By Sean Gilroy, Leena Haque | Nov. 26, 2019 | Mozilla Festival
Takiwātanga. The Māori word for Autism, which translated means ‘In His or Her own time and space’. This beautiful reflection of identity and being was the inspiration behind creating the first Neurodiversity Space at this year’s Mozilla festival. Here we reflect on the space we created – what we did, why we did it and the conversations that began.
Mozilla returned to Ravensbourne University for it’s annual festival, this year celebrating the 10th anniversary of this global event which brings together educators, activists, technologists, researchers, artists, and young people dedicated to creating a better, healthier internet.Alongside this impressive milestone, MozFest this year was also special because for the first time in its decade long history, the festival included a Neurodiversity space alongside those of Digital Inclusion, Decentralisation, Web Literacy, Privacy & Security, Openness, Youth Zone and Queering.
The festival has a wondrous, inquisitive and open environment that really does work hard to include and represent everyone, with facilitators from all four corners of the globe and it is this culture of openness and inclusion that we thought would fit hand in glove with our work on Neurodiversity. Over the course of the festival, people from all over the world came together to help us build our own little corner of the Shire, a curious and creative place where everyone was welcome to join us in a conversation about Neurodiversity.
The festival itself is not a new experience to us. We previously facilitated sessions at Mozfest built around our BBC Neurodiversity initiative, BBC CAPE (Creating a Positive Environment), covering themes such as inclusion, unconscious bias and exploring new perspectives on skills and abilities.
The Neurodiversity paradigm had resulted in the creation of a social movement, whereby people identifying as Neurodivergent (including conditions such as, but not limited to Autism, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, ADHD, Tourette’s) are beginning to lobby against social inequalities and injustices toward this neuro-minorty group.
As a part of the festival’s dialogue on Internet health, we saw the opportunity to create a space that would support and represent this new, growing community. A space dedicated to Neurodiversity could consider the same equality and inclusion agenda regarding access to and safety within the digital environment while promoting an understanding and appreciation of Neurodiversity. The vision we had for this space stretched across three main elements, which we identified as important to landing a successful introduction to Neurodiversity.
Over the coming 18 weeks, our Neurodiverse team of wranglers went to work considering, developing and building this vision, with support and advice from the Mozilla organising team. In the back of our minds though, there was always the anxiety that maybe on the day itself, no one would come to our Neurodiversity space.
As has been said, however…’Build it and they will come.’
It was important to us that, together with the sessions we ran over the course of the festival we also had a space where people would feel safe and included and a place where people could learn, share and explore.
Our idea was to create a sensory space, an environment for those who have neurodivergent conditions, learning or developmental disabilities from which they would feel confident and able to fully interact with the world around them. It would be an unrestrained non-threatening space where people could wander and un-focus.
It would be a true representation of Takiwātanga – In His or Her own time and space.
We had the idea to use a large gazebo to house what would become our sensory environment. It offered an element of seclusion from the workshops and wider festival continuing outside (slightly dimming the light and muffling sound) but remained open enough to provide easy and visible access such that people were comfortable enough to simply wonder in.
The entrance to the sensory space was adorned by creative installations that explored identity and personal perspectives of Neurodiversity. A mood wall was specially curated as an artistic exploration on the identity and persona of Neurodiversity in a vivid, tactile 3-D display. This interactive creation subtly evolved over the weekend as people added (and sometimes removed) different items and images from the wall.
This was supported by other creative installations submitted by our facilitators, which included a physical mind-map, sharing information on the strengths and abilities of a dyslexic mind and inviting people to add their own thoughts on what the advantages might look like, a new visual art piece around the concept of neurodiversity within the web, with diary/auto-ethnographic data and a lens on exchanges of diverse perspectives by the Tate Modern and a participatory space asking participants to consider the existence, or lack thereof, of free will; the Myth of Agency.
Once inside the space, visitors were immersed in a living sensory environment. Well-spaced beanbags and chairs offered a choice of places to sit and combined with a range of stimuli to help people develop and engage their senses, including projected visuals of a woodland scene playing alongside calming natural sounds, sensory soft play/stim objects and a variety of gentle lights offering movement and colour.
The result was a healing, safe environment that enabled people using it to explore and interact, but which also offered a sanctuary away from the bustle of the festival. It became a living, breathing part of the festival, growing and evolving over the course of the weekend, reflecting the Neurodiversity movement, as people engaged and interacted with the space.
We were very conscious that no matter how well we were able to build this sensory haven for people, the space would not come alive without the right blend of sessions and facilitators to run those sessions. While we honestly knew the talent was out there, our main worry was more about whether we would be successful in reaching out and finding that talent.
We didn’t have any specific ideas regarding topics for sessions outside the remit of the festival itself (considering the health of the internet and in particular this year, the impact of ever advanced Artificial Intelligence) but we did want as diverse a range of ND voices as possible that would provide a sense of the global conversation around Neurodiversity.
