Equity & Empathy for Students: the Power of Inclusive Design | Harbord & Khan | 7 Min Read

April 18, 2023

A common complaint from teenagers especially is the cry “It’s not fair.” This could be referring to the length of lunchtime, world hunger, or ocean pollution. So it’s important to give students space to discuss fairness, and one way could be using an ethical dilemma focusing on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice, such as All people regardless of age, race or creed should be given equal rights vs Equity is a fairer system when distributing opportunities and financial support. Through interdisciplinary learning and inspired by design and STEAM, we can give students opportunities to have authentic and meaningful learning experiences.  

Equality and equity are big ideas, and to explore them, it is vital we have a clear understanding of the terminology and how we are defining them. In the context of this article, equality is giving everyone the same opportunities whereas equity means offering different levels of support that depend on achieving fair and just outcomes. In this article, we focus on equity as opposed to equality. If we want to achieve a fair result for all students, it is important that the students who need additional support and resources, receive it so they can be on a ‘level playing field’ despite greater needs. This is the reason that equality in real terms is not truly equal e.g. if you have to push a bike and someone else has a Maserati car, and you both receive the same financial support, it is not fair.

There are many ways equity in schools is approached, but why are there such barriers? Lack of resources, lack of funding, lack of training for all school stakeholders, and perhaps a lack of empathy may be some of the factors that affect levels of equity at your school. Often school boards and administrators, who have the authority to make changes, do not truly understand the depth of the problem as they are rarely as affected as others who haven’t achieved powerful leadership positions. 

We can explore the issue of equity in schools from a more creative perspective by looking to other disciplines for inspiration, such as design. In an educational context, we can draw parallels between Inclusive and Universal Design with how we implement differentiation in our classrooms as opposed to standardized testing. To understand this comparison more clearly we need to define both Inclusive Design and Universal Design:

Universal design: The designer creates a product that’s use is applicable in the vast majority of situations and for users with the widest range of abilities. 

Inclusive design: Designers create for traditionally excluded markets based on ability, age, economic status, gender, language, and race. This also includes researchers and makers from these markets who can share their personal perspectives on the design process. 

Inclusive design can help leadership in schools imagine novel ways to support equity in the learning environment. 

As educators, we can be inspired by examples of inclusive design from other industries, such as American gerontologist Dr. Patricia Moore who believes that “All design should be high design and address consumer needs at any price point.” Her creative thinking, imagination, innovative perspectives, and courage have established Moore as an internationally recognized pioneer of Universal and Inclusive Design. From 1979-1982 when Patricia Moore was in her twenties, she conducted an extraordinary social experiment. Working with a prosthetic artist to disguise herself as elderly women from different socio-economic backgrounds, she traveled through the U.S. and Canada, altering her body to parallel physical changes associated with aging. Moore’s experience of life as an elderly person gave her insight into how design could start addressing an aging population’s needs as described in her book Disguised: A True Story (2015).  

At a recent Inclusive Design event at the Royal College of Art, London, Patricia Moore mentioned that she had the support of her supervisors when she was working on this project, but if this research were conducted today, there could be ethical concerns. Moore also shared that she often puts powerful people in situations where they experience some of the challenges that consumers face e.g. putting corporate leaders in wheelchairs at a meeting. Moore described how she came across one of the participants getting out of his wheelchair to open the bathroom door, but she insisted he stay seated. In her experience, this process was one way for powerful people to reconnect with their humanity.  

Moore also has an interesting approach to market research through her deep empathy toward the people she investigates. As a designer, it is essential to be informed about the ‘need’ for a product, system, or service. Education is no different. We must possess empathy, an understanding of our students’ needs, and what has been at the forefront recently for students is a fairer and more equitable education for all. Equity doesn’t mean all students have equal outcomes but rather that education systems give students equal learning opportunities that are not governed by the students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. 

According to The White House, on President Biden’s first day in office, (20th January 2021) he signed Executive Order 13985, which is the Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government. Looking back through U.S. history, for instance, in 1848, Horace Mann, an American educational reformer and slavery abolitionist, advocated for public education, and he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Mann said that education could be the “great equalizer.” President Biden quoted Mann in the 2022 Agency Equity Plan, which is related to the executive order: “…the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality. Affirmatively advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our Government.”

Believe it or not, it is worth a read and inspiring to note that the highest office in the government of the United States of America recognizes and advocates the need for equity in education. So we have a need for equity acknowledged, but it is projects and research such as Patricia Moore’s that give us the human side, the empathic response, and the lived experience of injustice if we are not personally affected by different kinds of inequity. 

Developing empathy towards others, being open-minded, and thinking out of the box can help create innovative equitable solutions to old intractable problems. We hope you will be inspired by Dr. Moore’s work. Perhaps your students will be interested in her project, which shows how changing your perspective on approaching research in a non-traditional way can provide different answers that lead to better solutions. Using the diagram below and your understanding of Inclusive design, you can explore promoting equity in your learning environment using a different lens. 

We were inspired by Patricia Moore to imagine novel solutions. What if we brought inclusive designers like Moore into the educational arena as we pursue educational equity? Could one of the conditions of coming into a leadership role or position of power in education be that incumbents experience the systems and conditions they are overseeing to develop empathy for students? What if we designed an immersive virtual reality experience as an experiment for our educators, lawmakers, and the business community? What if they did empathy training from a space where instructions were difficult to read or delivered in a different language, where they didn’t see themselves represented in society or literature, or where their needs weren’t addressed? The inequitable truth is that this is not a game but real life for many students.


Biden JR., J. R. (2021, January 20). Executive order on advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities through the federal government. The White House. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential actions/2021/01/20/executive-order-advancing-racial-equity-and-support-for-underserved-communities-through-the-federal government/ 

Moore, P. (Presenter). (2023, March 3). The 2023 design.different season, design. inclusive. Lecture presented at Royal College of Art,  London, England. 

Moore, P., & Conn, C. P. (1985). Disguised: A true story. Word Books. 

Royal College of Art (Ed.). (2023, March 3). Design.Different 2023 season: design. inclusive with Patricia Moore. Royal College of Art.  Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.rca.ac.uk/news-and-events/events/design-different-2023-season-design-inclusive with-patricia-moore 

Sheffield Hallam University (Ed.). (2022, July 1). Inclusive design trailblazer inspires students at Hallam. Sheffield Hallam University.  Retrieved March 5, 2023, from https://www.shu.ac.uk/alumni/news/pattie-moore

Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord EdD and Sara Riaz Khan are global educators who use ethical dilemmas to enrich and transform curriculum. Their student centric approach is driven by an ethical model and innovative tools that support critical thinking and creativity. Meredith and Sara’s collaboration as Design teachers at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, focused on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness and inspired them to establish Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. They develop units of work based on real world issues to engage and challenge students for diverse curriculums (IB, PBL, Common Core and Australian) and are available for professional development and to create programs to meet the specific needs of your school. Meredith and Sara have authored two teacher curriculum books ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5’ (2020). Website: https://bit.ly/3XopEzQ

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