Over a career spanning four decades, Darlene Davison has shaped the interiors of iconic landmarks and historic homes throughout St. Louis. But don’t call her a decorator.

As Director of the Interior Design program at Maryville University, Darlene uses a tasty analogy to differentiate the role of the interior designer.

“I tell my students they’ve worked far too hard for anyone to call them decorators. Decorators have a valuable place in design as well, but it’s to come in and add finishes, furnishings and art. Interior designers must know about HVAC systems, electrical, lighting, technology, and they can do the decorating side as well,” Darlene explains. “I tell incoming students to think of it like an incredible cake. A decorator can make it look pretty on the outside with icing, colors and writing. But an interior designer can create the recipe for the cake, put the ingredients together, bake the cake and decorate it.”

Darlene graduated from the Faye Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas in 1980 and went to work for Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, better known as HOK. At the time, the architecture profession was still something of a good ol’ boys club, but Darlene has seen this trend begin to reverse itself in recent years.

“When I was in architectural school, about 95 percent of my classmates were male,” Darlene recalls. “Currently, just like with medicine and law, architecture is pretty much split 50-50 between men and women. In fact, it might be tipping in favor of females now with more women in college. So it’s become very much an equal-opportunity profession.”

But for the first 10 years of her career, Darlene’s coworkers were almost exclusively men, first at HOK and later with Stone, Marraccini and Patterson. The male-dominated culture meant that Darlene couldn’t even get maternity leave when she became pregnant with her first child, a fact that ultimately spelled the end of her days of working full-time for a firm.

“At the time, maternity leave was considered a disability, and we had no disability insurance, either,” Darlene recollects. “So I had to use up all my vacation, all my sick time – whatever I had saved up, until it was time to have the baby. “They did want me to come back, but I just couldn’t. I just loved being home with my son.”

Two more children followed in quick succession, and Interior Design began to take a back seat to teaching, preschool and wrangling troops of Brownies and Cub Scouts. Darlene still found time to keep her design skills sharp, however. Together with her husband, himself an architect, she renovated historic homes, remodeling bathrooms and kitchens while doing the occasional small addition.

One day in 1996, a former coworker at HOK who also taught at Maryville asked Darlene to sit in and give a critique of the class. The Program Director at the time was so impressed with Darlene’s knowledge and evaluation skills that he offered her an opportunity to become an adjunct professor. Darlene declined, but the Director was persistent, and in 1999 Darlene began teaching in the Interior Design program at Maryville.

“I’m very fortunate that he stuck with me because for three years he would call and ask if I was ready to teach yet, and I kept saying I really wasn’t,” Darlene acknowledges. “But once my youngest daughter went to kindergarten, I said, ‘Well, if I can teach and be home by 3:00 p.m., then I’ll teach,’ and so I was an adjunct for many years.”

Darlene eventually received an offer to go back to work as a full-time Interior Designer, but after careful consideration she turned it down, not wanting the long hours to take her away from her young family. Career advancement was still in the cards, however. An unexpected vacancy in the interior design department at Maryville led to Darlene being named Interim Director in 2007, a position that soon became permanent. While she never would have predicted such a turn of events, Darlene was grateful for the professional change of pace.

“It wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do back then, but I definitely have enjoyed it and I’ve been there as Director for a long time now,” Darlene acknowledges. “I tell my students that I’m on my third career, and I think many of us will have more than one career in our lives. It’s important to understand, and for me, it was a really good move.”

Darlene, who now serves on the Universal Design Summit 7 Steering Committee, first met Colleen Starkloff when she taught her own class at Maryville. She says Colleen is the ideal person to lead such a movement.

“Colleen is just such an amazing advocate for the Americans with Disabilities Act and Universal Design. She never stops advocating,” Darlene marvels. “She is just a passionate person, and she wants everyone to know and understand what Universal Design is. I wish she could still teach her class at Maryville, but she’s a busy woman.”

While attending a Universal Design Summit several years ago, Darlene was part of a group that toured 6 North, a universally designed apartment complex in the Central West End. Seeing these inclusive principles implemented in such a powerful way left a lasting impression.

