DFA’s 7th annual Leadership Studio brought 106 student leaders from 33 different universities together with experts in social design, community members, mentors, and DFAlumni. DFA National has spent the summer learning from the Chicago accessibility community, and #DFALS17 was the perfect opportunity for students from across the country to work together to consider a more accessible world.

DFAers kicked off the two-day design sprint challenge asking: “How can we expand accessibility in urban areas?” Experts from the Chicago Lyric Opera, Kostas Z Foundation, and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab uncovered three key issues to explore: accessible transportation to resources and opportunities, increased ability to participate in what makes cities vibrant, and greater independence overall.

Gus Zografopoulos, founder of Kostas Z Foundation and Open Doors Organization Advisor, encourages students to build awareness of best accessibility practices, while considering the full user experience of those with disabilities.

Michael Grice of Access Living shared, “we want to be designers–but we don’t have the opportunity” and applauded DFAers for taking part in this topic. Individuals living with a disability, urban planners, and leaders from cultural organizations met one-on-one with teams to share their personal stories related to access. DFAers got the chance to dig deeper and empathize with these individuals who have faced many accessibility challenges in Chicago’s urban environment. DFA teams kept words like Michael’s in mind as they worked to co-design concepts and improve the experiences of those with disabilities.


Teams sit down with community members to swap stories about their daily lives and learn from their experiences with accessibility.

Teams brainstormed hundreds of ideas that turned into physical prototypes by Saturday morning. In a session led by Dawna Leggett of Design Impact, teams learned the importance of prototyping with communities, practicing cultural humility and anticipating that the community could change the framework of their ideas. This session set the scene for teams to begin rapid prototyping to bring their ideas to life.

“A recurring lesson learned in working with such complex lived experiences is placing greater importance [on] incorporating community members in all steps of design,” says Riya Shah, of DFA UIUC.

A team synthesizes learnings from user research and plans out measures of success before brainstorming.

Joachim Vaturi (DFA WashU) and Jasmine Lee (DFA Case Western) build prototypes of gap fillers to make the El trains accessible for wheelchair users.

Julian Gregory (DFA U Cincinnati) sketches out wireframes of his teams app prototype.

Testing out low-fidelity prototypes with community members provided learnings, pivots, and major changes to some teams’ ideas based on the feedback they received. A crucial moment in the design process, testing allowed teams to identify whether or not the prototypes they created would be useful or relevant to those with disabilities. After making iterations, each team then presented final concepts to local designers, professionals and community members at a Project Expo.

Students used their cell phones to test out a vibrating cane prototype.

Below are some of the ideas created:

People with physical disabilities can often experience difficulty in reaching the things they need in grocery stores. Vertishelf is a simple re-organization system to ensure that products are available on all shelves, so people of all abilities, shapes, and sizes can reach what they need without having to seek assistance.

Mobile Markets is an accessible mobile farmers market that addresses accessibility issues faced when shopping for healthy food options. Food is at a convenient level for wheelchair users, and braille labels and ASL translators are available to accommodate customers.

“Our outdoor market is on cobblestoned streets. My back is still hurting from Sunday at the market. So tell them their idea should fly!” – Ayo Maat, IMPRUVE

In working with a variety of people with disabilities, the Airbus team continued to hear the same story over and over again: able-bodied individuals often misuse public transit seating intended for those with disabilities. People either don’t know the rules, or refuse to follow them. Their concept would allow only passengers with accessibility tickets (similar to accessible parking passes) to access seats with inflatable coverings, guaranteeing a safe place to sit no matter what.


Daniel Rashid (DFA Notre Dame) noted after the event, “Leadership Studio changed the way I think about transportation and accessibility.” DFALS17 brought together the Chicago accessibility community and inspired DFAers to design with access in mind as they return to their studios.

DFA is grateful to the many partners and community members who graciously spread their knowledge about access with the DFA Network. Two DFA Summer Studio project teams worked with Open Doors Organization to address accessibility challenges in airports for wheelchair users and autistic adults. Learn more about their concepts here! We can’t wait to see other DFA projects and innovations come out of this challenge throughout the school year.