.
Another scenario was about a boy with autism who wanted to attend a school dance but was overstimulated by loud music. The idea of a silent disco served as inspiration, with students suggesting that everyone at the dance receive their own set of volume-controlled headphones rather than having music play over speakers. A third scenario was about a second grader with low vision who was struggling to learn math. The group proposed an idea for kinesthetic blocks that included various bumps and ridges to represent different numbers and mathematical functions, similar to braille.
Students learned that creating more accessible spaces in Ontario is important so that everyone, regardless of their abilities, can feel equal and accepted in public spaces. Veronica hopes that in the future Toronto’s public transit system will become entirely accessible for people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices.
Thomas Hoyer-Wood, a motivational speaker and leadership facilitator with WE Schools, co-facilitated some of the workshops.
“It was great watching the students collaborate and create an idea with some of the other students in the group who had autism,” he said. “The amount of awareness and empathy grew as they discussed ideas and different perspectives.”
The workshop was insightful for teachers, too.
Kamla Rambaran, a teacher from McMurrich who oversees the WE Schools group, was already planning how she would integrate the newfound information into upcoming lessons, from defining new terms her students learned in English class to having them create simple prototypes of their inclusive designs in science lessons.
“I think the workshop was great at promoting accessibility in everyday lives,” said Kamla. “I loved the way the facilitators broke down terms in such a simple way, especially for my grade fives and sixes. The fact that they were able to engage with the material and feel safe with it was great, and I think they’ve come out learning a lot.”
An educator for nearly two decades, Kamla strives to provide environments where all kids can learn and play comfortably. The WE Are One WE Schools campaign, which promotes using technology to develop more inclusive communities, is a great resource for students and teachers like Kamla who are passionate about creating more accessible spaces in their school and in the world.
As the group of young changemakers finished their sketches, they began to share with one another how they would be taking action after the workshop. One student pledged to help people with disabilities feel comfortable and accepted in her community. Another said she would let others know when their language was hurtful or discriminatory. Through her 8 ½ X 11”, stick-figured self, Veronica expressed her plans to share what she learned with her friends and family so that they too can create accessible spaces.
As the students discussed their illustrations and ideas, it was clear that the real portrait they had drawn was of an accessible Ontario.
For more information on the workshop series, check out the video below.
A descriptive transcript for this video is available by visiting the following link: Workshop video transcript.