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A Crash Course in Empathy

As part of the coursework for Legal Problem Solving (LPS), all students contribute a post to this course blog. Students develop posts from a weekly journal entry, which also is required coursework. The purpose of journal entries is to invite deeper, personal reflection on the subject matter in LPS, reflection being a key component of content understanding and mastery. This course explores how human centered design and other creative problem solving methods and mindsets inform three areas: (1) the delivery of legal services, (2) how we solve clients' (legal) problems, and (3) how law students can intentionally shape their professional journeys. Each student post will touch on one or more of these three areas.

This LPS post is by Elvira Rodriguez, Vanderbilt Law School class of 2019.

When I envisioned the skills that I would gain in law school, what came to mind were things like contract drafting, oral advocacy, and even networking skills. What I never imagined I would learn in law school is how to empathize. Nevertheless, that is precisely what I learned. This past weekend, I joined Professor Moon at the Wond’ry Dive Boot Camp, where we engaged in a five-hour human-centered-design challenge.

The challenge required us to design an assistive technology for a schoolchild that is disabled. Before “diving” into the design challenge, our team organizer, Ezra Reynolds, laid the groundwork; he told us that his non-profit organization, Signal Centers, is dedicated to designing assistive technologies for all individuals with special needs. Ezra then handed us a sheet of paper titled “Notes on Disability Etiquette.” Our lesson on empathy began here – the handout explained that we should not refer to someone who has a disability as “suffering” anything, and that we should refer to those individuals as people first, and not by their respective diseases. For example, I learned that if someone is autistic, one should refer to that person as a “person that is autistic,” and not an “autistic person.” While this may seem like semantics, it is important to those who do not wish to be identified by their disease. The two-page note was replete with examples like these, which helped me understand the perspective of someone who is disabled in a way that I had not understood before.

After learning some disability etiquette, Ezra walked us through what I call his “empathy workstation.” This workstation consisted of a menu of diseases to “try on.” For example, there were glasses that, when worn, simulated vision impairments like Glaucoma, Cataracts, Diabetic Retinopathy, and Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), among others. There was also a machine that simulated sclerosis. When you pressed a button on the machine, the system responded by doing something random – this was meant to model the “short-circuit” neurological effect of the disease; these were only a few of the myriad diseases to choose from.

I “tried on” most of the diseases, and even some in combination. For instance, I put on the Cataracts glasses and tried to move about in a wheelchair. I tried to truly imagine myself carrying out my day to day tasks with the different diseases, including going to the bathroom. When I got to the bathroom area, I looked up (with the Cataracs glasses on) and discovered that I could not tell the men’s bathroom apart from the women’s bathroom (notwithstanding the pictures). My immediate thought was “why hasn’t someone considered this problem and color-coded the signs?” While I could not distinguish words or shapes, I could see colors clearly. Nevertheless, in an effort to stay true to my experiment, I took a gamble and hoped not to find myself in a room full of urinals. Fortunately, and by pure chance, I entered the handicap bathroom. My first design flaw observation was that this “handicap” bathroom did not have an automatic door, so I had to try to open the door and wheel myself in at the same time.

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My short ​time in the wheelchair helped get my empathy juices flowing for my team’s design challenge. We were now ready to work on our design. Our design challenge was to create a mouthpiece that would allow our schoolchild (who could not use her arms) to switch out the colors on her mouthpiece without her teacher’s help. Our team got to work and we truly tried to imagine ourselves in the position of our schoolchild. First, we looked at the existing design and were shocked to see how little thought had gone into it. The design itself screamed of a complete lack of empathy. It looked like a TV antenna with a pencil taped to the end.

The lack of empathy in this design was truly heartbreaking. With all this in mind, our team got to work with this child’s need at the center of our work. We thought that the rigid antenna-like rod must be difficult to maneuver, so we changed it to a bendable shape that the child could have adjusted to her liking – it also allowed her to extend it if necessary. Next, we thought about the child’s need for autonomy and the fact that she had to ​wait on her teacher to change her color pencils every time. In response, we designed a cushioned mouthpiece that she could bite on to open and close a clamp at the end of the device. We then thought of an angled stand upon which to rest the colors, so that she could easily grab them. In the end, this was our prototype:

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What I learned from this design challenge is how much empathy goes into design. Upon reflecting on these ideas, I looked around and made some painful observations: My coffee mug, for instance, sent a clear message “we care about you, Elvira.” While the individuals who designed my coffee mug, did not specifically have me in mind, they did have the general me in mind – a busy on-the-go student who lives on coffee. How do I know this, simple – the design tells me so. The lid is airtight, such that if I tip the mug over, it does not spill. The cup has a handle that I can lift to grab the mug in a hurry, and the way that the mouthpiece is placed makes it less likely for the coffee to spill as I drink. Overall, the mug was made with bounds of TLC (Tender Loving Care).

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Conversely, the designs I observed for those who are disabled, showed just the opposite; what they conveyed were: a lack of interest, understanding, and basic empathy. Thinking of design from this standpoint, I have come to appreciate the practice more than ever. I have come to realize how much love and humanity can be communicated through a well-crafted human-centered design. I will take this lesson into my practice as a lawyer and work diligently to convey to my clients, through my designs, that I care.