Inclusive Making and Hacking

Hackathons, makeathons and similar community-oriented participatory technology events have become very popular in recent years, both in traditional learning contexts such as schools, colleges and universities, and in the broader world. Ideas of "hacking" and "making" have also been popularized as approaches to creatively and collaboratively solve problems in society, business and government.

In education, hacking and making can offer students greater autonomy, choice and personalization opportunities than the traditional classroom. Students can be encouraged to collaborate on challenges that interest them, to develop context-specific problem-solving strategies, and to engage with the wider world beyond the classroom.

Where does Inclusive Design fit into these approaches? How do we maximize their reach and impact to better include those who may be on the margins?

On Terminology


We use the term "hackathon" expansively in this entry to refer to events that emphasize intensive short-term collaboration between small groups. The groups typically brainstorm, design and prototype around social, cultural, or political issues that are relevant to them (for example art or open data), then present their results in some form to the larger group throughout the event or at the end.

While these events are often focused on producing or proposing new software or hardware as a means of addressing a social problem or creating a new product, this is not stricly necessary; hackathons have been held to produce government policy, or ideas to address food security.

In learning settings, hackathons might be held as part of course curriculum or as an extracurricular activity for interested students. Academic institutions might seek to partner with community groups for hackathons to encourage students and faculty to form connections outside the institution. These events can be highly engaging to students (including students disconnected from or turned off by traditional classroom structures) by allowing them to design and pursue challenges of their own interest, and can help bring in the world beyond the classroom.


We use the term "hacking" expansively here to refer to ideas of in-depth learning by doing, do-it-yourself and "playful cleverness" that we can also find present in the term "making". We feel (though others might disagree) that the concepts have enough overlap to discuss them together.

We also consider the hacking approach to be present in one-to-one customizations, adaptations and transformations of technology that allow participation in activities or the use of technology by more diverse groups, including people with disabilities. This approach is found in groups like The Tetra Society of North America, who create customized assistive devices for individuals.

In learning settings, hacking might include classroom projects involving prototyping a product or system, or customizing devices to suit someone's unique needs.

Inclusively Designing Hackathons and Hacking

We believe that the connections and ideas that get made between people attending hackathons and similar events are more important than any products that get produced. If hackathons are about building community, issues of inclusion, exclusion and audience diversity are paramount to their design.

In thinking about inclusive design for hackathons, we must ask ourselves some of the same questions we ask in other contexts:

Considering the Full Range of Human Diversity

Because we define Inclusive Design as design that considers the full range of human diversity with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age and other forms of human difference, our vision for inclusive hackathons and hacking must encompass more than the (vital!) practice of accommodation for people with disabilities through the design of the physical space, the preparation of alternate formats for information, and services such as sign language interpretation.

Several of the resources at the bottom of this entry contain advice for designing hackathon spaces and structuring events to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. We would add two pieces of specific advice from Inclusive Design practice:

  • Use a comprehensive approach like that embodied in the Inclusive Design Mapping to reconsider and stretch the design of the hackathon or hacking exercise towards greater inclusion.

  • Plan, execute and review in the open; give people opportunity to provide feedback before and after the event or activity. A living document supported by technology such as a wiki can help to invite necessary commentary and revision.

On STEM Diversity Issues

Because hacking and making are strongly associated with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines, it's not possible to discuss this subject without reference to the widespread work that has gone on to investigate and address the issue of demographic diversity in STEM both academically and in the wider world.

The STEM acronym itself has come under some criticism for excluding art and design, leading to initiatives such as the STEM to STEAM Initiative.

We encourage those considering hacking and making in learning contexts to be aware of larger issues of diversity in STEM subjects, workplaces and communities, as these issues can have relevance and knock-on effects to the diversity and inclusion of hackathons and hacking. Correspondingly, the informal nature and DIY ethos of hacking and making may help broaden the appeal of STEM-oriented subjects to those who feel excluded from them.

Asking Who Is Excluded

Hackathon events can unintentionally exclude participants through limitations in their design. How do we redesign our approach to running, promoting and recruiting for our events? What strategies can help us avoid inadvertent exclusion?

This is especially critical for hackathons trying to tackle issues faced by people with disabilities, under the principle of Nothing About Us Without Us. This principle is also of broader value in considering inclusion in hackathons targeting social problems - we cannot hope to focus on topics and solutions that are relevant, important and engaging without working together with those most directly affected.

Any extra work involved in broadening the reach of the event beyond the "natural" demographic will be balanced out by better outcomes and learning.

Expanding Collaboration

Physical colocation is common with hackathons, but a requirement to be physically present to participate can exclude people based on ability to travel to the location or by disability.

When considering the design of a hackathon-style event, consider:

  • Can you support remote collaboration using audio and video conferencing tools such as talky, shared workspaces such as Etherpad, and/or collaborative coding environments like Cloud9?
  • Are there alternate styles of event that would also be appropriate, such as the distributed approach of the Global Game Jam?

Distributed events can allow a greater reach and diversity, and greatly expand the potential audience who can participate, work together and learn from each other's different experiences.

The Curb Cut Effect and Innovation from the Margins

There are no "average" users in inclusive design's philosophy. Per the first dimension of inclusive design, "As individuals spread out from the hypothetical average, the needs of individuals that are outliers, or at the margins, become ever more diverse. Most individuals stray from the average in some facet of their needs or goals." Designing to accommodate the diversity of individual differences makes designs stronger as our designs accumulate and address the many different "edge cases" even a small group of individuals have.

