Gail Teachman is speaking up for children across Canada – lending her VOICE to give them a voice.
The Occupational Therapy professor is one of a group of researchers, students and community partners from across the country looking to eliminate the humiliation, distress and trauma many children experience in their daily lives as their voices and experiences are discounted in decisions that affect them.
In order to accomplish that, Teachman serves as a co-investigator with VOICE (Views On Interdisciplinary Childhood Ethics), a McGill University-led initiative that identifies and develops strategies for addressing ethical concerns relating to young people.
As a critical researcher, Teachman focuses on the ideas or assumptions society has around disabled children and their rehabilitation process, assuming they know what’s right and on how best to intervene.
“Rehabilitation is sort of grounded by the idea of ‘normalization’ – helping people be as ‘normal’ as possible, because we presume those are underlying values in our society, that walking is better than a wheelchair, or being able to use your hands in a so-called normal way is better,” she explained.
“People working from a critical perspective in rehabilitation are certainly not throwing out all that. We are not suggesting there are not benefits. But we are also saying there are some unintended harms to these approaches. It’s about bringing knowledge forward to help inform the ways we think about rehabilitation.”
VOICE recently received $1.1 million from Richard and Satoko Ingram of the Newton Foundation to continue its work, which includes researchers in the areas of nursing, law, anthropology, psychology and education.
Through her work, Teachman is helping ensure disabled children’s views on what matters to them are taken into account in programs and services that directly impact their lives.
“I’m trying to learn from them and have an opportunity for them to weigh in on these issues of inclusion and how they experience it,” Teachman said.
“It’s knocking down stereotypes and challenging the ways we think about disability as necessarily being tragic. How do we act on it? What are our responsibilities about shifts that can be made? It’s about continuous reflection on how we can do better, how can we step back and start thinking is that good for everybody.”
For example, she cited the harm caused around the notion that disabled children are ‘a problem’ – that they are broken in some way, need to be fixed, or they are a burden to society. She said these beliefs remain imbedded in all the ways we raise money or do good, by evoking these same ideas that “disability is a tragedy.”
She continued, “The push is to help us open up and think differently about that. How do we decide what it is to be disabled or not disabled? It’s about questioning the ethics underpinning these ideas. If some things can be shown to be harmful, even though not intended, how can we shift those practices? How can we find different ways when it comes to teaching, so as not to reinforce those ideas but perhaps challenge them a bit to think differently.”
Ideas and challenges such as these will be addressed at a two-day symposium Teachman is heading up at Western at the end of April. Beyond Giving Voice will explore theoretical and ethical implications of qualitative researchers’ claims to be ‘giving voice’ to children.
“It’s about sharing perspectives and stepping out of our own world to think about how other people are experiencing the world. It’s a way of thinking and challenging ourselves.”