Exhibit Created by Fay Jones School Alumna Brings Awareness to Disabilities and Design

This rendering shows the "Accessible Design Awareness" exhibit that will be installed June 11-15 inside the AD EX building, located at 325 N. St. Paul St., in Dallas. It was designed by interior design alumna Amanda Collen.
Rendering courtesy of Amanda Collen

This rendering shows the "Accessible Design Awareness" exhibit that will be installed June 11-15 inside the AD EX building, located at 325 N. St. Paul St., in Dallas. It was designed by interior design alumna Amanda Collen.

Amanda Collen, an alumna of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, has created a public interactive exhibit to bring awareness to people who live with disabilities — and the ways the built environment often limits their abilities.

The "Accessible Design Awareness" exhibit will be installed June 11-15 inside the Architecture and Design Exchange building, also known as AD EX, located at 325 N. St. Paul St., in Dallas. The building is home to AIA Dallas, a chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Collen also will give a virtual talk about the exhibit at 6 p.m. June 3. The virtual talk is free and open to anyone, and registration is available on the AD EX website.

After graduating with her Bachelor of Interior Design in 2018, Collen went to work as a designer at DLR Group in Dallas. Recently, she's been working on designs for cultural and performing arts projects.

During the pandemic, Collen's workload eased a bit, and she had some extra time. She spent some of that time painting, and then she decided to try for an opportunity that DLR Group offers its 1,200 employees each year. They can apply for a Personal Development Grant to pursue a passion project that doesn't necessarily have to be related to their job or daily work.

The grant translates to $5,000 and 80 hours of company-paid time to work on the project. The proposals require a passion statement, list of peer benefits, deliverables summary, approximate schedule and estimated budget. Some grant recipients have used it to research development software technology or write a children's book about architecture and design.

Collen submitted her application in November and was one of four employees to receive a grant from among a few dozen proposals.

Collen's project is aimed at helping the general public understand the experiences of people who live with disabilities. The built environment is mostly designed for the average, able-bodied person, but often doesn't take into consideration the needs of those whose abilities are in the margins.

And those margins aren't so narrow, Collen said. About 26 percent of people in the United States live with some type of disability. Of those people, 13 percent have mobility-related issues. Not to mention that, as everyone ages, they typically experience diminished abilities — whether with vision, hearing, mobility or a host of other things.

For years, Collen had witnessed her aunt Kim, the wife of her mom's brother, struggle with mobility and interacting in the built environment. Her aunt was in a car accident at 16, which left her a quadriplegic. She has needed to use a motorized wheelchair ever since.

"I want to give a voice to those people who are disabled somehow and just bring more awareness to what's going on," Collen said. "Because a lot of us can just overlook people who have either a disability or a limitation that the built environment doesn't accommodate because we just accommodate the average; we accommodate what fits most people."

From her design school years, Collen recalls a class with a former interior design professor, Nann Miller, who prioritized accessibility in design. For research for a studio project, Collen navigated her daily life for 72 hours in a wheelchair. Collen also worked on a design-build project for a bus stop with architecture professor Frank Jacobus in 2017. Then she went to Maine in the summer of 2018 as part of a design-build project where students selected from around the country designed and built a bathhouse for an island community.

So for her grant project, Collen combined these passions and experiences, and she proposed a design-build project that focuses on increasing awareness about people with disabilities and their experiences navigating the built environment.

For professional designers, she said, it's important that the accessibility aspects are factored in at the beginning of a design — so the final result is more fluid and streamlined — rather than tacking them on at the end as a requirement.

"You can tell when something is an afterthought," she said. "But with good design, it won't be an afterthought."

A basic building entryway can pose many potential complications for someone with limited abilities — such as the weight of the door, the type of door handle, the height of a doorway threshold, the width of the doorway itself, and the access leading up to it, such as steps versus a slope or ramp.

To develop her project, Collen wanted to do more than research through documents and statistics. She wanted to hear people's stories firsthand and discover the complexity of the experiences from the people who have lived them. So she contacted and interviewed 12 people who live with some type of disability, including her aunt.

"After speaking to so many people who live with limitations or a condition, they are capable of doing many things that able-bodied people can do. But they just have to find a different way or a modified way of doing it," she said. "And a lot of them would say that they're not disabled; the built environment is what makes them disabled."

Collen is sharing their stories through her exhibit, writing up short bios and including their thoughts. To provide those she interviewed anonymity, she only uses their first names, and each is identified with a simple silhouette portrait. She names the cause of their disability and uses icons to denote the types of assisted devices they use — wheelchair, walker, cane, etc.

The events that impaired their mobility are varied — including falls, automobile accidents, and stroke. One man was serving in the military in Afghanistan in his early 20s when he fell from a helicopter just a few feet off the ground, but with heavy ammo strapped to his back. He broke both hips and has had reconstructive surgery, and he spent a lot of time on crutches and using a wheelchair. Collen also talked to an architect in Seattle who has a bone disorder, which causes weakness in her bones and makes her dependent on a wheelchair.

Collen also created a YouTube channel to document the project and chronicle her progress. This platform will also allow her to share her project more broadly for greater impact. One video features her interview with her aunt Kim.

For the exhibit, Collen has created five stations that show various design elements and help demonstrate the ways they can impact people with limited mobility. The stations relate to doors, ramps, surface textures, as well as tabletop clearances, workstation shelving, and space needed to navigate in a wheelchair. Visitors can sit in a wheelchair and navigate through the space to experience what that's like.

Alex Nichols, a former schoolmate with his own woodworking company, Black Dog Rustic Customs, is building the stations from her construction drawings. They both will assemble and install the pieces on-site and do the finishing touches, such as painting and hanging signage. Collen has marked the aspects of each station that meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act in blue; those aspects not to ADA code are marked in red.

Collen hopes that people come in and experience the stations from the perspective of "those who are disabled and limited in certain ways, and understand how the built environment disables them further. But also how we as designers or people in the community or society can control that," she said. "It doesn't have to be this difficult for people who are disabled." 


Michelle Parks, director of communications
Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design
479-575-4704, mparks17@uark.edu


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