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Mary Jane Carroll

Mary Jane “MJ” Carroll’s (MArch ‘12) pursuit of universal design grew from witnessing the struggles her own aging parents experienced with
everyday activities.

Mary Jane Carroll

Pursuing design for all

Published April 19, 2012

It was a strong personal conviction that led Mary Jane "MJ" Carroll to change the direction of her career at age 47 and return to school to become an architect.

Nearly 10 years ago, Carroll, a professor of interior design at Sheridan College in Toronto, was struck by how ill-equipped the built environment was for her aging parents, who struggled with everyday activities from using the bathroom to climbing stairs.

“We just weren’t prepared as a society to help them in a way that I could be comfortable with,” said Carroll, referring to their ability to “age in place,” or in their own home.

She began to research the topic, and found ways to incorporate it into degree offerings at Sheridan. In 2003, she and a colleague founded Design for an Aging Population, a specialized post-diploma program for designers. Her interest quickly broadened to the architectural discipline of universal design, or human-centered design that considers the needs of not only seniors, but children, people with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, or “anyone who doesn’t fit the norm.”

“I began to see how the built environment could positively impact those people who are not often considered by designers,” said Carroll, now 51.

To make a difference in the field, she knew she needed to go back to school. She set her sights on the School of Architecture and Planning, drawn by Professor Edward A. Steinfeld’s research on universal design and his internationally regarded Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access (IDeA Center).

To prepare for the program, she took night classes in statistics and mathematics and braced herself for a three-hour daily trek across the border.

“If I was going to do it, I was just going to do it,” said Carroll, also a mother of two.

For her master’s thesis, Carroll is examining the intersection of policy and practice in accessibility for Toronto’s Regent Park, the oldest and largest public housing project in Canada, now in the midst of a six-phase, billion-dollar revitalization.

And, boy, has she ever. Now in her last semester of the 3.5-year MArch program, Carroll won the 2011 AIA New York State Student Award for her design of a bus shelter for a university campus that is universally accessible, financially viable and attractively designed.

A graduate research assistant at the IDeA Center, Carroll also wrote a chapter for Steinfeld’s and IDeA Center outreach and policy studies director Jordana Maisel’s forthcoming book on creating inclusive environments, anticipated as the new “standard text” on universal design.

For her master’s thesis, Carroll is examining the intersection of policy and practice in accessibility for Toronto’s Regent Park, the oldest and largest public housing project in Canada, now in the midst of a six-phase, billion-dollar revitalization.

Through policy analysis and site audits, her thesis, entitled “[re]forming regent park,” explores how the manifestation of housing and urban planning policy in the built environment impacts low-income residents and those with physical disabilities.

“I had always wanted to explore the possibility of social justice in the built environment,” she said, adding that she hopes her findings will inform the next five phases of Regent Park’s redevelopment. “If we can do it right here, it will be applied across the country.”

As graduation nears, Carroll is looking forward to returning to Sheridan to teach and advance her research on universal design. She’s also considering forming an IDeA Center liaison, or affiliated research center, in Canada.

“It has been very exciting for me here at UB, exploring what it means to be an architect, and how I can impact those who often don’t have a voice. I am very excited about the opportunities ahead.”

Reflecting on the rigors of graduate study in architecture, and her masterful balance of that with care-taking responsibilities at home and a marathon commute, Carroll demonstrates the attitude that has gotten her so far, and will continue to take her in new, promising directions.

“You have to stay focused, you have to stay committed, but the rewards are enormous.”