Laura Yvonne Bulk (@LYBOT) is a teacher, advocate, friend, learner, woman, disabled person, occupational therapist, Christian, activist, and scholar. Her work focuses on enhancing diversity and understanding and promoting human dignity and flourishing. Laura aims to benefit the wider community and the academic and clinical communities through collaboration, creativity, and evidence-based approaches.

Research Description

There are about 8 million blind and partially blind people in North America, who face markedly lower participation in the social, economic, political, and educational fabric of society.

Having a sense of belonging is related to success, personal satisfaction, and retention in higher education.

Using a participatory approach, Laura has joined with other Blind people to explore the experience of being blind and belonging in higher education, as a teaching, working, and learning space. This project aims to result in actions that enhance understanding and diversity within academia so that we can create a place where everyone belongs.

The research team is using a combination of techniques to examine both the internal experience of being Blind in academia, and the environment in which this occurs. Conversation circles occurred with both sighted and blind people to discuss how/if/when belonging develops in higher education, and what hinders and facilities it.

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 a single stream within 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. Additionally, the research team is working to design a project that will creatively share our messages to people beyond our immediate circles.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

Being Blind in academia aims to benefit the public good by giving individuals, communities, and leaders tools and knowledge to create spaces where everyone can find a sense of belonging. We will do this by:

  • Sharing stories of blind peoples’ experiences in academia – to increase empathy and understanding.
  • Exposing ways we all might inadvertently say “you don’t belong here” – to increase awareness of how our own actions and inactions might perpetuate marginalization.
  • Providing strategies and tips – to increase knowledge about how to create a space of belonging and decrease the discomfort many people feel around a blind person.

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.

This represents some of the major themes:

I arrive at the faculty meeting. I can hear clinking spoons and cups, smell coffee and I can sort of make out a something in the middle of the table, but no one makes that small gesture of belonging to say ‘hey Laura there's coffee by the door and cookies in the middle of the table if you want some’

You don't belong here.

I've applied for so many jobs at the University and the only ones I ever get interviews for are in disability services. Why can’t anyone recognize my other contributions?

You don't belong here.

I’m registering for a student event on campus. But there is no place on the registration page to say what my access needs are. I don’t really have time to dig around for an email, and don’t want to be that person who’s asking for something again. Maybe I'll just muddle through

You don't belong here.

This place isn’t built for me, it isn’t. If it was I wouldn’t have to keep fighting to say I do belong here.

We can change what people are hearing.

 

 To me, there was never another option but to be a public scholar. This, at the core, is why I am here"