Congratulations to our alumna, Susan Mahipaul [nee Guenther (MScOT’04), PhD (McMaster University)] on being selected as one of 3 finalists for the prestigious Pursuit Award. The Pursuit Award recognizes PhD students from across the globe for their outstanding achievements in childhood disability research. Finalists are chosen based on significance of research results, methodologic rigor, empirical content, and impact on childhood disability care. On June 7, 2016 Susan and the other finalists presented their doctoral thesis work at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto (see http://research.hollandbloorview.ca/events/bripursuitawardprogram/2016).
Susan identifies as a critical disability theorist specializing in Disability Studies within the Rehabilitation Science environment. She received her doctorate in September 2015, and is committed to continue exploring ways to talk about disability and how Critical Disability Studies helps us rethink rehabilitation theory and practice. In her thesis work, Susan brings forward a life course perspective about disability in the rehabilitation sciences. She explored how her own critical reflections on living with a congenital disability can be used to critique normative assumptions and expose how power and normality shape each other within rehabilitation practices and society at large. She points out that the disability experience, and how people interact with their bodies, constitutes a bigger picture with the people in our lives, and the environments and cultures within which we are embedded. The social model of disability alone cannot fill this space. Neither can Rehabilitation Science, if it continues to focus on impairment and the person, leaving out societal factors. She challenges rehabilitation practitioners to understand that power and powerlessness are central tenets of disability and rehabilitation. A clinician, working in a truly client-centred way, is one who understands how social practices construct disability, through exercises of power.
Susan starts a post-doctoral fellowship with Dr. Karen Yoshida from the Department of Physical Therapy at University of Toronto in September, 2016. Plus, she has been offered a part-time teaching position in the Disability Studies program at University of Western Ontario.
Susan’s interest in ‘giving voice” to persons with disabilities in research began while she was a youth, when invited to participate on panel presentations together with researchers who were exploring such topics as quality of life of youth with disabilities. Susan felt that some of the questionnaires used by research teams were insensitive to the ‘lived experience’ of youth with disabilities. She spoke up and asked whether people with disabilities were included as part of these research teams, rather than just research participants/subjects. She was disillusioned that they were not, at that time. As a young person with a lifetime of experiences with her physical disability she had strong feelings that the research would be more relevant and meaningful if persons with disabilities were involved on the research team.
When Susan was a student in our MScOT program, the topic she chose for her final year research project arose from the challenges and difficulties she had as a student with a physical disability during her undergraduate and graduate studies. She designed a study to explore how students with physical disabilities navigated and negotiated their accommodation needs and student roles at university. She realized that the disability experience is poorly understood for young adults transitioning into adulthood. Susan captured her reflections upon her own experience as a student, and her analysis of the transcripts from her interviews with other students with disabilities in an article for OT Now magazine, published by the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists.
Susan continued to reflect upon her own lived experiences having grown up with a physical disability, and this provided a focus for her doctoral dissertation. Her dissertation will soon be published as a book. We have no doubt that the insights and recommendations arising from Susan’s doctoral work have the potential to greatly influence rehabilitation practice going forward. We congratulate Susan once again and look forward to learning from her future scholarly pursuits.