Designs intended to serve the needs or goals of individuals on the margin can turn out to be of much broader use. This is sometimes referred to as the curb-cut effect after the sidewalk ramps that were originally intended for wheelchair users, but have ended up being of significant benefit to many other users of public spaces.

Designing for inclusion catalyzes innovation and spreads outward as new or unanticipated uses or value is found in a design. Building with diverse individuals, including those with "extreme" needs, results in designs with greater adaptability, resilience and usability for all.

From this, we should not worry that a hackathon challenge or project is "too specific" to the particular situation of one individual; rather, we can use an individual's unique needs as a means of generating unorthodox solutions, surprising ourselves, and stretching our designs.


The sections below include examples of software, hardware, and design tools that may be useful for inclusive design hacking. Some are early-stage research projects, while others are mature and in widespread usage in and outside the classroom.

We have tried to highlight tools that fall somewhere at the nexus of openness, active development, strong communities, and adaptability. Separately or in combination, they might be used to:

  • prototype new ways of interacting with the digital or physical world that suit an individual's particular needs.
  • adapt and transform existing technology to support new uses.

Research From Prosperity 4All

Floe participates in the Prosperity 4All project that has supported the development and cataloguing of tools relevant to inclusive learning through hacking and making. These include:

The Nexus

The Nexus is an integration technology based on the Infusion Javascript framework that allows distributed systems to be connected together through shared and transformed state over HTTP and WebSockets protocols, as described in detail here.

The Nexus allows connection and information-sharing between systems and components that weren't designed to work together by allowing output from one system to be transformed into input other systems can interpret and act upon. New forms of assistive technology can be built by using the Nexus as a central relay that can store, broadcast and transform information about the state of various applications, systems or sensors connected to it.


The Assistive Technology Rapid Integration & Construction Set is an open source construction set for assistive technologies.

AsTeRICS can be used to rapidly prototype new forms of assistive technology using a graphical construction environment that runs on Windows or as a web-based application.

Some examples of using AsTeRICS can be found at the AsTeRICS Academy site.

Inclusive Design Guide

The Inclusive Design Guide is an evolving collection of insights, practices, tools and activities that can be applied to a wide range of design challenges in the digital, physical and service realm.

Some of the parts of the Inclusive Design Guide relevant to hacking and making events or activities include:

Like this handbook, the Guide is an evolving resource, and new sections are added as we learn more about designing with inclusion in mind.

The Developer Space

The Developer Space is a clearinghouse site making it easier to discover and learn about tools that support accessible development. The three examples above are only a sample of what is available; more can be found by exploring the Developer Space, such as code components and developer tools.

Other Tools

This is a far from comprehensive discussion of other tools that may be useful in inclusive learning settings for hacking and making.

Specialized Programming Environments

There is a wide range of software built with the intention of supporting more specific programming tasks than "general purpose" programming languages, or providing alternatives to the more familiar text-centric approaches to programming languages. Many of these environments are specifically designed to empower people who would not otherwise identify as programmers, including children, visual artists and musicians.

While sometimes originally designed for a specific purpose (such as teaching young children programming concepts), it is important to recognize:

  • the "specialized" and "general purpose" boundary can in many ways be arbitrary.
  • learning differences or types of experiences with programming may mean a greater level of comfort in other types of environments.
  • the curb-cut effect may mean that a programming environment built and marketed for a particular audience or purpose can end up being broadly useful to others.
Visual Programming

Visual programming supports coding by manipulating and combining visual elements rather than through text-based input. While often targeted and developed with the goal of teaching programming concepts, visual environments may also be more welcoming to non-programmers.

Scratch and Blockly are both well-known visual programming environments.

While visual programming environments have obvious accessibility issues for visually impaired users, there has been research work to provide support for screen readers, including Accessible Blockly and Pseudospatial Blocks; this work demonstrates how the characteristics of visual programming environments might be extended into other modes of interaction.

Music and Sound Programming

Music and sound programming support tasks around music production and sound synthesis by writing code. Some environments use visual metaphors and have overlap with visual programming, while others may be purely text-based.

Alda, Sonic Pi and Pure Data are all examples of this type of specialized programming.

Visual Arts Programming

Environments like Processing are designed to function as "software sketchbooks", where text-based programming is used to generate graphic art.

Hacking and Making with Hardware and the Physical World

Electronics and Internet of Things Prototyping

Inexpensive systems for prototyping electronics have become widespread in the last decade. They can be programmed to operate lights, sensors, motors and other electronic devices; by connecting them to the internet, they can be used to prototype internet of things devices.

The Arduino is perhaps the best known of these systems.

Single Board Computers

The Raspberry Pi is the best known example of a small general-purpose computer that can run a complete operating system. They are often extended with peripherals to add additional capabilities.

Creating New Assistive Technologies

Individuals can have unique needs that are not well-served by existing commercial technology aimed at people with disabilities. It can be a powerful exercise in one-size-fits-one design to work with a person to improve an assistive technology they use, or create something entirely new, as in the work done by the Tetra Society. Some tools that can support this include:


Prototyping an Alternate Interface for An Educational Simulation

Team members from Floe and PhET Interactive Simulations used the Nexus to quickly build an alternative "dance pad" interface to the John Travoltage sim.

Inclusive Design Hackathon

As part of the 2016 DEEP Conference an Incusive Hackathon was held.

2015 OER Accessibility Sprint

Floe held an OER-focused accessibility sprint in early 2015 where teams worked over two days to tackle specific problems in OERs related to inclusive learning.


General Hacking and Hackathons

Accessibility & Inclusion for Hacking & Hackathons

Accessibiliy/Inclusive Hackathon Examples