Imagine sitting down for dinner without being able to see or even pick up the salt shaker right in front of you — that’s a daily reality for the visually impaired and people with severe arthritis.
But Sisler High School students are learning how to make simple tasks such as that easier for everyone, with the help of the University of Cambridge and the University of Winnipeg. Ninety students from grades 9 to 12 just finished a five-day workshop meant to teach inclusive design and engineering.
The two universities joined forces to bring Cambridge’s Designing Our Tomorrow project to the high school — a project meant to couple engineering, education and inclusivity with hands-on experience. The students were tasked with solving an accessibility issue after experiencing it themselves.
They wore vision-impairing glasses and gloves that simulated arthritis while trying to use a salt shaker or read a medicine bottle.
For Denise Diosana, an 18-year-old recent Sisler grad, it was tough — but insightful.
"Even trying my best to pick up the salt shaker, I couldn’t bend my hand. They can’t see well, they can’t hold things well — that makes inclusive design all the more important," she said, referring to people with arthritis or impaired vision.
And that insight helped her and the rest of the students design and build salt shakers that are easier to pick up and easier to differentiate from pepper shakers.
For the department head of Sisler’s interactive digital media program, Jamie Leduc, the workshop was an opportunity for his students to see that their skills have value.
"The students were able to understand that their skills can solve real-world problems," he said. "They were challenged with something that has direct impact on society."
Worldwide, the population of people aged 60 plus is about 915 million and is projected to grow to 2.1 billion by 2050, according to United Nations data.
That means more people developing arthritis and impaired vision and more people needing products designed to be easier to use, Leduc said.
For Ken Reimer, the U of W assistant professor who brought the workshop to Sisler, the project was a way to show the world what Winnipeg has to offer in terms of both students and education programs.
Reimer, a former vice-principal at the high school, studies and teaches inclusive education. When guest lecturing at the University of Oxford, he heard about Cambridge’s project and it immediately connected with him.
"This wasn’t a tool that just tried to input more info in kid’s brains — this really gives kids a voice," he said.
He decided to help bring it to Winnipeg. Staff at Cambridge had heard about the U of W, too, through its Lost Prizes project, which seeks out troubled-but-talented high school dropouts and engages them in creative ways.
"They’ve identified that what we have is pure gold," Reimer said, referring to the University of Cambridge.
Diosana, now a part-time animator at a New Brunswick-based animation studio, happened to be working on an animation project in the school’s lab. Meanwhile, Sisler teachers, U of W staff and Cambridge staff via videochat trained for the workshop. She ended up training with them and taking part in the workshop.
Reimer suggested she’s an example of what Winnipeg has to offer.
Diosana, an aspiring animation concept designer who’s set to study at Vancouver Film School, said the project challenged her approach to the world.
"When you (turn) a door knob, you don’t think about the people who don’t have that ability," she said. But now ,she does. And besides, she said, some day it might be her or anyone else who can’t perform those simple tasks.