Inclusive Design and Starting an Occupational Therapy Consulting Business
Conducting this interview with Ingrid Kanics has changed the way I think about my own OT career and its future possibilities. If you are interested in OT and inclusive design, navigating grants, starting up your own LLC, or simply building your practice around your passion areas, I hope you will find her story an inspiration.
Interview with Ingrid M. Kanics, OTR/L
Years Practicing OT:
Primary Practice Area:
Inclusive Design and Inclusive Play
How did you originally become interested in OT?
IK: I got into OT through an injury that I acquired in the military. I entered the US Army in the early 90s, right at the end of Desert Storm, to become a physical therapist. I had a rather bizarre fall during training and ended up with an incomplete spinal cord injury, known as Brown Sequard syndrome. So, I was in the military for 22 months, 18 of which was in rehab, recovering from my injury.
It was through that process that I discovered OT. The OTs I worked with really cared about how I was going to deal with the whole injury. It felt like PT focused on the biomechanics of the injury: range of motion, being able to walk again, and getting my grip strength back. But, it was the OTs who looked at the whole picture. I remember specifically one of my OTs asking me how I usually dealt with stress. In the past, sports had always been an outlet for me. The OTs helped me brainstorm how I could manage stress in my new circumstances.
In 1995, I went through medical discharge and started applying to OT schools.
Did you know going into OT school that you wanted to focus on design?
IK: No. It took awhile for my medical discharge to finalize, so while I was waiting I got a job as an aide at a sensory clinic called Developmental Therapy Associates. I was there from 1995 to when I went to OT school in 1997. I got to see how a sensory integration (SI) clinic operated, from the ground up. I was really fascinated in SI, but I realized after time that I wouldn’t be able to treat full-time. My body simply wouldn’t let me do that.
My focus on environment came out of a class project that introduced me to the Center for Creative Play (CFCP). The project was for our OT administration course. We had to go into a nonprofit, do a needs-assessment, pick a need, and design a program to meet that need. We also had to complete the Pennsylvania Common Grant to apply for funding for the role we created.
When we arrived at the Center for Creative Play, the executive director had already identified her need. She started our meeting by saying that she knew what OT was actually she knew what bad OT was. She told us that the Center was not about therapy, it was about providing a place for everyone to play. They didn’t want the negative connotation that can come with therapy. I remember saying that there was a lot that an OT can do at CFCP and it didn’t have to look like traditional therapy.
So in a month’s time we showed her what that could look like. CFCP had received a grant to show parents who were part of the Children Youth and Services system how to play with their children as part of the reunification process. One of the goals was to make sure that those families did not stand out. We developed a program called Playing Cards, which had a series of cards with activities based on developmentally appropriate play. As part of the project we created a marketing plan and evaluation criteria for it. When we presented our project the executive director was like, wow, can I use this now?
After the presentation, she pulled me aside and told me that if she ever got money she was going to come looking for me. I thought that would be cool, but I really didn’t see that happening.
Then 1.5 years after graduation, out of blue this woman calls me up and said she had received a grant and wanted to hire me.
Tell me about your first OT job.
IK: I walked into the Center for Creative Play and the executive director told me they were working on a joint grant funded by the WK Kellogg Foundation. The $7.5 million grant was called Able to Play and the goal was to build 17 playgrounds in Michigan as part of Kellogg’s 75th anniversary. We were subcontracted to do 3 indoor spaces.
CFPC wanted me to be the boots on the ground for this 5-year grant. The idea was to replicate the mission of the Center for Creative Play in Michigan.
The first year focused on understanding the design of CFCP. A group of 5 mothers, who had children with disabilities as well as typically developing siblings, originally designed the Center for Creative Play. They wanted a place for all of their kids to play and sketched out what made sense to them.
It was pointed out to us after the fact that the design embraced the 7 principles of Universal Design. That was actually pointed out to us by one of the 7 founders of the 7 principles, Edward Steinfeld. Ed would come down from Buffalo to play with his grandchildren at the CFCP. One day he was inquiring about the design, while I was on the play floor. After a conversation with him, I really started digging into the principles. Looking into universal design is what took us to the next level. It gave us a model we could replicate.
Through the grant, we were also contracted to do trainings about the importance of sensory play and inclusive design, both to the local groups connected with the new play spaces and at as many different childhood conferences as possible. These trainings are what really set the stage for my next career move.
What happened after the WKKF grant was completed?
IK: The interesting thing in the grant world is that when you do really good work, they like to give you more money. The WK Kellogg Foundation came back to the Center for Creative Play and said they really liked what we had done. They offered us a lower tier of funding, $150,000/year, if we could come up with a good project.