”My real interest in Universal Design and my understanding of its importance really stemmed from my visit to 6 North. They did so many great things with that facility,” Darlene reflects. “I just remember being struck by the amount of knowledge I gained by going to this conference, all these things I hadn’t really thought about or considered before. Everyone knows what the ADA is, but I’ve learned that simply making things accessible is a minimum requirement. We can always do more, and a lot of Universal Design is just that — doing more. It’s just smart design.”

For Clancy Olsen, member of the Universal Design Summit 7 (UDS7) Steering Committee, a profound experience as an undergrad set the stage for a promising career in architecture.

Gina Hilberry, for whom he now works for at Cohen Hilberry Architects, taught one of his classes at Washington University in St. Louis (Wash U). A UDS7 Steering Committee member and key presenter at numerous summits past, Prof. Hilberry challenged her students in a unique way.

“In one of our first classes, she had us get up, get away from our desks and walk around the campus. She quizzed us on what we thought worked well and didn’t work well from an accessibility standpoint,” Clancy recalls. “Instantly, I started thinking about things differently. I began noticing things like the steps leading up to the front doors of the building, the doors themselves outdated and probably weighing 20 pounds. She encouraged a new, more creative approach to thinking about design.”

After completing his Bachelor of Architectural Technology degree in 2008, Clancy went to work as an intern architect with Arcturis, a larger firm where he learned a great deal but didn’t get the amount of hands-on experience with the senior-level projects he truly desired.

An ongoing recession eventually cost many people their jobs at Arcturis, including Clancy. But it wasn’t long before his former Wash U professor came to him with an offer. Clancy’s been with Cohen Hilberry ever since, starting out as a project manager/designer and eventually advancing to his current position as Senior Project Architect.

He couldn’t reach that pinnacle, though, until he earned a Master’s in Architecture from an accredited graduate program and passed the necessary licensing exams. In need of a nontraditional classroom solution, Clancy chose Boston Architectural College, which offers a hybrid curriculum blending distance learning with intensive, in-person training. After seven grueling semesters, Clancy finally attained his degree and license in 2016, a road that was difficult but also exhilarating.

“The first two weeks you do from home, and they kind of lay the foundation of the project you’ll be working on. Then, you go to Boston and it’s 10 days of being in the studio, boots on the ground — very hard work,” Clancy describes. “You eventually present your project to a jury and they give you feedback. You then take your project back to St. Louis and finish the semester.”

And so the routine went for Clancy, all while juggling his responsibilities at Cohen Hilberry. He credits this balancing act with instilling the discipline and focus he now draws upon as a professional.

“It’s hard to be a full-time student while you’re also working full-time. When you’re dealing with the pressure of taking your licensing exams, it can make for a pretty rigorous schedule,” Clancy admits. “But I think having that experience of working in the office while remaining diligent about my schooling has really set me up for being successful.”

Cohen Hilberry prioritizes Universal Design in all of its projects, and Clancy enjoys the challenge of using inclusive design elements to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives. His favorite example of this is Cohen Hilberry’s work on Garfield Commons, a 2015 renovation project that transformed a crumbling school in Benton Park West into permanent housing units for 25 St. Louisans experiencing homelessness. The undertaking involved more than the restoration of a decaying structure; it meant the creation of a residential environment that would be safe and inviting for people traumatized by life on the street.

“When you think about a population of homeless individuals, there’s a lot of different circumstances to consider,” Clancy acknowledges. “There’s people with substance abuse problems, malnutrition, disabilities and physical ailments, and the space must be responsive to all of their needs.”

In addition to furnishing shelter and resources for some of the most vulnerable in St. Louis, Clancy says people with ties to the old Garfield Elementary School are grateful it’s been resurrected in such an impactful manner.

“In the Benton Park neighborhood, just keeping that school building intact really preserved the integrity of that entire block,” Clancy reflects. “I think it’s important to preserve the fabric of a community and create a long-lasting legacy.”

