discovering default settings

old light switch with 3 switches all in the down or "off" position
Old Light Switches by Paul Cross

I had a fantastic conversation with Dana Ayotte about some of the work she does as an interaction designer at OCAD’s Inclusive Research Design Centre. One of the projects she worked on was working with people to figure out their settings preferences on a computer and codify or summarize them, so that they are portable. It struck me that this is a little thing that can be really important in terms of access, but also in terms of letting people customize things to suit them. It allows them to decide for themselves what works best. I love the idea of people sharing their preference sets, because sometimes you don’t know that there are other options than the default you’re presented with.

This reminded me of a couple of other conversations and experiences over the past year.

At CSUN one of the best presentations I attended was by Jamie Knight a senior designer at the BBC who is slightly autistic. His talk was about cognitive accessibility. At the beginning of the talk he was talking about how the sensory environment has a big impact on him. He said that if noises were too distracting he might put on his ear defenders. He also mentioned that lighting can be really draining for him. A couple of minutes later one of his coworkers interrupted from the audience and suggested that he could turn off some or all of the horrible fluorescent conference centre lights. Jamie paused and said “I had never considered that. I didn’t even know that was an option to turn off the lights in this room. Yes please.” This was one of my favourite moments at CSUN as it clearly demonstrated empathy.

I sometimes join the folks from the Student Services department for lunch. They are smart, kind and hilarious and I really enjoy hanging out with them. One of them was describing how she had been to the dentist that morning and that she really hates the fluoride. She says hates the taste and that it makes her feel nauseated all day long. When she mentioned this to her dad, he said “I just tell them that I don’t want fluoride.” This was a huge realization for her. She didn’t know that you could say no to the fluoride part of a dental visit. Honestly, I didn’t either. For her saying no to this made going to get her yearly cleaning so much easier. When I went to the dentist last month I also said no. My pulse jumped a bit, as it was a new thing for me to opt out of part of the dental cleaning. The hygienist had no reaction, so while i was a bit nervous about saying no, it wasn’t a big deal at all.

I’ve also been thinking more about consent. Some of the people who are dear to me are survivors of sexual abuse. The stories that they’ve shared about when they learned that they have agency around their own bodies are revolutionary and pivotal moments. One person said “I didn’t know that saying no was an option because when I was younger it didn’t matter what I said.” Realizing that I had some difficulty opting out of a fluoride treatment I have a better understanding and a bit more compassion for folks who are new to setting boundaries around their own bodies.

All of these stories seem related in my mind, but I’m not quite able to explain how. I think all of them relate to agency, boundary setting and learning that something is set to the default setting and discovering new options to choose.

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