DeVonna L. Cunningham Cervantes photo

DeVonna L. Cunningham Cervantes

Tulsa, Oklahoma


Most of DeVonna's work is unpaid. She made a conscious decision in 1997, after getting her M.S. in Environmental Design, that she could be most effective working in a voluntary capacity as an activist and advocate on design access issues, conserving her limited energy and retaining the social security income and medical benefits she might lose if she were conventionally employed.

"Through universal design, persons who are able-bodied will begin to have greater contact with persons with disabilities, thus developing increased understanding...and persons with disabilities will begin to enjoy inclusion throughout the life cycle."
- DeVonna Cunningham Cervantes

Her volunteer status allows her great freedom of choice in working toward her goal, inclusion of persons with disabilities in community life throughout the life cycle. She chose, for instance, recently, to work with a group of churches that wished to improve access and integration for their congregations. She has served on many committees and boards statewide in Oklahoma, including the Protection and Advocacy for Individual Rights Advisory Council to the Oklahoma Disability Law Center; the Oklahoma Policy Coordinating Council; the Oklahoma State University (OSU) Americans with Disabilities Advisory Council; and the OSU Committee for Campus Accessibility. She also served as chair of the Community Living Committee and ad hoc member of the Executive Committee during the hiring of the current executive director for the Oklahoma Planning Council for Developmental Disabilities.

As a child, DeVonna drew floor plans on graph paper. She was fascinated with layout, but women in Oklahoma in those days were "tracked to female positions, Motherhood and Home. The whole culture I was raised in discouraged girls from considering design school or careers." Her first degree was a B.S. in family relations and child development, with an early childhood education teaching certification, earned at OSU in 1981. Prior to her disability, she worked several years as a teacher in early childhood education.

DeVonna was disabled in an automobile accident in 1988. The rehabilitation process took several years, after which she began "applying for grants and scholarships everywhere." During the time she spent in rehab, DeVonna "became politicized as a disability activist." The disability community that grows from interactions among people in rehab provides a framework for political action. DeVonna's disability activism has repeated the theme from feminist theory: the personal is political.

One of her grant applications caught the eye of Margaret Weber, assistant dean of graduate research studies in the School of Human Environmental Sciences at Oklahoma State University. Dr. Weber, who had worked as an instructor in design, asked DeVonna to apply to the graduate program in environmental design. Ron Mace had helped start a model home design project there, and they needed someone to be the live-in curator and tour guide. As the living inhabitant of this demonstration project, she supported herself through graduate school. "For two years, I was a goldfish in a bowl, giving tours at ten minutes' notice to everyone from kindergarten classes to state officials."

She was already an activist when she applied to the program and was very focused on what she wanted to study, and why. Her disability was part of the process, the major reason for returning to school. Because she was recruited into a specific position, she was able to convince the administration to let her add public administration to her design program. Earning a minor in public administration, she could "back up access requests with the law, chapter and verse." Her master's thesis, Independent Living: Architectural and Environmental Access through Universal Design, was submitted in May 1997. It describes her experience with the Bartlett Independent Living Laboratory (BILL), which showcased a barrier-free residential environment, a conventional single family dwelling that had been remodeled into an architecturally accessible home.

DeVonna writes, "Through architectural and environmental user-friendly design, persons who are able-bodied will begin to have greater contact with persons with disabilities, thus developing increased understanding. Soon the preoccupation of 'ability' will fade from consciousness, and persons with disabilities will begin to enjoy inclusion throughout the life cycle." Her work as an activist in environmental design is geared toward that goal. The research interests that impacted her thesis include environmental barrier/free design, optimal design standards by means of ergonomic diversity, attitudinal assessments toward persons with disabilities, and historical perspectives of disabilities and their impact on acceptance and accessibility in conventional society.

On campus, DeVonna lobbied to get onto the accessibility committee, where one of her first successes was to get a curb cut installed. She found the campus administration generally unmotivated to change, until the government sent some investigators regarding an unrelated sexual discrimination case. The investigators reported no grounds for the sexual discrimination case, but they advised the administration that it was out of compliance with access laws.

DeVonna started a petition to put an elevator in the College of English. She had to take a roundabout route to get to her studios in the basement, which could only be reached via a series of service elevators. The school, cognizant of DeVonna's limited energy, made thoughtful concessions. They added an extension to "DeVonna's table," which she used in all her coursework She modified a drawing board in studio, using the bottom of the parallel bar instead of the top. "I was treated with kid gloves compared to other grad students. But it balanced out. They weren't expected to give tours on ten minute's notice!" DeVonna feels that universal design will be achieved only through activism and advocacy as part of the educational process.

DeVonna argues about universal design with a brother-in-law who is an architect. "It seems like a huge leap for people to think about design for people with needs unlike their own." One of her favorite quotations is from Ray Lifchez, who says that environmental barriers are signs that say "cripples keep out," much as signs during Jim Crow days used to say "no coloreds served here." DeVonna referenced Lifchez's works, Design for Independent Living: The Environment and Physically Disabled People of 1979, and Rethinking Architecture: Design Students and Physically Disabled People of 1987, in her thesis.

When asked if she encounters obstacles in her work related to disability, DeVonna said, "Daily! Every time I go out my front door." She mentioned that the only parking access aisles in her town are there because of her personal activism. She recounts several incidents when her spontaneous activism resulted in concrete changes, as well as consciousness raising in the general public, and in enforcement and regulatory agencies. She believes that many of these things would not have happened had she been working in a firm. They involved dropping the day's schedule on the spot in order to spend two or three hours resolving a problem.

In discussing networking among designers with disabilities, DeVonna said that creating this network would be keeping "an eye on the prize." She says, "I totally believe that if it were not for African-Americans and the civil rights movement, those of us with disabilities would not have any mentors. They opened the doors. I'm radical. We need to overthrow everything and have it our way!" She went on to explain that "having it our way" would mean better design and environments for everybody, not just for people with disabilities. "I specifically combined the two degrees, design and public administration, because I want to red-line. I designed my own niche. We must be the head of city and urban development departments, where all designs come across our table."

DeVonna enjoys traveling to the national parks, "the best place for getting in touch with nature and a spiritual feeling. Very rarely do I have to advocate there. I always find them accessible." She travels with her hybrid husky/wolf companion, Sapphire, who was trained as a pup in service rescue before DeVonna took over her training. "Being wolf, she's trained me as much as I've trained her!" Sapphire was named for the color of her eyes and DeVonna's birthstone.

Photograph of woman in a wheelchair in front of cliff dwellings.
DeVonna exploring the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park.

Description of Photograph:
This photograph shows DeVonna sitting in her wheelchair at Mesa Verde National Park. She is in the lower quarter of the photo, seated alongside a rock wall. Most of the photo shows the stone cliff dwellings in the background, approximately thirty feet beyond the rock wall. There are several openings in the face of the cliff, which may have served as entrances into the dwellings.

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