Vanier scholar eyes work, motherhood and disability

Adela Talbot // Western News

Melanie Stone, a PhD candidate in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research, is among 166 recipients of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. Recipients represent nationwide scholars from the three Tri-Council agencies, who receive $50,000 annually for up to three years. Vanier scholars are selected based on leadership skills and high standard of scholarly achievement in the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, engineering and/or health sciences.

Melanie Stone wants you to see through the eyes of disabled working mothers – women navigating employment on top of the challenges that stem from being differently abled.

“There are real barriers, and they’re put in place, sometimes through well-meaning policy,” said Stone, a PhD candidate in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research. “My work is a photovoice participatory project that looks at how barriers are constructed to keep moms out of employment, looking at things like paratransit and policies.”

Stone was recently named among 166 recipients of the 2016 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship. Her project, Making Her Life Work: Re-presenting Motherhood, Disability and Work Engagement Using Photovoice, is currently recruiting participants through community partners and the Disabled Women’s Network of Canada.

Recipients of a Vanier scholarship, Canada’s most prestigious doctoral award, represent nationwide scholars from the three Tri-Council agencies who receive $50,000 annually for up to three years. They are selected based on leadership skills and high standard of scholarly achievement in the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, engineering and/or health sciences.

“There used to be rules on how many children you could bring on paratransit – just one – so you’d have to choose which child to leave behind. Or, there were (paratransit) rules that would prevent moms from dropping their child at daycare quickly and getting back on the bus – they would have to spend an hour there (before getting back on),” Stone said of barriers disabled working moms once had to face.

In seeking work or getting to and from work, barriers might still include transit, a lack of accessible daycares and schools, as well as inaccessible curb cuts en route. Administrative barriers manifest themselves in policies, she added, and individuals sometimes have to fill out forms to prove they are, in fact, disabled and need accommodation. What’s more, the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act “has no teeth” so non-compliance issues aren’t generally enforced.

But the point of her project is to hear from working disabled moms and find out from them exactly what the barriers are, Stone stressed. Participants will be given cameras and encouraged to photograph things they perceive as barriers to employment in the community.

“It would be one thing for me to make a list of all the problems, which I could do very easily. But that doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean something to someone who is directly impacted by these policies,” said Stone, who spent more than a decade working with disabled individuals in the community and worked to develop accessible transportation programs in the Peel region.

“It was really important to have a participatory methodology, and I think we’re seeing a big new movement with media. When we really showcase those images, they have more of an impact,” she added.

The end result of her project will partly depend on what her participants present and discuss, Stone said. She might host a gallery showcasing the images produced, in addition to her thesis, which will look at the interviews she will conduct with working disabled moms, alongside a policy analysis. This is a great opportunity for disabled moms to bring their voice to the forefront of a policy discussion, and potentially generate some change, she added.

“I hope to illuminate disability in a different way, as socially created, as well. A lot of times, we put the onus on individuals to either fix their body or overcome obstacles. But with this project, we’re seeing those obstacles have been put there for a reason, and we need to remove them in order to create some level of equity,” Stone explained.

“When we look at mothers – especially since the rise of ‘intensive mothering’ and really physical mothering, as in you’re always there, you’re attached to your baby, you’re constant – it will help to reveal how that is part of constructing a difficult experience for a lot of mothers. It may have a larger look at how we construct motherhood in particular, how we look at working moms. This idea we need to do it all, have it all, work through it all is a really sexist and abilist construct.”