I am investigating how a theatre performance disables someone who has low or no vision. One goal of my research is to explore and publicise strategies for making characteristically visual events (e.g., theatre performance) accessible to the broadest possible audience.

 
Faculty of Arts
Kirsty Johnston
Harrisburg
United States of America
 
Research Description

I am investigating how a theatre performance disables someone who has low or no vision. One goal of my research is to explore and publicise strategies for making characteristically visual events (e.g., theatre performance) accessible to the broadest possible audience. My research explores three questions: • What is the experience of attending live performances for patrons who identify as visually impaired or blind? • How do performance makers disable these patrons? • How can performance makers creatively make their work more accessible to audiences with low, no, and full visual acuity? An ethos in the disability community is ‘nothing about us without us.’ The first part of my study will focus on interviewing and corresponding with theatre patrons or makers who identify as having low or no vision. I will make this information public on a purpose-built website, with the permission of contributors and support of the PSI. The intent of sharing this information is to make sure that the perspectives and voices of participants are shared as broadly and accurately as possible.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

Being a public scholar means expanding the community I learn from and share my discoveries with. The opportunity to collaborate with and listen to those involved in the PSI, particularly specialists in fields quite different than my own, is a large attraction to the programme. I am excited about the workshops and development opportunities that are part of PSI. Although I have considered my work ‘public scholarship’ for many years, I am keen to see how the leaders and participants of this programme envision, define, and demonstrate this model. I am looking forward to learning many ways of sharing research, expertise, and ideas with communities on campus and off, nationally and internationally. Most importantly, being a public scholar at UBC means that my research will be more accessible and reach a larger audience than what would have been possible without the support from the PSI.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

There is a lot of exceptional research and thinking in my field that gets tucked away into forms that are ephemeral, obscure, behind paywalls, or perhaps written in a language that is not accessible to many outside of academia. The impulse of public scholarship is, as I understand it, to bring every great idea to the broadest possible audience; this is different than what I see in much PhD work, which frequently seems directed towards a very small group of specialists. Public scholarship puts the ‘Who cares?’ question front and centre for PhD research, with the encouragement and challenge to answer that question with the largest group of people imaginable. I admire critically complicated, sophisticated, and specialized work presented in language that people use every day. I have always been impressed with how certain people can develop theories and translate them into action and impactful solutions to problems. Public scholarship provides a reminder that the products of our research should not just be directed at those who provide jobs, grant tenure or entry into prestigious journals or publishing houses. My mother, the friends I grew up with, and someone on the other side of the world with no idea about my field should be able to get insight and entry into the worlds we as academics, theorists, and practitioners occupy and explore.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

The PSI helps shifts my thinking beyond the academy and towards a wider consideration of where my work will find a home. While the context of my research currently sits in specific fields, its foundations in disability, design, and access are shared by any area where perception and human interface is a concern. I expect the PSI will hone my ability to shape and articulate complicated or complex areas of my research to unexpected audiences and uses. For example, although I have spent most of my life in the performing and media arts, I have a love of computer and software technology. How might my research fit in these or other fields? I welcome the chance to expand my professional options, to find a place in what has been called the intersection between technology and the liberal arts. Thinking about and working towards public scholarship enables flexible conceptions of my expertise that will shape my research applications and path towards whatever career awaits.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

The objective of my research, enabling those who are disabled by our choices, impacts everyone. Everyone will have a personal or lived connection with disability at some point in their lives. I hope that my research will help people reconsider their conceptions of disability and disabling and realise that we have incentives to facilitate access to all aspects of our shared social and cultural lives. The primary subjects of my research are people with low or no vision who are disabled by the choices of others. The initial public aspect of this research will amplify and promote the voices of these contributors for anyone to engage with on a public website. Additionally, I will present my research in various forums, including academic conferences and journals, professional and community-based organisations, and with practical examples or applications. Each of these engagements aspires to build partnerships addressing a problem (disabling others) that we all perpetrate and tolerate to some degree. Part of my presentation and communication strategy is to have people reflect on how (supposedly) minoritarian perspectives and experiences can reimagine and enrich ‘conventional’ ideas and practice.

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

Disability is often an afterthought for people who think it is not a part of their lives. There are always nuances and specific experiences of navigating our world that can expand anyone’s consciousness. If I can get people to reconsider or discuss their conceptions of disability and access, I will have contributed a little something to the public good.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

There are many reasons. Here are some, in no particular order: 1. I love to teach. A PhD enables opportunities to facilitate student development, collaborate with emerging artists and scholars, be part of a team in a department or faculty of fellow travellers, and work sustainably and securely at a level that would not be possible without the degree. 2. I love research. Pursuing the PhD grants me easy access to library, laboratory, and expert resources that enrich and feed my interests and helps address my curiosities. 3. I missed having intense, profound, and challenging conversations about my field and other areas that I did not have easy access to in the professional world. I wanted to return to university as a student to reengage with these kinds of discussions. 4. Where else would I be required to spend all day reading about topics that fascinate me? 5. I (still) want to change the world. Whether by contributing to conversations that change people’s minds and inspire productive action, or by facilitating future agents of change in classrooms and workshops, I would like to leave the world a better place for others.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

I came to UBC to study with Dr. Kirsty Johnston, an expert in my field of performance and disability. In addition to the appeal of working with her, I wanted to be in a department that offers training in all aspects of theatre, film, and media; these practice-based concerns are integral to my research. The broader resources of UBC were an attraction – the library and access to experts in my own and other faculties factored into my decision; UBC has renowned specialists in fields allied to my research interests, including media and audience studies, opera, sociology, anthropology, archival studies, instructional design, cognition, and linguistics. There is also the lure of Vancouver and BC. Living and learning in a beautiful place is something I value. I do some of my best thinking walking in the woods and on the beaches around campus. Vancouver’s reputation as a multicultural city with an established disability arts community was certainly a draw. BC is a great location to raise a family and find a decent work/life balance. And, I like rain.

 

Being a public scholar means expanding the community I learn from and share my discoveries with. The opportunity to collaborate with and listen to those involved in the PSI, particularly specialists in fields quite different than my own, is a large attraction to the programme.