As a fledgling architect only a couple of years removed from graduate school, Greg Turner suddenly found himself at the helm of a large-scale project, a massive undertaking that would indelibly change countless lives, his own included.
Prior to starting his career at SPACE Architects, Greg spent time as a volunteer at Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital, an innovative leader in the treatment and rehabilitation of children battling complex illnesses and injuries. Greg was in a wheelchair himself at the time, the result of a rare disease that left him with a spinal cord injury, so he felt a sense of kinship with the young patients there. When he learned his new employer would be overseeing a 75,000-square-foot expansion of the facility, Greg knew he had to be involved.
“Having connections with the patients, doctors and volunteers there, I made it clear that whenever the project kicked off, I wanted to be part of it,” Greg recounts. “I didn’t care in what capacity; I just wanted to be part of it.”
He wasn’t necessarily planning on being in charge, but when the project manager from the original construction left SPACE for another opportunity, there was a glaring vacancy that had to be filled before any further plans could commence. Already familiar to hospital staff through his volunteer work, Greg was the obvious choice.
Greg, who currently serves on the Universal Design Summit 7 Steering Committee, did not take his new responsibility lightly.
“I was inspired to do the best possible job and really think about things in a completely different way,” Greg explains. “Especially when it comes to the design of a hospital, we can have a profound impact on people with and without disabilities. There are things we can do as designers to make things easier for everybody.”
Of course, Ranken Jordan Pediatric Bridge Hospital was built for a very specific clientele. In addition to 60 inpatient beds, the hospital now includes 140,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor recreation space for kids facing all manners of medical challenges. Greg implemented UD elements throughout the entire expansion process, even adding an accessible stage for various activities, as well as adaptive ball fields and inviting gardens that can be enjoyed by patients of all ages and abilities.
Greg’s intimate knowledge of UD comes from his own lived experience as someone with a disability. Plagued by back pain for years, Greg’s symptoms became progressively more debilitating while working on his Master of Architecture degree at the University of Kansas. One day, on a job site in nearby Kansas City, things took a dramatic turn for the worse.
“The pain became unbearable and I decided to leave,” Greg remembers. “I was driving down the highway when I felt a pop in my back and my legs went numb on me.”
One of his discs had slipped and hit his spinal cord, leaving Greg without feeling or movement below the waist and requiring emergency surgery. In total, Greg spent six weeks in the hospital recovering from the ordeal and coming to terms with the fact that he would now be navigating the world primarily by wheelchair.
Undaunted, Greg refused to allow his new reality to interfere with his future plans.
“If you ask anyone who knows me, I’m pretty hard-headed in the sense that if I want to get something done, I’m going to do it,” Greg insists. “I’ve had that mentality from the get-go — that this was not going to determine who I was. It was not going to stop me from continuing on my path.”
Despite his optimism, Greg also knew he couldn’t simply return to his apartment and resume classes as if nothing happened.
“It was a whole new world to me. I had already lived 30 years of my life at that point, being able to go wherever and do whatever I wanted,” Greg reflects. “Now I’m having to learn everything again – from walking to using the restroom to getting out of bed – things most people take for granted on a daily basis. That transition was pretty hard.”
So he moved back to St. Louis temporarily to finish out his rehab and spend time with his family. After a year off from school, Greg returned to KU, ultimately completing his master’s program in 2013.
Determined to make a positive impact, Greg embraced every opportunity to advocate for change. As Publicity Chair of AbleHawks and Allies, Greg helped promote disability rights and accessibility on campus. As part of his thesis on wayfinding and signage, Greg evaluated how people with and without disabilities navigate campus, making recommendations to the Architectural Barriers Committee on strategies for creating a more accessible and inclusive university. Greg’s research introduced him to the desperate need for UD in the built environment.
“I was seeing people’s anxiety and frustration at the lack of ramps, curb cuts, useful signage and accessible entrances,” Greg recalls. “My role was to take what I found and give it to the design and construction group on campus, saying look, this is something we can think about a little bit harder and be a little more effective with.”
After graduating and moving back to St. Louis, Greg began encountering his own barriers, mostly of the attitudinal variety. Despite his qualifications, landing that first job proved difficult.
Gina Hilberry, a respected architect, accessibility expert and fellow member of the UDS7 Steering Committee, referred Greg to the Starkloff Disability Institute, where she proudly serves as a board member. Greg enrolled in the Starkloff Career Academy Capstone Course in the spring of 2014, but before he had a chance to complete it, SPACE Architects had already made him an offer.
Greg credits the course with helping him prepare mentally for the employment search.
“Being someone who was especially new to having a disability, I think what the class did for me more than anything was that it instilled the confidence in me to say — I’m just as capable as anyone else in this world,” Greg explains. “I might do things a little differently sometimes, but I can do the job.”
Greg has made tremendous progress physically over the last few years as well. While he still has little sensation below the waist, he’s been able to gradually increase his overall fitness and mobility. The wheelchair from which he directed the hospital expansion now sits in his basement, seldom used and collecting dust. He says the strength and courage of the Ranken Jordan kids helped him see a future where he might walk again.
“A big part of my recovery during 2015 and 2016 was going into Ranken Jordan quite often and seeing the kids making their own strides,” Greg acknowledges. “I was really inspired by this, and it pushed me to transition from using a wheelchair 80 percent of the time to using a walker to eventually only using canes on a daily basis.”