U of A researcher uses smart design to empower people with disabilities

Megan Strickfaden recognized for looking at how small details of design can make a big difference for people with physical and mental challenges.


Megan Strickfaden has spent 30 years using smart design to improve quality of life for people with disabilities. "I believe design can change people's lives in the very small details of life ... cooking a meal or getting to work, what we do every day and take for granted," she said. (Photo: Richard Siemens)

The word "design" brings up images of fashionable clothes or sleek cars. To Megan Strickfaden, it's about much simpler things, like ironing a shirt or being able to reach a top shelf.

As a design anthropologist, researcher and professor, Strickfaden has spent 30 years-the last 10 of them at the University of Alberta-using smart design to empower people with disabilities.

"I believe design can change people's lives in the very small details of life; that's what makes up our lives, cooking a meal or getting to work, what we do every day and take for granted."

Indeed, Strickfaden has devoted her career at looking for ways design can make life simpler for those with challenges like blindness, dementia and physical limitations. Based on her own experience growing up with family members with disabilities, she understood early on the importance of finding solutions.

"A person without a disability can use a product and feel very disabled by it-it could be a computer program or a vehicle that's not working or even something as simple as sorting out how to use a can opener. So when considering people who are vulnerable or different in some way, design has the potential to make or break the things they want to do in life and to me that's crucial when you look at the different abilities people have and how they engage with the world."

For her dedication to meaningful design, Strickfaden is receiving the 2019 Community Scholar Award, as part of the U of A Community Connections Awards. The award recognizes tenure track faculty, sessional instructors or lecturers who have demonstrated exceptional commitment to community research and scholarship by sharing and translating their area of expertise for the betterment of the community.

Lifelong passion

The idea of problem-solving through the art of design took hold early in her life.

"I was always a tinkerer. I remember taking apart clocks in the house to see how they worked and putting them back together. The idea of making stuff was important to me," said Strickfaden.

Years later as a U of A scholar, it led her to tackle bigger, more complex social problems through projects like making educational films about the importance of beloved objects to people with dementia.

"I started to think in terms of environments as ecosystems to understand all the things that could be happening in a care home and addressing design barriers, nuancing those barriers to ease people's lives.

"I get really fired up about the small problems and the bigger problems and how people are transformed through simple design-based solutions."

She's also consulted on designs for long-term care homes and age-friendly communities in Alberta and worked with non-profit agencies like the CNIB, designed winter clothing for people with mobility issues and looked at limitations of autonomous vehicles for people with disabilities.

Strickfaden's work also has international reach.

"I grew up in the Netherlands and it exposed me to other European countries and seeing different ways of doing things," she said.

An adjunct professor at Hasselt University in Belgium, she's offered her expertise to projects like an inclusive park in Hasselt and tram safety measures in France for people with disabilities.


That work has also involved her students over the years, allowing them graduate with deeper understanding and empathy.

"They meet people with disabilities and by seeing how passionate I am about empowering them through design, they get a sense of what the possibilities are and they tend to evolve."

Many go on to careers in related fields like architecture, gerontology and women's studies, she noted.

"They're taking a more human-centred lens to what they do in their own practice."

She also continues to focus on small but vital projects, in one instance fashioning a simple cardboard guide to help a visually impaired man iron his own shirts.

"I'll get calls from someone with a small problem. My goal is to troubleshoot on how to improve those aspects of living. Those things matter. Having an ironed shirt can help a person enter the job market," she said.

"As a designer, I find it incredibly interesting and rewarding to play with how objects touch people's lives and to help them achieve what they want to achieve-their hopes, wishes and desires."

Receiving a Community Connections Award is affirming, said Strickfaden.

"I don't do this kind of work to receive awards, but this does remind me that I'm on the right path and that the work I do is valued, which means so much to me."

It also draws attention to the valuable work of other U of A researchers who put theory into practice, she added.

"I very much see the university's promise of uplifting the people as my role in society and there are many others on campus who do this every day as well … this is something the public is not as aware of as they could be."

Megan Strickfaden will be recognized at a ceremony at Edmonton City Hall at noon on May 13, along with Lisa Prins, winner of the Community Leader Award, and the City of Edmonton's Talent Outreach and Work Experience Programs team, this year's UAlberta Advocate Award winner.