Petra Christian University

Teaching Empathy through Design

Gunawan Tanuwidjaja, one of the project leaders.

People living with disabilities seek acceptance, and the physical environment can be a powerful indicator of whether a society is willing to include them. A service-learning project at Petra Christian University in Surabaya, Indonesia helped architecture students absorb that lesson, as they listened to people living with disabilities describe their aspirations and their day-to-day lives. “When we enter a community and the acceptance is there, it surely eases us in everything,” Dr. Arina Hayati, a faculty member at the Institute of Technology of the Tenth of November told students, and she and others living with disabilities in Surabaya readily shared ideas on ways that architectural design can help them participate in community life.

This project was supported by a United Board Bamboo Grant, and led by an interdisciplinary team of Petra faculty members and professionals from nongovernmental organizations. (Click here for a full listing of project participants.)  Like other exercises in service-learning, it enabled students to apply lessons from the classroom and develop practical skills. Gunawan Tanuwidjaja, one of the project leaders at Petra, thinks service-learning can also teach empathy. “It is difficult, through lectures, to tell students how to become empathetic,” he said in an interview, but through service-learning, he could encourage his students to imagine the world of the disabled. “Simulation is one way for them to do this,” he explained, “so for one hour, they took on the limitation of a disabled person.” That exercise, combined with conversations with people living with disabilities, helped students think differently about design.

At participatory workshops, above and at right, students and clients worked on design ideas together.

“As designers, students need to empathize with people living with disabilities, communicate with them, and design participatively with them,” Mr. Gunawan said. Participatory workshops helped strengthen that spirit of collaboration. “Students created architectural models based on the data they collected and what they learned about needs,” Mr. Gunawan said, “and then, in the workshops, they asked how they can be improved.” By the end of the four-month class, the Petra students had created models for five homes, an apartment, and a school. Since then, they have started working with a school for the blind on construction of doors, toilets, and window protectors.

The project leaders see a close relationship between inclusion and peacebuilding. Discrimination against the person with disability is common,” Mr. Gunawan said, and that places the disabled in the category of “other” or “different.”  Inclusive design helps remedy that, by bringing people into the mainstream of life, whether on campus, in the community, or even in the home. “We are trying build a peace bridge to the person with disability community,” and so the Petra faculty and students are eager to tell others about their experience with inclusive design. What began in the classroom is now being shared with a broader community, through a project video, social media and radio campaigns to raise awareness, a book on inclusive design titled Living with Dignity, and exhibitions in the Petra Christian University library and a shopping mall.

For a full list of program participants, please click here.