Colleen and Max Starkloff
Life Equally Accessed
The Universal Design Summit is an educational program and conference that aims to promote the proliferation of Universal Design principles in public places, housing, and digital spaces.
Universal Design Summit educates architects, planners, housing developers, interior designers, builders, home remodelers, occupational therapists, housing advocates and nonprofit housing organizations on the importance, use and benefits of Universal Design. The understanding and proliferation of Universal Design by these professionals helps ensure that people of all ages and abilities have access to good quality, affordable homes, as well as making public spaces usable for the whole community.
As energetic leaders eager to drive positive change, Max and Colleen Starkloff had the privilege of collaborating with many of the most passionate, innovative advocates on the disability rights landscape. One of these early pioneers for equity was Ron Mace, architect of the building concept we now know as universal design (UD).
Heavily involved in advocating for accessible housing, the Starkloffs quickly forged a friendship with Ron. But as they spent more time together, Colleen began to realize that Ron’s vision extended far beyond minimum standards of accessibility.
One night Max and I were out to dinner with Ron. I said, “We’ve been working toward accessible housing for years, and here you’re talking about something completely new. What’s going on?” “Colleen, we have to strive for integration,” Ron replied. “If we continue to push straight accessibility, we’ll continue to segregate ourselves. The design will just be associated with the negative stereotype of disability, and the house won’t be desirable to someone without a disability.”
Ron Mace imagined a design philosophy whereby the built environment and every product in it could be used, accessed, and understood by everyone to the greatest extent possible, regardless of age, size, ability or disability. Although he coined the phrase “universal design” back in 1984, its seven principles weren’t established until 1997. While UD gained some traction during that time, it still existed on the fringes, going beyond basic ADA compliance to push for buildings and products that would be attractive and practical for everyone.
As a former physical therapist in a nursing home now fully immersed in the world of disability rights and access, Colleen recognized firsthand the growing desire for an approach that satisfied more than minimum requirements. But how would a revolutionary concept like UD make its way into the mainstream public consciousness?
Many emerging philosophies and disciplines gain measures of legitimacy through regularly occurring conferences or conventions. To Colleen, the idea of bringing architects, interior designers, occupational therapists and disability advocates together in St. Louis for North America’s premiere conference on universal design seemed like the obvious course of action.
Of course, putting together such an event would be no small feat, particularly in the beginning. Securing an event space, equipment rental, catering, transportation, printing of session materials and promotional brochures – without a large corporate or foundation sponsor, the expenses quickly added up.
Maryville University provided the venue for Universal Design Summit 1, with a substantial portion of the underwriting contributed by Paraquad and the Center for Universal Design in North Carolina. Beyond the constraints of a tight budget, the fresh, unconventional nature of UD made attracting presenters and exhibiters difficult, but Colleen ultimately succeeded in assembling a panel of knowledgeable experts.
Among the presenters for the inaugural summit, held in March of 2002, were Richard Duncan, Sally Haile and Leslie Young, each from the Center for Universal Design. Other key presenters included Gina Hilberry of Cohen Hilberry Architects, Ann Marie Kinerk, Chief Architect at the Missouri Housing Development Commission (MHDC), as well as Paul Levy and Eddie Tapper from the Universal Design Network in Kansas City. A regulatory panel also included representatives from the Fair Housing Office at HUD, MHDC, St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis. Over the course of three days, approximately 200 attendees participated in various breakout sessions, problem-solving activities and design charrettes, as well as visits to local examples of properly executed universal design.
Richard Duncan, who participated in at least three subsequent UD summits, watched as the event grew larger and more robust in the years that followed. In his mind, Colleen was always the catalyst, bringing people together to build North America’s preeminent conference on universal design.
“She was the one who had connections throughout the entire community to make a lot of this stuff happen,” Richard acknowledges. “That’s why she’s really the godmother of the universal design summit.”