Co-Designing a more accessible community

Since I’ve joined Sidewalk Labs, one of the most exciting challenges I’ve worked on is accessibility

By Samara Trilling

Sidewalk Labs' Toronto headquarters

Toronto residents visited Sidewalk Labs' Toronto HQ 307 for our third Open Sidewalk event in the fall of 2018 and explored projects focused on accessibility and dynamic flexibility in the urban environment.
(Image: Jenna Wakani)

I’m a software engineer. That means I spend my days thinking about problems, how to break them down into smaller problems, and then how to solve them.

It is an iterative process. Sometimes, engineers learn more from what we get wrong than what we get right. What keeps us focused is the end user — the person who benefits from all our work. Working with them as co-equal participants in the design process, we try to understand their problems, then determine how our solution is helping (or, sometimes, not helping) to solve it. We keep at it until we find effective answers.

Since I’ve joined Sidewalk Labs, one of the most exciting challenges I’ve worked on is accessibility — studying and addressing the problems people experiencing disability face in navigating and living in the urban environment on a daily and even hourly basis. Sidewalk Labs’ proposed development, Quayside, is an ideal project to undertake this work, for a couple of significant reasons.

One, it is a new build, not a redevelopment. Quayside is a clean slate without design features or inaccessible architecture to retrofit — so we can incorporate accessibility from the outset.

Two, Toronto is home to an active and expert accessibility and disability community. We saw early on that bringing this community into the design process at the very beginning — and staying engaged with them throughout — would be essential to our project’s success. In fact, studies show us that designing from underrepresented and marginalized experiences makes the final product better for everyone. There’s even a term for it: the curb cut effect.

In the world of city building, focusing on people’s experiences is the surest path to success. My experience with software engineering reinforces that belief. The difference with Quayside is that we’re not just coding an app — we’re planning an entire community.

To begin the engagement process, we worked with the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University and held three day-long sessions with people who identify as part of the accessibility community. Participants brought their personal experience with disability to these unique co-design events through interactive design exercises and discussions. OCAD University also held eight shorter, embedded co-design sessions on our behalf with community groups across Toronto.

Co-design is an approach that brings stakeholders and end users into the design process as partners. It is the idea of designing with people, not for people. I participated in a number of these co-design events last August and September. I met so many engaged and informed Torontonians who were gracious enough to share their experiences, dreams, and ideas — including accessible autonomous vehicles that could transport people to non-emergency medical care or technology that could automatically detect construction and reroute travellers around it. You can read summaries of all the co-design sessions here. We’ve also described all the co-design activities we did, so you can do them at home and send us your results to incorporate into our thinking.

We also held a hackathon at Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto office, 307 Lake Shore Boulevard East, where the whole Sidewalk engineering team joined local programmers and members of the accessibility and disability communities to prototype 10 great ideas from the co-design sessions. Some, like the ‘tranquil refuge’, are ideas we want to pilot. Others, like ‘rumble pavement’, would need some tweaks to work well for everyone.

307 is an incredibly important testbed for us as we pilot accessible technologies and evaluate how well our designs work for everyone. For example, we’ve piloted audio wayfinding beacons through a partnership with CNIB Foundation that can help people who are blind and partially sighted navigate the space. And visitors who interact with our upcoming demos of a ‘building raincoat’ and heated pavers will provide vital feedback as we iterate on these designs.

More events will be planned, because, as with all design and planning, this is an iterative process. We want to live by our “Nothing about us without us” principle: no public policy should be developed or put in place without the full and direct participation of those impacted by the policy. We plan to involve the accessibility community in co-design from the very early stages, throughout the planning process, during testing, and after implementation — and make adjustments continuously.

One of the descriptions of Quayside I heard in these sessions that has stayed with me, months later, was this: it brings “a feeling of possibility.” I love the openness behind that statement and the sense of optimism and purpose. When it comes to designing for accessibility, we have an opportunity to set a new standard — not just for Toronto, but for communities across Canada and around the world.

We are developing a core set of principles grouped into three main areas — General Accessibility, Physical Accessibility and Digital Accessibility — that will guide our work and keep us on track as we plan Quayside. The principle, “Enable flexibility and customization,” for example, has inspired us to make sure a certain percentage of buildings at Quayside will have multiple heights of fixtures. The principle “Build for Wheels” has informed the street designs — all will be curbless and even.

At our public sessions, we’ve presented a draft version of these principles and taken note of all feedback. In the coming months, we’ll also be working with members of government agencies to harmonize these principles with existing legislation and codes and incorporate them into our plans in a more detailed way.

General Accessibility

  1. Enable experiences that were not possible before.
  2. Do “nothing about us without us.”
  3. Make infrastructure simple, durable, reliable and easily maintainable.
  4. Design predictable, intuitive experiences. For example, place amenities like public washrooms, elevators, and reception desks in consistent places across buildings.
  5. Futureproof by default.
  6. Make the accessible path the most convenient, delightful path.
  7. Prioritize end-to-end accessibility. If an assistive feature starts, design it to follow through the whole experience and not end abruptly, like a ramp leading to a set of stairs or a railing that stops halfway down a set of stairs.
  8. Prioritize autonomy first.

Physical Accessibility

  1. Build for wheels.
  2. Enable wayfinding in multiple formats. For example, plan for visual signage to have an audio and/or tactile counterpart.
  3. Eliminate barriers and friction.
  4. Promote relaxation and recovery.
  5. Enable personal assistive technology, with a focus on easy to access, low-cost technologies.
  6. Go beyond legal requirements.
  7. Enable flexibility and customization. For example, provide multiple options for height of fixtures by default and design street furniture that’s easy for people to move or alter to suit their needs.

Digital Accessibility

  1. Provide information in multiple, easily accessible formats and languages.
  2. Support multiple input modalities to all digital experiences.
  3. Preserve privacy and support fairness in machine learning.
  4. Allow an easy way to give feedback on digital tools.
  5. Use common standards for messages in audio wayfinding features.
  6. Provide a recommended, free option that is also open to third-party alternatives wherever technology is necessary to interact with a key service.
  7. Use the best digital accessibility standards available and set new, higher standards wherever possible.

We’ll continue to listen, engage, and connect with organizations, advocacy groups, and people who are focused on accessibility and inclusive design in Toronto to refine and revise these principles. And we’ll continue to be open to new great ideas for creating an accessible, flexible, and empowering neighborhood at Quayside.

Let’s keep up the conversation. Please email us your feedback, thoughts and suggestions on the draft accessibility principles at And stay tuned. We’re just getting started.