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The Awareness Project

June 19, 2017

Professor uses design to generate positive change.

John O’Neill attended a social gathering of friends and professionals in an office in downtown Richmond, Virginia. As the gathering came to an end, John stayed behind to help his friends clean up. They washed glasses together, holding onto the party’s afterglow, enjoying the camaraderie.

John told his friends about some recent interactions with professionals and even employers in response to John's cerebral palsy, a disability that he has had since birth. Although he had these interactions many times before, John explained his growing disappointment. The situations were becoming more awkward, rude, and degrading.

He couldn’t have shared his story with a more receptive audience. His friends, the hosts of the party, were Deanna Lorianni and Meghan Codd Walker. The partners founded Zuula, a content development company that offers copywriting, verbal branding, and writing coaching services.

“They understood what I was experiencing,” he said. Then he had an idea. “I wondered out loud what would happen if I combined my graphic design skills with their copywriting services. I imagined a campaign that explains and educates people about disabilities.” 

John O'Neill

John O'Neill

It was an idea that would later change John's life.  


Not long after that eventful evening, John was hired as a graphic design assistant professor at UMD. His first year, 2014, came with project funding. His idea to produce a disability advocacy campaign was realized. In the spring of 2015, John launched what became known as The Awareness Campaign.  

The campaign has continued for two years, and there’s no sign of it stopping. The messages entertain as well as educate. John continues to develop social media content on a weekly basis. Each piece of content viewed on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter is written, illustrated, and designed to bring awareness to disability discrimination.  John also works closely with Deanna and Meghan to produced print materials for The Awareness Campaign. “They are amazing people who have done a phenomenal job copywriting. They understand the issue, and it makes all the difference,”  he says.

Under the name The Awareness Campaign, John has partnered with other groups and organizations to bring awareness to the issues that cause disability discrimination. John's newest partnership is with CHOICE-unlimited, a nonprofit in Duluth that provides programs and services to help people with disabilities find and maintain employment. The Awareness Campaign is currently producing print and web materials to dispel stereotypes about people with disabilities. The materials will assist CHOICE-unlimited in providing helpful information for potential employers as they go through the process of hiring someone with a disability. 

John's work for The Awareness Campaign has been recognized for design excellence by publications such as Graphic Design USA and Creative Quarterly. Just recently, in spring 2017, the work was featured in HOW magazine as a merit winner for their annual international design competition. His work also won two international awards from the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals.   

John takes what he learned from his work with The Awareness Campaign into the classroom. Since arriving at UMD, he has made the subject of designing for social media the focal point of his teaching. "As social media marketing continues to grow, there is an overwhelming demand for graphic designers to produce content for social media platforms," says John. With each passing semester, John tells his students, "Design has to influence the things you buy, the clothes you wear, what you eat, and how you see the world around you."

With his physical and learning disabilities, he knows being a college student can be difficult at times. He remembers his graphic design professors at Virginia Commonwealth University and the lessons they taught him about treating everyone with respect. As a result, John geared the classes he teaches to become student-centric. John has a passion for design, but it's not the reason why he teaches. "The interactions I have with students are the most enjoyable part of teaching at UMD," he says.

John graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia with a BFA degree in Graphic Design. He holds an MFA degree in Graphic Design from Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. Before coming to UMD, he taught at Chowan University, Virginia State University, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

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