Through the previous grant, I’d given presentations at a children’s museum conference. Through this I saw that there were quite a few museums that were interested in inclusive design, but didn’t know where to start. I suggested we create a process that would evaluate where the museums were with universal design and then help them do better. We ended up receiving the grant to evaluate 10 children’s museums per year for two years. $100,000 went to us and then each museum received $5000 to implement changes.
We then went to other foundations to match that grant. We were able to add 10 more museums each year, through grants from The Grable Foundation and MetLife Foundation. So, 40 museums were in the original project.
This project turned out to be a lot of work! The first museum I did was the Chicago Children’s Museum. At that point, I had in my mind what I wanted to do, but I needed to find a way to organize it. During my first days in Chicago, I took pages and pages of notes. From there, I created a table format, which allowed me to streamline the process from that point forward.
Typically, I spent about a week at each museum. I would fly in on a Monday and spend a few days doing the evaluation. Then in the latter part of the week, I would do workshops on universal design and sensory play, which were open to the public. After leaving the museum, I would type up a formal report. The first year we did not have tablet PCs, so I would hand write everything and go back and type it all up.
The grant was set-up as first come first serve, so we really got the museums that wanted to be a part of this process. Geographically, they spanned from Bangor, Maine to Hawaii.
Where did you go after the second WKKF grant was up?
In the second year of that grant, the Center for Creative Play had operational issues and had to close suddenly. CFCP closed its doors in 2008, on my birthday March 30th– right before the grants were up. I worked with the WK Kellogg Foundation to finish all but 2 of the museums.
During the last years that the Center was in operation, the replication model for the Center for Creative Play was still going on. We had been working with Hattie Larlham, a facility for medically fragile children, on the construction of a new play space and the project was just beginning construction when the CFCP closed. Hattie Larlham approached me and asked if they could hire me to oversee the completion of their community play space. I ended up running their therapy department, supervising the inclusive play center, as well as helping create an inclusive pre-school. I was there for 18 months before they ran out of funds at the end of 2009.
Was this change what prompted you to start your own company?
My dad was really sick at the time, so I was able to go back home and help my mom care for my dad. It was in talks with him that he really questioned me about why I was trying to find some place to work and do what I love do, instead of creating my own company. So I did.
My company just hit its 5-year anniversary.
My career has felt out of the box from the get-go, and owning a business has been no different. I had been connected with Landscape Structures Inc. (LSI) through my work on the grants and through Hattie Larlham. Through Hattie Larlham, I had been consulting with them on getting their inclusive advisory board up and going and introducing new products at sales meetings. I was actually at Landscape Structure’s annual sales meeting when I found out my job at Hattie Larlham was being terminated. The President of Landscape Structures said, “Great! That means we can work with you directly.” They were the lead in helping me get my business going.
The other key thing I did at the beginning was buy the intellectual property of the projects I had worked on at the Center for Creative Play, which meant I had programs and systems to start building a business on.
What advice would you give to an OT student who is interested in navigating the grant world, consulting, and/or inclusive design?
The key piece to start with is to focus on whatever you’re passionate about. Next, you need to ask how you can use your OT skills within that area of passion. For example, if your passion is dance, how can you help your local dance company create programming for people of all abilities? You need to help people see what specific skills you are bringing to the table.
Next you have to determine how viable that career is. Are their funding sources out there?
For example in my consulting business, I am not accessing any of the traditional occupational therapy funding streams. Also, as an LLC, I cannot directly go after grants. Instead, the museum or non-profit organization itself will apply for a grant which includes the fees for my services then they will hire me to help fulfill it should they get the grant. Other groups I work with might be set up on a retainer agreement service system.
Any resources you would recommend to OTs interested in inclusive design?
The IDeA Center out of Buffalo is a good website and offers some great online courses in the area of Universal Design. Ed Steinfeld, who is the Director of the IDeA Center, has a book called Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments that really gets into rethinking the 7 principles and instead focuses on the 8 goals of universal design.
From a house standpoint there is the Universal Design Living Laboratory in Columbus. I had the opportunity to work on an inclusive home in Baltimore for a dad and two sons, one of whom had suffered a traumatic brain injury. The dad, Ed Slattery, has a Nonprofit now called Finding a New Normal. On the website he blogs about what is working and not working for his family.
There is also an e-newsletter I received and have contributed articles to called Design For All Institute of India, which gives the world perspective.
If you’re interested in play I would recommend becoming a member of the US Play Coalition (free membership) and connecting with organizations like National Association for the Education of the Young Child (NAEYC) both have great resources and research on play.
Finally, if you have areas of your life that you are passionate about become an expert in that area and allow your OT skills to help you create the job of your dreams!
You can follow Ingrid’s work through her business Facebook Page– Kanics Inclusive Design Services
Also, check out the About.com article "How Good Design Can Alleviate Disability" to read more insights from Ingrid about OT and Inclusive Design.