For someone who has attended Universal Design summits in the past, first as a Wash U student and most recently as a presenter, an opportunity to serve on the UDS7 Steering Committee was impossible to pass up. A lot goes into planning such a momentous event, and he promises three days of the latest innovations and valuable insights from the foremost authorities in Universal Design.

“It’s been cool getting to work on the organizational side of the event. There will be a virtual component of this year’s conference but hopefully an in-person component as well,” Clancy explains. “As always, there will be an interesting collection of presenters and vendors. And we’re trying to secure a tour of the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station, which I’m also really looking forward to.”

For digital accessibility expert November Champion, the simple willingness to say YES when others would not, transformed a job into a purpose-driven mission, both personal and professional in nature.

At the time, November worked in product development for Tomson Reuters in Minneapolis. The company was about to roll out WestlawNext, its latest online research platform for attorneys and paralegals.

But first, the product had to be updated to meet accessibility standards set forth by Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. Viewed by many as tedious and burdensome red tape, no one was up to the task – no one except November.

“Back then, the way you made a name for yourself in my department was to take a project no one else wanted,” November remembers. “It was a federal contract, so these accessibility changes needed to be made before we could even do the RFP [Request for Proposal]. That was a chore no one wanted, but it sounded interesting, and I like to learn, so I gladly took it on.”

When it came time for beta testing of WestlawNext, Tomson Reuters sent November on a two-week, multi-city tour of law firms, conducting in-person observations of how attorneys with disabilities interact  with the product. The experience had a swift and profound impact on the course of November’s career.

“The first session I did was with a blind attorney in a pretty small law office,” November recounts. “So we’re wrapping up, just shooting some B-roll [supplemental or alternative footage intercut with the main shot] of her walking through the office with her guide dog. We asked if there was anything she wanted to tell our developers back home.

“She said, ‘I want to thank you for doing this work because I wouldn’t be able to have a job otherwise. My firm couldn’t afford to have a reader for me 24-7, so without access to this online platform, I wouldn’t be able to work.’ That completely shifted my motivation and focus to the importance of digital accessibility.”

November clerked at various firms herself as she made her way through law school at St. Louis University, picking up what was then a part-time Account Representative gig with Thomson Reuters along the way. But as graduation approached in 2002, she no longer viewed the legal profession as a good fit. When a full-time opportunity opened up at Thomson Reuters, she didn’t hesitate to pounce on it.

“During law school, I began to discover that I’m not the type of person who can just leave work at work,” November acknowledges. “So the Thomson Reuters job was perfect timing because I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life at that point.”

As it turned out, digital accessibility became her professional focus. She served in a number of capacities over an 11-year stint at Thomson Reuters, eventually relocating to the home office in Minneapolis where she worked as a Product Developer and User Experience engineer — evaluating, designing and implementing accessibility protocols for WestlawNext and related products within the legal and educational space.

In 2013, November returned to St. Louis to take an online accessibility strategist position with a large financial institution. Here, her first task was to drive a cultural shift within the organization, encouraging colleagues to prioritize accessibility throughout the entire development process rather than relegating it to afterthought status — a regulatory box that must be checked at the end of the project with little consideration given.

Although November’s job title has changed a time or two, inclusive design in the digital space remains her primary focus. After streamlining existing protocols for product development and quality assurance, November introduced a comprehensive accessibility program to be implemented across the entire enterprise.

Accessibility isn’t just a nine-to-five job for November, either. She’s also a founding member of a11ySTL, a networking group for people interested in inclusive design in the digital realm. She hopes a11ySTL will create more accessibility advocates, even if they have to be a little sneaky about it.

“There are plenty of Digital Accessibility experts in places like San Francisco; Seattle; Washington, DC; and all throughout the government, but in St. Louis we don’t really have as many people with this type of experience,” November observes. “There are a lot of people interested in learning, though, and I hope this can be an avenue to educating them so they can implement some of these best practices in their own jobs, covertly if necessary.”

Because inclusive design is just as crucial in the built environment as it is in the digital space, November recently became a member of the Universal Design Summit 7 Steering Committee. While building a house and building a website require very different skillsets, she’s become increasingly aware of the overlap.

