Social EngineeringI had two assignments due this week. While the tasks couldn't have been more different, they were both tackling the same issue - deafness. The first was a structured report containing the functional analysis for my group project (basically what the steps are that a system has to complete to do its job). We're designing a new display system for a transcription process that will allow a deaf employee to participate more effectively in workplace meetings (pretty cool stuff as this is all for a real client). The second was a philosophy paper discussing different definitions of "disability", deafness as a disability and when governments should interfere in disabled persons lives.
Here's my group working really hard!
It was a really weird week for me. For the engineering assignment, I had to look at the situation objectively, carry out technical analysis and take a practical approach to the client's issue. However my mind was constantly interrupting me with deep, abstract questions about the state of disability. Is their "disability" just a social problem that's been created by our own failure to adapt the world around them? Is deafness even a disability? What does society owe them? I also wondered whether they identified as deaf or Deaf (yep, deaf with a capital d is a thing - and by thing, I mean a really well developed culture, look it up: http://www.deafculture.com).
At first these questions frustrated me, but as I worked on my philosophy paper, I began to answer these questions and then my answers began to provide context for the engineering project. I don't believe disability is purely a social problem (i.e. something caused by unjustified social attitudes and a world full of design flaws), but I think that governments, of course, have responsibilities to technically-disabled persons to raise awareness about their condition, promote their participation in the work force and invest in adapting the way things function so that normal tasks become easier for them. I realised that these things are exactly what the group project is doing. We're levelling the playing field by allowing someone to more efficiently participate in their workplace. This allows them to demonstrate their ability and not their disability to their co-workers.
Design requirements and optimisation aside, it became clear that the project's goals tap in to a large social movement beyond this one client. The overall motivation for projects like this is to create something that enhances someone's ability to do a desired activity in a way that has the power, however small, to address the unjustified social attitudes surrounding disability and make the world more usable for everybody.
Here's me looking pensive. Please don't take me too seriously.
While it's hard to say whether thinking about these things had a measured impact on the project, I think it was really important to remember why we were doing it (beyond "because our lecturer/boss told us to"). I think it's so easy to forget about what motivates a project. Projects revolve around people, and so often there's a bigger picture to look at.
Every time I start a project, I'm going to ask myself why I'm doing it. I'll look at not only why the client wants me to do it or why it benefits us directly, but why the project is valuable to some bigger idea.