Designing for Inclusion — Storying to Encounter Ourselves and Others

7 min readMay 2, 2023


A screenshot of seven people participating in the project.
Article written by Fanny Passeport (Education Developer at ErasmusX)

What if students learned about Design Thinking by engaging with inclusion and accessibility challenges experienced by students and staff at EUR?

In a 3-week course on Design Thinking, 100+ students from the Master’s in Management of Innovation at RSM worked on prototyping solutions to enhance inclusion at EUR by listening to and interacting with students and staff with a functional impairment.

A word cloud with many keywords related to inclusion. The main ones being: diversity, equality, empathy, participation, fairness, tolerance, freedom.
A word cloud about ‘inclusion’ created collectively in one of the first classes of the three-week Design Thinking course.

Why does this matter?

The theme of inclusion is emerging as an essential goal at our university. From physical accessibility issues in old and new buildings to people with invisible disabilities experiencing stigmatization, there are many issues that we need to address. At ErasmusX and with RSM, we wondered how we could take action through educational innovation.

Compassionate Learning

As a curious reader, you can start your inquiry into inclusion by hearing Karim’s story. Let’s do this together! As you listen to Karim’s story, pay attention to your responses, your emotional reactions and perhaps also your wonders:

Are you experiencing a certain internal climate? This could be the manifestation of the encounter we just had with Karim without having actually met him in real life (though I highly recommend it!). We feel a connection, a sense of relatedness to his story and to the universal experience of feeling excluded at some point in our life. We could sit with these feelings for a while, letting the pause further allow us to co-sense and resonate. In listening to others’ stories, we can interrogate our own behaviors and patterns and perhaps even feel some discomfort in realizing previous mistakes. This is our learning zone. We need to access and cherish it, regardless of the difficulties it brings to us. Listening allows us to be hopeful about the future and provides us with motivation to contribute to making a positive change. Stories allow us this reflective and transformational space to get closer to who and how we want to be, meeting ourselves and others.

Karim’s story is part of a series of 6 videos created in October 2022 through a workshop conducted by Dr. Teti Dragas (Durham University) with the support of Dr. Sonja Wendell (EUR), who had previously conducted the Connecting Through Voices project with students at EUR. All these stories are now available on the IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access) platform.

Learnings from the Future Designers

If you are familiar with the Design Thinking process, you might already know that it starts with the Empathy phase. We thought that including stories of students and staff at EUR would be more than relevant to engage in Design Thinking. Stories provide us with beginnings which point students into the direction of looking where they might not have otherwise looked. Through stories, we provided students with the opportunity to face themselves and their responsibility and engage with those who walk a different path in life than theirs.

“What I will take with me, besides a different way of thinking, is the power of interactions and empathy.” — Student in the course.

Sense-making in design thinking is human-centered and co-generative. A designer doesn’t merely collect data but observes, inquires, and listens through all senses in order to interpret experiences and co-create solutions.

Developing Inclusion Challenges

In order to engage students here and now, we drew on the relevant obstacles that our very own staff and students experience, and developed initial “How might we” challenges.

  • How might we train teachers in using inclusive teaching practices at EUR?
  • How might we raise awareness for more acceptance towards people with disabilities at EUR?
  • How might we create a smooth transition for (new) students/staff with a disability at EUR?
  • How might we improve the digital experience of students/staff with a disability at EUR?
  • How might we improve access to social experiences for students/staff with a disability at EUR?
  • How might we improve physical accessibility for people with reduced mobility at EUR?
  • How might we improve physical accessibility for people with a visual impairment at EUR?
  • How might we reduce shame and stigmatization for students and staff with an invisible disability?
  • How might we lower the barrier for students with disabilities to access resources (for support) at EUR?

The students of the Design Thinking course could then share their preferences in working on specific challenges and engage in a 3-week design marathon to uncover the underlying problems faced by real users and prototype possible solutions.

These challenges acted as prompts to activate creative and empathetic learning. They pushed students to learn from dialoguing with affected people, using their intuition and refining their practical wisdom and plural ways of knowing. In examining challenges that were open-ended in nature, students could further refine the problem they wanted to solve.

The panel

The Design Thinking students were also in direct contact with students and staff with a functional impairment who experienced some of these challenges first-hand. These encounters were done in person or online and allowed for the Master’s students to ask questions, listen, or even experience our campus through the eyes of a person facing accessibility challenges. This dialogical process allowed for everyone to learn and share and let new ways of thinking about inclusion emerge.

A screenshot of seven people participating in the project.
Some of the panel members working together to plan elements of the course in Gather Town.

“Students changed their way of thinking beyond working on their challenges.” — Panel member

The various groups ended up developing a wide range of prototypes: digital solutions (such as supportive apps) and some physical ones (such as an awareness week or specific floor markers to guide people with a visual impairment).

Some of the prototypes created by students in the course.

The real impact

One doesn’t just learn about Design Thinking, but with and through Design Thinking. Design Thinking was taught in a way that not only promoted the qualification function of education (the content) but also socialization (the hidden curriculum and relationship) and subjectification (taking responsibility for how one wants to be), as per Biesta’s (2015) domains of educational purposes.

Therefore we can’t do this project justice by measuring the impact of this experience in terms of student satisfaction, grades or number of prototypes created. The real impact lies in the growth experienced by our students confronting their blind spots and engaging with critical consciousness (Freire). The reflective accounts of the students in the course and the panel members were our most treasured gems, as we held space for everyone to learn.

Examples of prototypes samples created by students.

“This course allowed me to become aware of my privilege.” — Student in the course.

Modeling what we preach

Not only did we want to work on aspects of inclusion in connection with Design Thinking, but we also wanted to do so by teaching in inclusive ways. To do so, we implemented Universal Design for Learning (CAST) and adopted one specific action for each principle, as follow:

  • Multiple means of engagement — We used active learning strategies, such as ‘Think — Pair — Share’.
  • Multiple means of representation — We used multimodal alternatives to learning materials by making material accessible (using the accessibility checker systematically in PowerPoint and Canvas), by providing a variety of formats (such as Word, PDF), and by adding captions onto instructional videos (and including a downloadable transcript).
  • Multiple means of action and expression — We invited students to share feedback about their needs at the start of the course and had a feedback form available throughout the course (available on the Canvas course) for any adjustments.

To know more about UDL, download our UDL Guide here.

What’s next?

While data provides evidence on what we might need to do better, it’s not always sufficient to push concrete change. In our own way, we wanted to inspire action through the use of storytelling and through encounters. We cannot turn things around with a magic wand but we did create sparks through genuine and human-centered conversations and reflections. Students in the Design Thinking course had a unique experience to work on authentic local challenges, utilise their creativity and continue to hone their skills, but more importantly, they faced ‘difficult’ knowledge and discovered other people’s reality, which elicited emotions and caused them to consider their responsibilities now and in the future.

“There are some serious unaddressed issues which need to be solved or addressed by the university.” — Student in the course.

“I would take this very seriously when opening or building my own building.” — Student in the course

As we continue our commitment to inclusion, we will be conducting this course again in the fall 2023 and also are also providing workshops on Universal Design for Learning, to support teachers at EUR in resisting the one-size-fits-all model and designing learning for variability.

Contact us to know more:




We are a team of passionate people forming the driving force behind educational experimental innovation for the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR).