Michael Graves, FAIA, has channeled many avatars during his career, from one of the academically minded New York Five in the 1970s, to a populist product designer for the retailer Target. After a bacterial infection paralyzed him from the waist down in 2003, the now wheelchair-bound architect works to be a champion of universal design, a movement that advocates creating spaces and products that any person, regardless of physical ability, can use.

The American Institute of Architecture Students (AIAS) recently appointed Graves as the honorary chair of its “Beyond Architecture” campaign, which seeks to establish a $2 million endowment to support its Freedom By Design program (FBD), among other initiatives. FBD enlists architecture students to renovate houses for low-income and disabled people. The AIAS had already raised half of its goal as of January, when Graves joined, and it hopes that his affiliation will be a driving force in raising the remaining amount.

Since the AIAS launched six pilot FBD projects in 2004, the program has expanded to include participation from 55 AIAS chapters, each expecting to complete between two and six projects a year. Teams of students from the chapters pair with architects and construction specialists. Graves volunteered to mentor five teams during 2008. Likening the FBD program to a kind of architectural Peace Corps, he says it is “high time that something like this happened.”

One of Graves’ teams is building the largest FBD project to date, pursued in conjunction with the American Association of Retired Persons: nine students from the University of Maryland are renovating a vacant property in Washington, D.C., to house six low-income seniors. The students are transforming a below-grade, 19-foot-by-18.5-foot garage into a wheelchair-accessible, one-person living unit that includes a bedroom, bathroom, and laundry.

“It’s our first opportunity to do something real and basic,” says team leader Michael Langford, a senior at the University of Maryland. “We get to learn about the construction process by being a part of it.”

Having taught at Princeton University for 39 years, Graves knows that architecture school curricula often have gaps when regarding issues such as universal design. “It’s all about conceptual design at these schools. I think we’re barking up the wrong tree if we try to change it.” Instead, he hopes that programs such as FBD can begin to shift attitudes about designing for the disabled. “We need people to see this as an opportunity, not as a requirement. And we need people to take advantage of this opportunity.”