Angela Bourne is a nontraditional doctoral candidate in environmental design at Texas Tech University. Bourne specializes in creating spaces for people with special needs, including those with autism and Down’s syndrome.
What was the inspiration for your research?
The inspiration for my research came about after the death of my brother who had Down syndrome. Being close in age to him, I spent a large part of my life helping him “fit into our neuro-typical (NT) world.” Subsequently, I developed an astute sense to know what, where and how things should be placed to help him adapt to his environment and what types of design interventions could help him perform to the best of his abilities. Hence, I decided to set out on a mission to find out what environment was best for people diagnosed with intellectual and developmental diversities (I/DD), in other words, Down syndrome, autism and related I/DD.
Throughout the research, have you had any unexpected findings?
My research includes an examination of the physical properties of five intentional communities that provide living, learning, work and socializing opportunities for people with I/DD throughout the United States. The behaviors of the I/DD population (neurological processing and sensory sensitivities) are also examined relative to their interaction with the building and physical properties in these communities. To date, one of the most significant findings I have found is that this population, like the rest of us, wants to be as independent as they possibly can, have good jobs that enable them to contribute to society, family connections, partners, friends and social lives. One of the most unexpected findings I have encountered is that given the appropriate “environmental fit,” most of the population I am studying is very capable and successful at completing meaningful jobs and learning skills to help them live a semi-independent life.
What has been the greatest challenge in your research?
The greatest challenge in my research has been with developing and maintaining relationships with the people who are the “gate keepers” in the communities I am studying. Staying in contact, organizing site visits, maintaining rapport and abiding by IRB [Institutional Review Board for the Protection of Human Subjects] guidelines require perseverance and patience.
What has been the most rewarding part of your project?
The most rewarding part of my project is seeing how appreciative the I/DD participants, their parents and service providers are of my research. I feel privileged to have been able to be actively involved in the daily lives of the I/DD group. It was also rewarding to see how eager the people with I/DD were to share their stories and contribute to the development of my research. For example, when I asked them to volunteer to take pictures that capture their “day in the life of ___,” many more individuals (especially those with Down syndrome and general delayed cognitive development) than my 12-person sample wanted to participate. I feel privileged to have been able to be actively involved in the daily lives of this group. Seeing the energy and enthusiasm the people with I/DD have for life, despite the challenges they encounter as they maneuver through spaces that often do not “fit” their needs is humbling and makes me want to use my talents and expertise even more to make a difference in their lives.
How did a literature review (or secondary research) influence your research methodology?
The literature review I conducted provided a starting point for me to structure my study around. The review I conducted consisted of peer reviewed journals, articles, books and online databases on topics such as information about I/DD, including neurological/cognitive processing and sensory sensitivities, demographics, behavioral characteristics, lifestyles, education, training, living and work situations, and aging. I also looked at best practices in the design of intentional communities, residential design, teaching and training environments, and therapeutic environments (physical space, design-built and natural), which include the influence of nature on well-being and one’s quality of life. All of this literature provided stimulus for the direction of the methodology I undertook to collect data and is informing the development of the findings I am unveiling through the grounded theory research approach I established.
What has been your biggest challenge while collecting data?
I experienced two main challenges while collecting data. The first challenge was with building and maintaining rapport with the intentional communities I was studying. Building relationships takes an enormous amount of time, as nurturing relationships does not fit into specific time frames. Therefore a researcher needs to connect frequently with their research participants to ensure they sustain a strong relationship as, often, timelines and schedules during a research project can change, hence one may lose participants’ interest and commitment. If I had not had a personal background of living and volunteering with members of this population, I think it would have been more difficult to gain creditability with the gate keepers of the communities I was studying. The genuine, trusting and caring relationship I developed with the various communities enabled me to be accepted as a part of the community. In fact, I was told, “now you are one of us … go do your thing.” In other words, they trusted me. Having this trust enabled me to move about the villages freely and speak with residents, service providers and facility administrators to gather information on an ongoing basis — thereby developing and reinforcing my perceptions and contributing to the development of grounded theory. The second challenge I had while collecting data was dealing with the volume of information. Partially because I was collecting data from four sources; the physical environment, building and spaces, the population with I/DD, and the service provides and directors at the five intentional communities.
How do you see the results implemented or used by interior designers?
Even though the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990) has made great efforts to make buildings accessible for people with physical impairments, there are limited guidelines that address the needs of individuals with intellectual/cognitive limitations and sensory sensitivities. This research will provide design practitioners with evidence-based design guidelines on which to base their design decisions. It will also give design researchers and educators a literature base on which to build their teaching and research.