Each year around the holidays, Jo Frances Heiden (McIntire ’87) organized a wrapping party in her Arlington, VA, apartment. Family and friends, including former UVA classmates, gathered to wrap thousands of presents for disadvantaged children in the Washington, D.C., area.
Jo Frances ran the show. But, due to an accident during her second year at UVA, she did so from a wheelchair, paralyzed from the shoulders down. “She’d be there quarterbacking the whole event and making sure that it happened,” her brother, Clint Heiden, recalled. “That was really neat to watch—she was always looking out for folks.”
Jo Frances passed away in 2002 from complications related to her injury. In her memory, Clint made a gift for a series of modifications that will create the first ADA-compliant Lawn room at UVA. The Office of the Architect for the University has narrowed the choice to two rooms—23 and 25 West Lawn—with work expected to begin in the summer of 2020. Last March, in an indication of strong student support, Olivia Burke (Curry ’21), then a member of the Student Council Building and Grounds Committee, advocated for an ADA-compliant room, penning an editorial in The Cavalier Daily stating the need for “an ADA-accessible Lawn room so that our community can truly be considered an accessible space for all.”
According to Brian Hogg, Senior Historic Preservation Planner, drawings for the modifications are underway. A series of relatively small changes to the room’s layout and functionality will improve day-to-day life dramatically for a resident with a disability. “Inside the room, we’ll modify the cupboard that holds the sink to make the sink accessible and place it and the medicine cabinet at the proper heights,” Hogg said. “We’ll also replace the loft with a twin bed to open up the route to that area, and make the hanging rods in the closet easier to reach.”
Other adjustments include installing a smaller radiator, lowering the light and fan controls, and installing a lever handle on the door to make it easier to get in and out. “Outside, we’ll slope the sidewalk in front of five adjacent rooms to eliminate the step at their entrances so that those rooms can be entered easily by a wheelchair,” said Hogg. “This will help foster the kind of moving back and forth between rooms that is characteristic of student life on the Lawn.”
Jo Frances returned to UVA just 18 months after her accident, determined to finish her education. She received a bachelor’s degree from the McIntire School in 1987, and, in the process, became an advocate for improving access for people with disabilities on Grounds. “She found it very difficult to get around, and she really made an effort to work with the school to get simple things such as curb cuts put in,” said Clint.
After she graduated, Jo Frances resolved to live life on her own terms. She got her own place. She took the bus to and from work each day. She worked as a software engineer in McLean and designed a special device to help her type. In the mid-1990s, she reclaimed partial use of her left hand after she had an electrical stimulator implanted in her chest. Interviewed by The Washington Post, she said, “After you break your neck, anything where you don’t have to say, ‘Can you do this for me?’ is just such a major gift. The first time I picked up a hamburger, I was thrilled.”