“People in my field think of Universal Design from a digital perspective. It’s all about user-experience design and being inclusive, but I hadn’t really thought about the similarities,” November admits. “The more I’m involved in this committee and planning for the Summit next year, the more commonalities I’m seeing between the work we do in the digital space and the work that gets done in the building space.”

Remodeling a house so that it is equally accessible and attractive to everyone requires a significant investment of time and money, but as November points out, a website can be made more inclusive with a few simple keystrokes.

“The issue that comes up most frequently has to do with color contrast. For instance, designers like to use light gray text on a white background, which is impossible for many people to read,” November explains. “It’s the easiest thing; it doesn’t cost anything extra to fix. It’s often just one tiny, six-digit piece of code that needs to be changed, but it’s one that can have the biggest impact.”

Universal Design goes way beyond meeting minimum standards for accessibility; it creates spaces that are equally usable and welcoming for everyone to the greatest extent possible. Admittedly, it’s a big job, and November implores architects of all kinds to remember who they’re doing the work for.

“Design is about people, whether it’s in the physical space or the digital realm,” November concludes. “If you don’t include people with disabilities in your usability studies, then you’ll come up with something that technically complies with the law but doesn’t offer a good user experience.”

Kids who demonstrate an innate understanding of geometry, sketching precise blueprints and building elaborate structures from LEGO are often the ones nudged toward careers in architecture and design by the adults around them. After his father took him to visit Tom Hall, a prominent architect in Chesterfield, nine-year-old Marcus Adrian needed no further encouragement.

“He lived in one of these split-level, zany, crazy homes — like no other home I’d ever seen. He took us through it, and we ended up in his studio,” Marcus recalls. “He had this awesome desk with really cool studio lights shining down on it. And right next to his elbow is this wall full of cool, expensive-looking markers. He starts drawing on tracing paper, talking as he’s drawing, and I was mesmerized. The die was cast at that point; I was going to be an architect.”

That eager nine year old eventually blossomed into a talented high school senior with an impressive design portfolio, having just whittled his college choices down to two: Washington University in St. Louis  or Notre Dame.

As a finalist for the coveted James W. Fitzgibbon Scholarship in Architecture, Marcus stood a good chance of getting his undergraduate work paid for if he chose Wash U. On the other hand, who wouldn’t be seduced by the prestige and tradition of Notre Dame?

Initially runner-up for the Fitzgibbon, Marcus became eligible for the full-ride scholarship when the top contestant ultimately turned it down. So would he stay close to home and go to school for free, or would he surrender to the allure of South Bend? Wash U Admissions gave him four days to decide.

After his parents assured him his decision would not bankrupt the family for years to come, Marcus finally reached a conclusion.

“There’re about 100 architecture schools that send kids abroad. Of those, there’re about 50 programs that send students to Rome or Florence, Italy, but there’s only one program that sends an entire class to Rome for a full year, and that’s Notre Dame,” Marcus declares. “The fact that I would be spending my entire junior year living and studying architecture in Rome made the decision for me.”

Marcus made the most of his time in Italy, excelling through the architecture program at Notre Dame. But he wasn’t immune to the pressures of graduating into an economic recession.

“In addition to finishing up my classes, I’m putting out these resumes. Just imagine, it’s 2:00 in the morning and I’m in the computer lab, feeding envelopes into this laser printer, typing the names and addresses of all these different firms and putting stamps on them,” Marcus recounts. “I went to stuff the envelopes and I realized there’s this one for Mackey Mitchell Architects that I must have fed into the printer wrong because the address was upside down. I just tossed it in the trash and didn’t apply.”

From the 90 resumes he did send, Marcus was only granted four interviews. Although his first couple of jobs out of school weren’t exactly what he had in mind, fate soon intervened in a substantial way.

After responding to a job announcement in the newspaper, Marcus was hired by Mackey Mitchell Architects in 1997, the same Mackey Mitchell that didn’t receive his resume three years before due to a printing mishap in the wee hours of the morning.

The irony and improbability of the situation are not lost on Marcus.

