This is an excerpt from Mismatch by Kat Holmes.

The Cycle of Exclusion

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An exclusion habit is the belief that whoever starts the game also sets the rules of the game. We think we don’t have power to change a game, so we abdicate our accountability. We keep repeating the same behaviors, over and over.

In short and simple games, it might be easy to call on the one who’s responsible for changing the rules to make it more inclusive. Over time, games get more complex, leaders change, and we can forget who authored the original rules. In some organizations, the cultural behaviors were set a long time ago and the founders of that culture are long gone. Or we believe it’s someone else’s job to rewrite the rules, maybe the leaders in our business or community.

We also forget that those rules were initially written by human beings and can be rewritten. Those of us who are now playing the game have a responsibility to adapt it as needed. If we don’t, we are accountable when someone’s left out—not some leader from the distant past. We can respect the intent of the game, but also adapt the rules to make it more inclusive. An architect might create a building with a grand staircase leading to its front entrance on the basis of tradition or aesthetics. Meanwhile, people who use wheelchairs might be searching for back-alley entrances and convoluted hallways to access the building. When making choices in the design of a solution, we might think “those are just the rules, I didn’t make them up.” It’s easy to defer responsibility by claiming this is just how the world worked when we arrived.

This is why it’s important to distinguish why we make solutions, especially when we work on behalf of companies and organizations. While anyone can start to shift their personal reasons for creating solutions, inclusion often needs to be made part of an organization’s culture by people in the most senior leadership roles. If inclusion isn’t explicitly part of that leadership, exclusion will be the default.

Building New Habits

Exclusion habits can be hard to break. But, like any habit, they can be changed over time with new practices to challenge our mindsets and behaviors. When we say that we’re committed to inclusion, it’s like declaring that we’ll learn a new language. We start the next day full of enthusiasm and optimism, but become quickly aware of our huge gap in expertise.

Learning a new language can take planning, training, and determination. But above all, it means engaging with people who are native in the new language you want to learn. To gain fluency, you will need to change aspects of your routine and adjust some the elements of your life to support your new goal. You might even relocate to a community where your new language

is spoken every day. The same is true for building skills for inclusion.

These skills can be learned from people who interact with unwelcoming designs every day of their lives. They often have an intimate understanding of all the angles to consider. These are the designers, engineers, and leaders who have the greatest power to disrupt the cycle of exclusion. Learning from these experts, we will identify the top exclusion habits for each element of the cycle. And we will highlight ways to shift the cycle toward inclusive design.

Why it’s time to kick the habit:

  • Mismatched designs contribute to the societal invisibility of certain groups, like people with disabilities.
  • When a designed object rejects a person, it can feel like social rejection and approximate physical pain.
  • Exclusion habits stem from a belief that we can’t change aspects of society that were originally set into motion by someone other than ourselves.