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Themes: Assistive & Accessible Technology

Reflections on the MSc Disability Design and Innovation - bringing all the parts of myself to this degree

I worked in early childhood special education research and as a teacher and museum educator before the MSc Disability Design and Innovation Masters (MSc DDI) degree. My interest in Design, Disability Innovation and in the Master's course came from wanting to stretch what I could do as a researcher and teacher to serve students and scale up interventions for low-incidence disabilities, especially in rural and low resource areas. I have found paths for that learning through this degree, but even beyond that, I have found a place for a person like me in our MSc community.

My college geology professor once told me that I had an "associative mind" when I compared volcanic lahar flows to an art movement. I clung to that magic word, associative, for a long time, hoping that that word would be the seam that stitched together the psychologist, the teacher, the poet, the librarian, the website accessibility tester, and every other person I was or hoped to become. As I negotiated research positions in higher education after college, associative turned interdisciplinary, and I learned a sharp lesson in the salt of that synonym.

While program websites, brochures and pamphlets touted being interdisciplinary, most people who met me saw someone "confused with too many interests,” saw someone caught up in ideals who would never "do anything concrete with her life."

With every advice to "pick a lane and stick with it," with every hand gesture that marked sharp boundaries in the air and mirrored the same, a portion of that "associative self" sanded down.

When I expressed interest in mobile application design to support children with speech delays, I heard, "I thought you were interested in early literacy. Where did computer science come from?"

When I took a non-degree course in disability policy for personal challenge and interest, I heard, "That’s too theoretical for people like us. You don't belong there."

When I paused to learn how tar was poured in a road that was being updated in Chicago to see if the crosswalk could be made more accessible, the site lead asked, "Aren't you a poet? Why do you care about construction?"

So, by the time I submitted my application for the MSc. DDI, I was aching to be understood. I was worn into thinking that I would always have to hide my love of connection and learning – hide the poet from the research lab and hide my desire to learn coding from the weekly pantoum workshop - all to fit into the expected illusion of a “lane.” By the time of my application for my Master’s, I had become skilled in separating the segments of myself into their socially appropriate spheres…

…until I didn't have to anymore.

As an MSc. DDI student, I have been able - encouraged - to bring all the parts of myself to this degree under the connecting thread of disability innovation. That associative mind has been valued by my classmates and by this learning community for the first time since that geology course on natural disasters. In a module on Research Methods and Making Skills, I learned Python using clinical psychology as a contextual anchor. In a Design Thinking module, it helped me to frame new learning about the iterative process of design by likening it to ceramics.

As we worked through social and contextual barriers to disability development in a course on LMICs, I found relevance in my background analyzing poetry in the humanities. We were encouraged to draw connections and ask cross-disciplinary questions. Now, as I work through the subsequent modules of the course, I know that a creative person and an academic one can be one and the same.

Further, an associative mind grows by making new associations. I will always be grateful to the GDI Hub and to the MSc DDI for allowing me to not only bring my background to this degree, but also for supporting me in uncovering what I do not know. Coming to this course from the humanities and early childhood education, my learning curve has been almost vertical. I had a limited background in coding and programming, but I learned. I had no background in business models, but I am learning. I had little idea about the “built environment” or construction, but now, in a class on inclusive design, I cannot imagine not pursuing those topics.

In my experience, Early Childhood Education and the Humanities often frame computer science and engineering as abstruse and impossible: “not for people like us.” The staff in this degree constantly counter my imposter syndrome, reminding that we all deserve to be here, that school is a place for learning, and that these topics are accessible, exactly for people like us.

I wish I could spread that message to those who have been my past colleagues and friends.

I feel encouraged in weekly design clubs where we can propose ideas and find the scaffolding to see them bear fruit. For one of my module projects, I began the code for a phone application to support children facing domestic violence. It is a project close to my heart rooted in research that I know I will carry after this degree. For another module project, we are designing a home, and I am pushed to think about structural materials in a way I have not before. After this degree, I hope to see this structure stand.

Associations in learning happen in unexpected ways, and I look forward to where this learning will lead. I hope the MSc. DDI family that I have found halfway across the world will follow in my journey.

As much as I would like to say that those people who told me to pick a lane were fully wrong and out of line, they were partly right. I do have a lane. Looking through too narrow a lens can label me unfocused. More broadly, most of my varied interests do stitch together under the theme of supporting disabled children and caregivers and improving our outcomes and representations. This degree has dredged my lane, and now that it is paved wider, I would enjoy the company as I travel forward.

This wouldn’t be a blog post written by me without a poem, so here’s a poem of my experiences.

Across the Pond

To reach but not have rope enough

needs a hand on the other side,

a hand that takes an almost

to make it all. The way

a student knows that she is enough

to seed in these shores and sprout

here, in a teacher’s assurance.

-Divya Ramesh

My interest in Design, Disability Innovation and in the Master's course came from wanting to stretch what I could do as a researcher and teacher to serve students and scale up interventions for low-incidence disabilities, especially in rural and low resource areas. I have found paths for that learning through this degree, but even beyond that, I have found a place for a person like me in our MSc community.

Divya Ramesh

Divya Ramesh
Divya Ramesh