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Applying social innovation learnings to disability activism

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18 March 2021

According to the United Nations Development Programme, students, scholars and researchers with disabilities remain under-represented in higher education and vulnerable to feeling marginalised and excluded on campuses. This can be for a number of reasons including difficulty accessing physical learning facilities. 

Being a wheel-chair user, University of Auckland student Emma Cooper-Williams has experienced these challenges first hand, making her the perfect person to work with the Equity Office’s Student Disability Services to develop the University’s latest innovation, the Wayfinding app. The new browser based app allows users to view digitised maps of the University and perform both outdoor and indoor navigation between locations. 

Emma, a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student majoring in Politics and International Relations, helped the project team plot accessible routes around the University by going around campus to look at which routes and entrances were accessible and which ones were not. She says, “I did this using a hard copy map which was very interesting, as the university looks quite different on paper! This was then digitised and accessible routes were computed into the app. I learnt a lot during this process and thought about how I’d like to advocate for further initiatives where accessibility is a priority for the University.”

Emma participated in a free social innovation programme delivered by the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship where participants develop innovative ideas addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. She says, “I particularly enjoyed collaborating with others and hearing about their life experiences, motivations and challenges they had faced. This allowed me to not take my own skills for granted and made me think about intersectional factors that exist in our social worlds.”

Prior to being involved with the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Emma had little knowledge of social innovation and was unsure of what she could contribute to the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. The programme she was involved with helped her realise that “Just like everybody else, I had unique experiences that provided me insight into areas that could be improved through social innovation. I have definitely applied learnings from that programme to other aspects of my life, particularly in disability activism spaces where I have tried and am currently trying to make more space for people with disabilities to be included and have their voices heard.”

Last year, Emma was elected to the newly formed role of postgraduate student officer in AUSA elections for 2021. She is looking forward to listening to students’ experiences and being their voice on various committees, and hopes that her work ultimately sets a precedent for social innovation and progress at the University. 

Emma aspires to start up a University wide Disabled Students Association so that more voices of disabled tauira (students) can be heard, and they can be empowered to lead projects and leverage the lived experiences of a diverse population. She says that disabled tauira are very much present at the University but strongly under-represented both in leadership and the overall student voice.

Striking a balance of following her passions while also being open to new experiences was a great way for Emma to make the most of her time as a student. Her interest in social justice drove most of her involvement and she is grateful for all the opportunities that came her way as a result. She also says that putting your hand up to be a Class Rep is a great way to be heard – “It was probably the first time I felt like I had a voice here.”

Emma is currently writing a dissertation about the effects of New Zealand’s End of Life Choice legislation on people with disabilities, a topic that has been under-researched in this field. Her passion for social justice and equity will continue to drive her future endeavours, with enrollment in a Masters degree on the horizon.

Velocity Team 2020
Velocity Team 2020

social media

18 March 2021

According to the United Nations Development Programme, students, scholars and researchers with disabilities remain under-represented in higher education and vulnerable to feeling marginalised and excluded on campuses. This can be for a number of reasons including difficulty accessing physical learning facilities. 

Being a wheel-chair user, University of Auckland student Emma Cooper-Williams has experienced these challenges first hand, making her the perfect person to work with the Equity Office’s Student Disability Services to develop the University’s latest innovation, the Wayfinding app. The new browser based app allows users to view digitised maps of the University and perform both outdoor and indoor navigation between locations. 

Emma, a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) student majoring in Politics and International Relations, helped the project team plot accessible routes around the University by going around campus to look at which routes and entrances were accessible and which ones were not. She says, “I did this using a hard copy map which was very interesting, as the university looks quite different on paper! This was then digitised and accessible routes were computed into the app. I learnt a lot during this process and thought about how I’d like to advocate for further initiatives where accessibility is a priority for the University.”

Emma participated in a free social innovation programme delivered by the Business School’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship where participants develop innovative ideas addressing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. She says, “I particularly enjoyed collaborating with others and hearing about their life experiences, motivations and challenges they had faced. This allowed me to not take my own skills for granted and made me think about intersectional factors that exist in our social worlds.”

Prior to being involved with the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Emma had little knowledge of social innovation and was unsure of what she could contribute to the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. The programme she was involved with helped her realise that “Just like everybody else, I had unique experiences that provided me insight into areas that could be improved through social innovation. I have definitely applied learnings from that programme to other aspects of my life, particularly in disability activism spaces where I have tried and am currently trying to make more space for people with disabilities to be included and have their voices heard.”

Last year, Emma was elected to the newly formed role of postgraduate student officer in AUSA elections for 2021. She is looking forward to listening to students’ experiences and being their voice on various committees, and hopes that her work ultimately sets a precedent for social innovation and progress at the University. 

Emma aspires to start up a University wide Disabled Students Association so that more voices of disabled tauira (students) can be heard, and they can be empowered to lead projects and leverage the lived experiences of a diverse population. She says that disabled tauira are very much present at the University but strongly under-represented both in leadership and the overall student voice.

Striking a balance of following her passions while also being open to new experiences was a great way for Emma to make the most of her time as a student. Her interest in social justice drove most of her involvement and she is grateful for all the opportunities that came her way as a result. She also says that putting your hand up to be a Class Rep is a great way to be heard – “It was probably the first time I felt like I had a voice here.”

Emma is currently writing a dissertation about the effects of New Zealand’s End of Life Choice legislation on people with disabilities, a topic that has been under-researched in this field. Her passion for social justice and equity will continue to drive her future endeavours, with enrollment in a Masters degree on the horizon.


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