Laura is a passionate advocate, teacher, Blind scholar, and dedicated community member. She brings these qualities to bear in the collaborative project Being Blind. The Being Blind team is working to expose misperceptions resulting in marginalisation and create an engaging campaign challenging what you think it means to be Blind.
285 million people globally, including 500,000 Canadians, face marginalization on a daily basis simply by virtue of having visual impairments. We face social isolation, reduced community participation, higher rates of poverty, and one of the lowest employment rates of all groups. Why is this happening? Although legal and political rhetoric espouse inclusion, general misunderstanding of what it means to be blind remains a major barrier to our partcipation in the social, political, cultural, and economic fabric of our societies.
Using a participatory approach, in which I (as a Blind academic researcher) will join with other experts (Blind co-researchers) to explore what it means to be blind and create a social change strategy that might help shift some of the attitudes that lead to negative experiences. This project aims to result in actions that enhance understanding and diversity within the greater community, and ultimately improve quality of life for Blind people.
What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?
Being a public scholar means pursuing work that will benefit the wider community as well as the academic community, making purposeful social contributions. To me, there was never another option but to be a public scholar. This, at the core, is why I am here. Being a public scholar is to me deeply rooted in social justice – I am here at UBC (in an academic community) and also active in other communities (such as the Blind community), working to build bridges and to collaborate on projects that will lead to wider benefit. Being part of the UBC PSI specifically is a unique and invaluable opportunity to engage with scholars who have diverse projects, but some similar aims. This also opens possibilities for me to develop skills that will allow me to contribute to the public good both now and into my future beyond the PhD, such as writing op-eds, designing press-releases, strategically using social media, and presenting information in a way that it might reach opinion and policy leaders.
In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?
The PSI supports aspects of research in which I might otherwise be unable to engage and provides a strong network of scholars who are passionate about making a significant positive social contribution while pursuing doctoral education. Therefore, the PhD is being reimagined: the processes, training, opportunities, and outcomes are no longer restricted to academia. There is a new emphasis: the public good. I am excited to be part of this reimagining, and to learn from and with PSI colleagues about creative and innovative ways that knowledge and conceptual frameworks can be built and articulated such that they impact society.
How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?
Following completion of this graduate program, I will have the skills, training, and connections necessary to inform policy and engage the public in issues of social justice. Being Blind provides opportunities to engage with diverse individuals, organizations, and professionals. I do not know specifically what form my future career will take (that is something I am discovering through this process); however, I anticipate and hope that I will have opportunities to engage with national and international partners aiming to increase equity via projects that integrate community participation, lived experience, rigorous research, and creative knowledge generation/translation.
How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?
As a participatory project, Being Blind is being shaped by the community, particularly the Blind community. Individuals and organizations are supporting this project through various levels of involvement. Further, one of the aims of Being Blind is to reach the larger community, and in order to do this we will work with community/social partners to design outreach that will have maximal impact.
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
I became an Occupational Therapist because I wanted to help people gain the skills and confidence needed to flourish. Nearing the end of my Master of OT I was asked if I’d like to do a PhD. Having witnessed that change on an individual level is significant but sometimes insufficient, I chose to pursue a PhD that would allow me to contribute to change in the social structures that prevent people from flourishing.
Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?
Given that I’d never considered doing a PhD and that no one in my social sphere had, I lacked any reference point when making this decision. For me, it was not really a decision to do a PhD at UBC specifically – someone asked if I wanted to, and I said yes so here I am. Now, however, I know that this is an excellent place for me to be as someone who is pursuing a PhD with the goal of contributing to positive social change. Here at UBC there is a growing community of scholars concerned with doing scholarship that contributes to the public good and I am excited to be part of this, to find support in this community, and to support others.
To me, there was never another option but to be a public scholar. This, at the core, is why I am here"