“At the time, Mackey Mitchell wasn’t in the habit of hiring kids straight out of college, so it probably wouldn’t have mattered, but it’s just interesting that their application is the one I ended up throwing away,” Marcus acknowledges. “Typically, Mackey Mitchell does its recruiting through word of mouth, so the fact that I just happened to see that ad in the paper is unusual in and of itself.”

Marcus, who currently serves on the Universal Design Summit 7 (UDS7) Steering Committee, would eventually emerge as an influential voice in communication access and the design of learning spaces. Like many young professionals in his field, however, he initially dreamed of designing sports venues, marvels of engineering that are instantly recognizable and become cultural icons over time.

“A certain kind of young architect, especially the type of young architect who would be drawn to a place like Notre Dame, is going to be fascinated by stadiums because they’re so big, they’re so flashy, everyone talks about them,” Marcus explains. “When a new one is built, it’s featured in all the magazines, not just the architectural ones. They’re exciting projects, and you always want to be involved in exciting work.”

One such project landed on Marcus’s desk when Mackey Mitchell collaborated with a firm from Denver to design Chaifetz Arena, a 10,600-seat venue on the campus of St. Louis University. Completed in 2008, Chaifetz Arena is home to SLU basketball and volleyball as well as a variety of concerts and community events throughout the year.

As challenging and rewarding as Marcus found this work, he didn’t discover his true passion until he began designing schools, specifically schools for the deaf. During a project at the Central Institute for the Deaf, an environment where students are expected to use spoken English rather than American Sign Language, Marcus implemented strategies for eliminating background noise and creating the quietest classroom setting possible.

Subsequent assignments also took him to schools for the deaf in Maryland and Delaware, places where ASL served as the primary mode of communication. In these environments, students required an unimpeded view of the teacher’s facial expressions and hand gestures to fully digest the lesson material, so the classroom had to be engineered to facilitate visual rather than auditory learning. Marcus became immersed in design elements like window placement and light distribution, factors that could disrupt visual learning if not carefully considered.

These early experiences inspired Marcus to dedicate years of his career to the design of learning spaces, incorporating principles of Universal Design to level the playing field for students across all ranks. As Marcus has explained at various national and international conferences, signal is the information or educational material being shared by the teacher, while noise refers to any type of interference that prevents students from receiving it.

“The design of any classroom presents thousands of decisions, whether it’s furniture, lighting, mechanical systems, windows or the space itself,” Marcus explains. “If you can make as many of those decisions as possible with respect to amplifying signal and eliminating noise, then you’re shaping the communication that goes on in that classroom.”

In situations where the signal, or communication can’t be accessed by everyone, whether it’s a classroom or any other setting within the built environment, Marcus is adamant that limitations of design are usually to blame, not limitations among people. All the same, he is encouraged by rapid improvement in this area, largely fueled by advancing technology and increased awareness.

“What I think is fundamentally true and beautiful about 21st-century America is that we have thought more purposefully and aimed more legislation and design attention at inclusion across all levels of human ability than anyone who’s come before us,” Marcus proclaims. “As a society, we’ve examined that more thoroughly than anyone, and we’re only getting started.”

The growing momentum behind Universal Design is further evidence of this progressive spirit. Marcus sees UDS7, taking place May 12-14, 2021, as more than an opportunity for professional development. It represents the shifting paradigm that a truly inclusive society depends on.

“This conference fosters a level of intellectual fascination that really brings these problems and solutions to life through creativity and collaboration,” Marcus concludes. “So it’s more than a set of minimums we’re trying to improve upon. It becomes a philosophy we’re cultivating as a community.”


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.”


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.”

Jim de Jong didn’t see the oncoming jeep until it crested the hill right in front of him. By then, it was far too late.

The impact sent him airborne before violently depositing him on the pavement, snapping his femur and breaking nine ribs. Worst of all, Jim’s spine was fractured in two places, meaning the former college baseball player would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

While the initial shock was overwhelming, Jim expresses gratitude for a support system that helped him see his new reality in an optimistic light.

