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Design & Disability Instruction

This graphic depicts text with an architectural roof-like form which contains Design & Disability Instruction. It visually shows its relation to the CDS-UA project logo by using the roof component of the CDS-UA logo, which has a city skyline interacting with a non-urban building.

R2D2 students

The R2D2 Center in collaboration with the occupational therapy department of UW-Milwaukee has identified and emphasized the need for professionals in a variety of fields to understand the issues and methodologies for environment, information and product design in consideration for people with disabilities. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Department of Occupational Therapy, Design and Disability courses have been held as a combined undergraduate and graduate interdisciplinary course as well as an option for students to complete as an independent study. Each time the course content is slightly different to accommodate for the changing views and policies revolving around design and disability topics.

This area of activity in the R2D2 Center upholds an instructional emphasis around assistive technology and universal design in collaboration with UWM's occupational therapy department. Together, we have played a key part in federal demonstrations, Community Design Solutions (formerly Milwaukee Idea's Campus Design Solutions), occupational therapy professional training, and the Assistive Technology and Accessible Design (ATAD) certificate based in the Occupational Therapy Department of the UWM College of Health Sciences.

Design and Disability instruction is provided in two major ways:

  1. Support of the Occupational Therapy Department, and
  2. Experiential work in lab

Support of the OT Department

Teaching Courses

Design and Disability instruction is provided through the Department of Occupational Therapy., for e.g., the Design and Disability course (OccThpy 625). In the semester of Fall 2008, there were 14 students enrolled with nine undergraduate students in Architecture, one Ph.D. student in Exceptional Education, two Master's students in Occupational Therapy and two Ph.D. students in Engineering. The course provides students with an understanding of the scope of the field of assistive technology and disability design, the legal issues related to measurement of accessibility and universal design, and specific strategies to design products and environments for individuals with disabilities. It helps students relate disability to various design issues and to go into the workforce with the necessary skills to promote designing for individuals with disabilities. Students complete multiple small projects related to measuring various aspects of their environment such as homes, medical devices, elevators, computer kiosks and educational components including presentations, equivalent texts, and syllabi. They also complete a larger semester-long project which involves extensive evaluation, needs analysis, and redesign of an environmental feature or a product to make it universally designed. These projects are then advertised to companies or associations to implement the redesigns in the real environment. In past years projects created in the Design and Disability course have been presented nationally and internationally as part of student design competitions such as the design project of a universally accessible weight scale presented at the RESNA 28th International Conference on Technology and Disability: Research, Design, Practice and Policy, Atlanta, GA by Mendonca, R., Brochtrup, B., Lauer, A., Lukic, A. in 2005.

Past Independent Studies

Independent studies in Design and Disability are supported through the occupational therapy department. An example is the 'Home Design and Repair Seminar' which is a project started by student of an independent study in Fall 2006. The project included three advanced graduate students who evaluated the homes of seniors to assess for accessibility and safety. This seminar started preparing a comprehensive list of assessments related to home and building accessibility. A search was conducted of all home assessments, checklists, tip sheets, databases, and webpages to create an assessment resource. This list has been subsequently updated and used in a number of different projects.

The independent study included a specialty home visit component in the Milwaukee area that claim to be accessible and/or follow the principles of universal design. The three visits included the Badger Association for the Blind, the Milwaukee Idea Home, and the Watertower View apartments. The Badger Association for the Blind is a multipurpose facility that is specifically tailored to the blind and low vision population including an onsite accessible apartment complex. The Milwaukee Idea Home is a single family, fully wheelchair accessible home that was built based on a variety of different principles, including those of universal design. The Watertower View Apartments is an apartment complex that is specifically accessible to those who are deaf and hard of hearing, for e.g., an open concept floor plan so individuals can rely more heavily on their sight and darker colored walls to make viewing sign language easier. A comparative spreadsheet (XLS) of the three specialty homes was created and is attached.

ATAD (Assistive Technology and Accessible Design) Certificate

The ATAD (Assistive Technology and Accessible Design) certificate is a new interdisciplinary program offered to students and professionals from many different areas of study. It is a collaborative certificate between exceptional education, communication sciences and disorders, and occupational therapy. It provides students with theoretical and practical backgrounds in assistive technology and prepares them to work in the field of assistive technology.

Support of the ATUA (Assistive Technology and Universal Access) Lab

The R2D2 center helps to support the ATUA (Assistive Technology and Universal Access) laboratory which is used in the occupational therapy curriculum. The OccThpy 620 course which is an introductory course to assistive technology is partially taught in the ATUA lab. The course provides students with hands-on experience with a variety of low-tech and high-tech assistive technology.

Experiential Work in the Lab

The R2D2 center is involved in a number of different research projects in universal design and accessibility such as the ACCESS-ed and UD ITEACH Projects (universal design in education), the AMI-R3/MED-AUDIT Project (universal design for medical devices), and the Senior Home Assessment and Repair Project (assessment and implementation of increased accessibility in the homes of seniors).

Undergraduate Student Research

The R2D2 center employs undergraduate students in the above mentioned federally funded accessible design research projects. For example in Fall 2007, four occupational therapy, one graphic design and one engineering students were employed at the center. The employment provides them with an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with a variety of design issues and to engage in laboratory work.

Graduate Student Research

The R2D2 center employs graduate students through federally funded projects. For example in Fall 2007, the center employed five graduate students. All five students are completing master's thesis and research on a variety of projects related to accessible and universal design. The center also conducts monthly graduate research seminars during which an exchange of ideas takes place. Researchers in the field are invited to join the seminar and provide their expertise.

Design and Disability instruction through the Occupational Therapy Department supported by the R2D2 center has provided students from a number of different fields with a unique perspective on designing for individuals with disability. Students themselves bring their knowledge and expertise in different areas and this increases the depth of information sharing.

Most of the students at the R2D2 center, undergraduate and graduate, present at national and international conferences for increased exposure.

R2D2 Student Publications and Presentations 1996 to 2009.

Project Team

  • Roger O. Smith, Ph.D., OT, FAOTA
  • Rochelle Mendonca, M.S., OT
  • Aura Hirschman, M.S., C.R.C.
  • Melissa Lemke, M.S.
  • Sandy Ceranski, OTR


  • ATUA Lab
  • OT Department at UW-Milwaukee