By Jen Waters

Occupational therapy student Donna Ozawa runs a circular saw to construct a wheelchair ramp for a classmate. Photo/Photo/Courtesy Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy student Donna Ozawa runs a circular saw to construct a wheelchair ramp for a classmate.
Photo/Photo/Courtesy Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy

To many, do-it-yourself renovation projects can be a costly headache waiting to happen. But for occupational therapy student Donna Ozawa, it’s a real passion.

Ozawa has two decades of experience in disciplines including sculpture, design and wheelchair engineering. She received an executive certificate in home modification from the USC Davis School of Gerontology in 2012, and has worked with several professional and volunteer organizations to adapt home spaces to better fit residents’ needs.

Now a student in USC’s occupational therapy master’s class of 2015, Ozawa is pursuing a career that will allow her to seamlessly combine her experiences and interests to help people lead healthier, happier lives in their residences.

The purpose of home modification projects — such as placing non-slip backing under floor rugs, installing grab bars for easy shower entry and exit, or retrofitting entire houses to be wheelchair accessible — is to make tasks easier, reduce in-home accidents and support independent living.

Occupational therapy is a health-care profession that, among other things, modifies the interaction between the physical environment and an individual’s everyday activities.

“I wanted to make a connection between building and health care,” Ozawa said, about why she chose to attend USC, home to U.S. News & World Report’s No. 1 occupational therapy graduate educational program.

Once on campus, Ozawa met fellow occupational therapy student Eun Kyung Bae, a Korean native who earned her undergraduate degree in woodworking and furniture design.

When an early semester assignment tasked students to analyze the impact of built environments on disability accessibility, it seemed only fitting that Ozawa and Bae, who also has a spinal cord injury and uses a power wheelchair, team together.

“Donna has a lot of tools at her house, but there are two steps to enter her house,” Bae said. “I sit on a wheelchair, so we decided to make a [wheelchair] ramp.”

Ozawa and Bae reviewed standards for accessible design, drafted blueprints for a plywood wheelchair ramp, and then, with the help of a team of USC Occupational Therapy students, built it.

“We made it a potluck, and it was a very social event,” said Becca Heymann, who joined the build team. “Everyone was able to contribute to something, and Donna gave us all a tutorial on how to use the tools.”

Soon, students who had never used power tools were sawing wood, snapping chalk lines and drilling screws. Bae’s expertise in furniture construction was also an asset for the novice classmates.

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“Donna really wanted everyone to get involved, so she taught me how to use a power drill and then had me drill in screws for one side of the ramp,” said student Stephanie Dote. “She was a fantastic teacher and gave great pointers; once I finished my side, I was actually proud of myself and it made me more interested in carpentry and using tools.”

After construction, Bae tested the ramp, and other students simulated the experience using a manually pushed wheelchair loaned from the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy of the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC. After a few adjustments the team had their finished ramp. But more importantly, Bae was able to enter her colleague’s home.

“It was a great bonding day for everyone who came,” said Dote. “Everyone learned something new.”

But the project wouldn’t be finished without one final Trojan touch: They decorated the wheelchair ramp in USC’s signature cardinal and gold.