FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Mark Iantkow
October 13, 2015
He tells me, “I could read blueprints before I could read words.”
My friend Mark Iantkow, or as I know get to call him, Dr. Mark Iantkow, and I crossed paths for the first time about thirty-five years ago when we were both appointees to the Barrier Free Design Committee, providing building code and fire code advice to Alberta Labour. We worked on that group together for twenty-five years – culminating in the creation of the Barrier Free Council to be part of the Safety Codes Council. Mark was appointed to that council at its inception and served until 2014.
Along the way, he become much more than ‘my friend the blind guy with a white cane’, more than a resource on issues affecting people living with disabilities and universal design questions – we became friends who lunch because we are hungry and go for dinners to laugh and tell stories. He flirts with waitresses. I provide ‘visual commentary’. Seriously, he’s a serious guy who has done extraordinary work for anyone at any age – and he’s done it with a disability that would put most of us on the sidelines.
We spent some time over a long brunch recently to get deeper into knowing him and his work – and to celebrate his recent completion of his PhD dissertation.
Mark was born in Calgary. His mother was ‘stay at home mom’ for Mark and his younger brother. His dad, after serving in the RCAF, studied design at SAIT. His parents met on a Greyhound bus on Vancouver Island while his mother was a student at the Jericho Hill school for the blind. Mark’s mother and grandfather were both blind. Retinitis pigmentosa. Mark has it. His brother doesn’t. The odds are 50/50. It is a condition of a narrow field, tunnel vision, and it is degenerative.
Mark’s childhood was normal but by 4th-5th grade his sight was diminishing, so he was routed to Victoria Park School for specialized teaching for the visually impaired. He was re-integrated to the regular stream in high school – Henry Wise Wood and Beaverbrook. He says he was dying to get to university. His University of Calgary time was a struggle – he says maturity and his disability were limiting factors – and he moved over to Mount Royal where he earned an Associate Diploma in Community and Regional Planning. He wanted to be an urban planner. He returned to U of C, majoring in Geography. He tired of being broke – went to work for the CNIB where he’d had his first summer job. He worked as an employment counsellor with CNIB and transferred to Athabasca University where he completed his B.GS. His career at CNIB and then Parks Canada working in Barrier Free Design Access projects, working at the I.L.R.C .. simply fueled his desire to return to school..
He’s written and spoken extensively on disability and lifestyle issues impacting people with disabilities – their lifestyles, their needs, employment and wayfinding – but his passion lights up when he talks about universal design …
Why are you successful? “Support from my family, of course. I’ve thought about this a lot over the years – can we impact our own destiny? … I read a lot of philosophy …”
What has held you back? “Junior high school guidance counselors who told my parents ‘Mark will never make it to you university’. That had a profound impact on me and my own expectations. I still have conflicts … ”.
I'm certainly proud of my friend's accomplishments - and happy to celebrate his recent success. Most of all, given his difficult path in life, he doesn't exhibit complaint or bitterness. I wonder how many of us could. He demonstates his disability is his greatest strength - he sees the world differently than most of us, and lends his voice to the conversation about how we can design buildings and communities better to work for all of us.
How do you see your business – inclusive design and adult education – going forward over the next quarter?’
… inclusive design thinking is in a state of flux and a tough sell. A lot of people in the design and development community are still getting a grip on the concept of universal design.
And over the next five years?
… I believe designers and developers are going to design better – because they have to for an aging population.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… first – people with integrity. I can’t stand high-pressure sales people – they drive me nuts!. Loyalty – people who aren’t in it just for the money, that they are genuinely interested.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Mark Iantkow, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… I’m an organic thinker (I used to be linear), I’m a generalist. I think we need more generalists! People are very comfortable seeing things from a 50,000 ft. view. I’m a lot closer to the situation …
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I believe I’m a transformational leader. I like to motivate people to fully explore their competencies, interests and talents.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… financial issues. About my dad (he’s 90). In many ways, I’m his caregiver …
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… my dad – as a designer. I was really interested, as any kid tagging along would be, in what he did. My experiences at Mount Royal College (now Mount Royal University) – I became a learning person, got insight to politics, I blossomed there! When I started working with Parks Canada – I really had a great skill set combo. Returning to academia in 2002 to become a better barrier free access specialist.
Work-life balance – do you have it?
… yes, if you count being unemployed for five years. I’m aimed at a better balance. I like gardening – I like to dig in the earth. It’s a great connection.
… I haven’t had time for fun – ever! Being good company with friends. Discussion.
What do you read?
… I’m eclectic in my tastes – now that I’m done my dissertation – I’m into philosophy, metaphysics and history. I recently read The Once and Future World, Nature as it Was, As it is, As it Could be by J.B. Mckinnon.
… taxis and C-trains. If someone can get me to a train station, then I’m set.
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