“I woke up to a whole new world with all new challenges, but I was fortunate that I had a whole lot of great people around me at that time,” Jim reflects. “I give so much credit to the medical community first of all. They didn’t just operate from a medical mindset; they operated from a desire to make me as independent as possible.”

After six grueling months in the rehabilitation hospital, Jim was finally released. He refused to go to the nursing home like so many other people with spinal cord injuries were forced to at the time. Instead, Jim’s friends helped him convert a standard apartment into an accessible living space, one that afforded the comfort and freedom of movement he desired.

The physical and attitudinal barriers Jim inevitably encountered in his daily life only intensified his quest for equality, and disability rights quickly became his calling. As a resident of Chicago, Jim was mentored by one of the most knowledgeable and dynamic leaders on the disability landscape.

Marca Bristo, a former nurse who became paralyzed at age 23 after diving into Lake Michigan and breaking her neck, emerged as an unstoppable force for change. She went on to establish Access Living in Chicago and create a template for other Independent Living Centers across the nation.

“Working directly with Marca, who unfortunately is no longer with us, and the rest of the staff at Access Living enlightened me more than I could ever fully explain,” Jim acknowledges. “Anything more than a five-inch curb and you might as well have put up a ‘Keep Out’ sign for me, but I learned to broaden my perspective and always advocate beyond myself.”

Jim continued serving in advocacy positions throughout the 1980s, first with the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation Services and later for the Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities. He worked alongside Marca Bristo in the United States Congressional Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of People with Disabilities, drafting and amending the proposed legislation that would eventually become the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Jim’s involvement in getting the ADA passed propelled him to a new opportunity with the Great Plains ADA Center at the University of Missouri in Columbia, where he became the organization’s first executive director. In this role, Jim oversaw the creation of the National ADA Symposium, the nation’s premiere conference focusing on ADA training and implementation.

“My dream with the National ADA Symposium was to bring people of all kinds together — people with disabilities, architects, engineers and policymakers all in one place so they could hopefully learn from one another, not only in the classroom but over their favorite beverage as well,” Jim describes. “I think we have a similar opportunity to interact and share experiences through the Universal Design Summit.”

Held annually in St. Louis, the Universal Design Summit is North America’s preeminent convention featuring global leaders in universal design. Architects, designers, engineers, realtors and web developers gather to learn about building physical and digital communities that are truly inclusive for everyone.

A member of the UDS 7 Steering Committee, Jim sees the upcoming event (May 12-14, 2021) as an opportunity for meaningful progress. “My hope is that the UD Summit will bring together a variety of people from diverse backgrounds — people with different types of disabilities as well as product manufacturers, engineers and policy makers — so we can start creating a more welcoming, universally accessible community for all,” Jim explains.

In his decades of advocating for disability rights, Jim has seen some significant improvements in terms of accessibility and universal design. He knows from firsthand experience that there’s a long way to go, however. Jim points to the lodging industry as an example of both the good and bad.

“I can park in an accessible spot and there’s a clear path to get inside the hotel. I can check in, go to the restaurant, to the bar, to the swimming pool,” Jim recounts. “I can get in my room, and the bathroom’s accessible with a roll-in shower. But when it’s time for bed, I can’t get in there; the beds are always too high.”

According to Jim, design flaws like this can be remedied through modern technology. But it’s often a dismissive attitude that stands in the way.

“We’ve been to the moon and back, regardless of what the conspiracy-oriented people might think, so I don’t understand why we can’t have an adjustable-height bed,” Jim laments. “It reminds me of when the Chicago Transit Authority told us they couldn’t put lifts on the buses because the hydraulics would freeze in winter. Yet, I would go to the airport and see all kinds of hydraulics working right through all the horrible snow they talked about.”

The common desire to challenge the status quo is what makes events like UDS 7 successful, and Jim expects an enthusiastic turnout in 2021.

“We’ve all experienced a certain level of intolerance or ignorance, but there’s something in our makeup that drives us to change that way of thinking. We’re going to persevere until people realize there’s a better way to build the world,” Jim concludes. “It’s important to remember that we all live on this planet together, so civility needs to be a Universal Design concept.”