Any anxieties we had however were quickly alleviated. Not only did we receive many different ideas for sessions and workshops, the people behind these ideas came from all over the world.
The sessions we ran across the weekend of the festival included facilitators from North and South America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Considering Judy Singer, who first recognised the concept of Neurodiversity, came from Australia it means that we had covered 6 of the 7 continents – we just need something from Antarctica next year and we will be truly global.
So now we had our small but passionate fellowship of ‘ND-preneurs’, all supporting the ambition to bring Neurodiversity to Mozfest through their unique and varied perspectives on where Neurodiversity cuts across the Mozfest agenda.
We had sessions running that considered Inclusion from a technical perspective, such as ‘Smashing the barriers to OSS contribution’ which discussed factors leading to the exclusion of neuro-minorities from contributing to open source in tech environments and the subsequent lost value on learning opportunities, to a demonstration of the power of Augmented Reality to support learning experiences for neurodivergent students.
There were hands-on experiences that explored ideas from new angles, such as ‘What does the Internet Feel, touch and taste like’, asking participants to build models that represent different aspects of the internet to assist in the teaching of complex concepts and ‘Materialising Mental Health’, inviting people to use a range of modelling materials with different sensory properties to express emotions and feelings as a way of promoting wellbeing and self-care.
These were further supported by educational sessions considering accessiblity and inclusion. They included ‘Neuro-Space’ and ‘The state and Neurodiversity in the contemporary tech world’, providing examples of how Neurodiversity is being recognised & supported in tech organisations and ‘Welcome to the school for gifted youngsters and adults’ which reflected on ways to help individuals recognise and build confidence in their own abilities and skills.
Our final session of the weekend was the intriguing ‘I tried cleaning my room’, which provided a personal account of being ADHD and working in Tech, from the upsides of having this super power to suggestions on how to manage those times when technology and the environment conflict with these super powers.
It would be fair to say that we were awed and inspired by the breadth and depth of the sessions, workshops and installations and how effectively our band of international, Neurodiverse facilitators curated the conversation around the importance of appreciating our differently wired brains.
The Neurodiversity space itself provided a calm and gentle environment that people could share and when necessary escape to, but alongside this we were also able to provide 2 other separate quiet spaces for the Festival.
The primary quiet space was a specifically designated and signposted Neurodiversity room on the first floor of the building, which was designed to provide a completely quiet zone throughout the weekend of the festival and which included sensory soft play/stim objects as well as anti-bacterial hand gels. This was a space to provide self-care, self-nurturance, resilience & recovery.
A smaller, ‘pocket’ quiet space was also available but situated close to the Neurodiversity space. While this space was not totally separated from the sensory load of the festival, it did provide a place that people could use to Stim or retreat to if feeling over-stimulated from the social ‘noise’ of the festival – the plethora of individual conversations and the swathes of people moving to and from sessions.
Importantly, the wranglers from the Neurodiversity space also protected these spaces and the items that were provided for people in those spaces. It was an opportunity to improve the general awareness regarding the importance of such accessibility provisions for those that need them.
Together with these spaces, tinted glasses and earplugs were available to help minimise the impact of noise and light from the festival spaces together with social interaction stickers, which support managed social engagement with other people.
We were also able to share general awareness information with other space facilitators and wranglers at the festival, to promote understanding of and support for different types and levels of interaction, communication and engagement from participants of sessions.
We ended the weekend exhausted but on a high. Our experience of the Mozilla festival as first time wranglers for the Neurodiversity space was simply magical – it did feel like we had created our own little Shire, set amongst the whole of Middle Earth.
The feedback we have received since has been remarkable; humbling and inspiring and we gathered a few important takeaways from this experience.
Firstly, that the conversation about Neurodiversity is important for everyone and on a truly global scale. When we build environments or think about creating cultures, if we consider our Neurodiversity, everyone wins. The Neurodiversity Space created an environment where everyone found something, whether ND or NT (Neurotypical) and it provided everyone with a safe space where they could just be.
Secondly, that while the growth in awareness of Neurodiversity has been incredible there remains much more we can still do around education on the importance and significance of accessibility and support. While the Neurodiversity space did look a cool and inviting environment, people were often surprised at the level of consideration and thought that had gone into its design and location.
We did spend some of our time policing the spaces, to ensure that the soft play objects and stim equipment remained available in the spaces and was not instead taken as festival swag –an easy mistake to make at such festivals, but nevertheless something people should be aware of.
Equally that the spaces were not a place to hold general conversations, eat food or do work. By making sure people understood and refrained from this, anyone who needed the spaces in order to simply be a part of the festival would be able to do so, to rest and rejuvenate from the stimulation of the festivals environment.
Finally and without doubt, the Mozilla family and Mozfest itself was the perfect place for us to build the Neurodiversity experience. The feedback from the weekend has been incredible and has left us with the feeling that rather than being something we have now done, it is instead a part of something that has only just begun.
To everyone who helped us, submitted ideas to us or visited us in the first ever Neurodiversity Space at Mozfest, we thank you.