Student’s experiences shape desire to design barrier-free buildings

“It’s been a bumpy road, but I’m not done yet”

Most people walk into a room and turn on a light switch without a second thought.

For Levi Lawton, a light switch that’s installed too high on a wall is one more barrier and reminder that some buildings are not designed with him or accessibility in mind.

“We take things like light switches for granted, but it’s important that everybody has the same sort of access to a building,” says Lawton, who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around.

Levi Lawton drawing at a table in Feltham Centre


“It’s important that everybody has the same sort of access to a building.”

The Edmonton resident recently completed NAIT’s Architectural Technology program. With Inclusion Alberta’s support, Lawton audited the program, which allowed him to fully participate in the course work, including assignments, group work and a mentorship week while having the work tailored to his strengths.

The 23-year-old spent the past five years pushing himself to learn the material on a part-time basis. It would prove as much a journey of discovery in the classroom as it would learning about himself.

Overcoming adversity in pursuit of knowledge

Lawton was born with a disability that affects his mobility. “I’m still learning my limitations,” he says. “I’m doing the best that I can … and [I want] to show other people that they can do the same thing.”

Originally from Niton Junction, a small hamlet east of Edson, Lawton’s family moved to Edmonton when he was in junior high to reduce travel time for the regular doctor’s appointments he requires.

Close-up of Levi drawingAs he got older, living in the city helped Lawton gain independence. He can take public transit without needing help “hovering around me” and also lives on his own in an apartment where he can access 24/7 on-call care.

“I was a little bit nervous but I knew I could do it,” he says.

Going to post-secondary was one more way to prove his independence and increase his knowledge about architecture. “I’ve loved reading blueprints for as long as I can remember,” he explains.

Thanks to Inclusion Alberta, which partners with post-secondaries to deliver higher learning to Albertans with developmental disabilities, Lawton was able to study part-time, which allowed him to balance his physical and mental wellbeing.

Back in Niton Junction, Lawton’s junior high class had 10 students, so having to navigate a crowded campus with thousands of fellow students was overwhelming initially. “It was a pretty big difference.”

“I’m proud of myself.”

It didn’t take long to settle in, which Lawton credits to strong relationships with his instructors and peers. “We’ve bonded throughout the years,” he says. That respect has allowed him to share his perspectives about making buildings more accessible, such as modifying assignments to add wheelchair ramps that go above and beyond building codes.

“I’m proud of myself,” he said of his accomplishment and auditing the program with some supports that allowed him to be “as independent as possible.”

Dark days yield to hope

Lawton’s NAIT experience also included monthly check-ins with student counselling. Talking through issues or recounting a bad day “just feels good,” he says.

Talking became even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Lawton says he was stuck in his apartment. The week before NAIT shut down in March 2020, he felt overwhelmed, he says, due in part to worries for his health. When campus did close, he spent the next couple of weeks in bed. “It was a tough time last year.”

Vaccine distribution has helped, to the point Lawton can once again plan for the next goal in his journey. His dream job, he says, would allow him to work part-time in a consulting role and help industry design buildings that are barrier free for everyone – “not just people that have challenges.” That can mean everything from wheelchair ramps for building access or ensuring access considers the needs of people using crutches, strollers or the elderly.

When reflecting on his own challenges and experiences, Lawton is undeniably proud about how much he’s grown during his time at NAIT and how the knowledge he now possesses can effect change for others experiencing similar barriers. But he also knows this is just the beginning of a longer journey.

“It’s been a bumpy road but my journey is just beginning. I’m really looking forward to getting out there and, hopefully, make a difference.”

“It’s been a bumpy road but my journey is just beginning.”

Levi Lawton outdoors by a tree

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