The medical profession beckoned to Jess Dashner from a very young age, although which discipline to pursue wasn’t immediately clear. A life-altering family emergency ultimately helped her reach a decision.

A high school student at the time, Jess watched pensively as her grandfather recovered from a stroke. But the fretful ordeal quickly became a source of inspiration. The restorative impact of her grandfather’s rehabilitation sparked a burgeoning passion for Occupational Therapy.

When it came time to apply to college, Jess chose OT school at Washington University in St. Louis. After completing Wash U’s rigorous program, Jess became a licensed OT, but along the way, she discovered a rewarding niche in the world of academia.

“When I first entered OT school, my original plan was to work clinically in a hospital. After connecting with my mentor, Dr. David Gray, I became more involved in research and developed a passion for understanding environmental facilitators and barriers,” Jess recalls. “Over time, I was able to help more in the classroom and really enjoyed sharing my love for the environment and assistive technology with OT students.”

So after earning her doctorate in Occupational Therapy in 2002, Jess joined the faculty at Washington University. As Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy and Neurology, she now guides OT students along their own paths of academic discovery, just as Dr. Gray did for her years before.

“I think in general, the most rewarding part is just being able to make a difference in someone’s life. Most rewarding from the teaching side is when I get a text or an email from a current or former student about something they have seen in the environment that is either a great example or something they have found that needs to be addressed to improve access,” Jess explains. “I think the most challenging aspect is dealing with limitations imposed by funding or coverage for services.”

Occupational therapy is a multifaceted profession that involves helping clients recover from an illness or accident and modifying environments to maximize accessibility. Both sides of the equation are crucial. But with each client comes a unique set of circumstances, so there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach.

“There is a balance between the two, but it really depends on the person and the situation. I think that in general, adapting the environment really comes into play once the person has achieved their maximum level of strength and functional capacity,” Jess contends. “The goal is to enable someone to participate in whatever it is that they want to be able to do. Either strategy is good, as long as the goals are met.”

But adapting physical spaces to accommodate the needs of clients requires a special type of resourcefulness, and it’s become Jess’s favorite aspect of OT.

“Absolutely, it is important for an OT to be versatile and creative,” Jess acknowledges. “I may be biased, but I think that modifying community environments can be most challenging because you are trying to accommodate a wide variety of consumers. This is where Universal Design comes in.”

Through courses like “Enabling Community Living,” Jess introduces the concept of Universal Design to the next generation of OTs. As an expert at evaluating environmental facilitators and barriers, Jess is also an integral part of the Universal Design Summit 7 (UDS7) Steering Committee.

In her vast experience of research and working with clients, Jess sees many of the same obstacles to full participation come up time and time again. People with mobility impairments regularly encounter a lack of curb cuts, adequate parking and accessible entrances to buildings in the community. Individuals with vision loss report problems with glare, decreased lighting and written materials not made available in an alternative format. Background noise, an absence of captioning, and the lack of seating near walls and speakers present barriers for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

According to Jess, increased collaboration between OTs, architects and interior designers will eventually lead to barrier-free environments that can be accessed and enjoyed by everyone.

“Each profession brings their unique lens to the situation, and we can accomplish even more when we work together. This is super important!” Jess reflects. “If spaces are built and designed using the principles of Universal Design, they will include the features important to individuals with disabilities to make them more usable by all.”

Jess says UDS7 attracts innovative minds from across a number of industries to ask questions, share insights and devise new strategies for the further implementation of Universal Design.

“Events like the Universal Design Summit are so important because they provide the opportunity for individuals with a variety of perspectives to come together to achieve a common goal,” Jess concludes. “It allows the platform for networking and individuals from a variety of disciplines to come together and learn from each other.”