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Post-doctoral fellow recipient of prestigious 2017 Joan Eakin Award

Congratulations to post-doctoral fellow Julia Gray, the 2017 recipient of the Joan Eakin Award for Methodological Excellence in a Qualitative Doctoral Dissertation from the Centre for Critical Qualitative Health Research!

In her work, Gray explores the ways that kids with disabilities make art and engage in arts practices and what that kind of art making means within a rehabilitation hospital. We sat down with her to understand what this award means for her and her work.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

Gray: I am completely thrilled, and frankly blown away, to have won this award. The Centre for Critical Qualitative Health Research (CQ) is unique in the academy and Joan Eakin, who is the namesake of the award and Professor Emerita at Dalla Lana School of Public Health, is an incredible scholar, teacher and mentor. CQ is an amazing resource for those of us doing critical scholarship. I admire the network of scholars at CQ for their dedication and tenacity for doing the work they do, in the ways they do it – to be recognized by them is truly an honour. And to also have won this award alongside Gail Teachman – who was the runner up and did her PhD here at Holland Bloorview – is also very exciting and absolutely humbling.

Q: What do you hope to achieve through your work?

Gray: I will be exploring the ways that kids with disabilities make art and engage in arts practices and what that kind of art making means within a rehabilitation hospital. For example, when kids engage in music therapy, what does that mean for them? And what does it mean that this kind of practice happens in a rehabilitation hospital? Does it support or compliment other kinds of therapies in the hospital? Does it challenge those other therapies? Why is that important?

I think looking at the ‘outcomes’ of those arts therapies is important too (does it improve communication, alleviate depression, etc) – but we can’t make strong links between those outcomes and the thing itself, the art making, until we better understand it! Focusing on those outcomes also overlooks the art-making itself as important and meaningful. As another part of my work, I’m also keen to use the arts to open up conversations with the Holland Bloorview community and the general public about experiences of kids with disabilities and their families as ways to address stigma and make social change – let’s use the arts to think through assumptions we might have about kids with disabilities, to help improve their lives.

Q: Why do we need critical qualitative health research in science?

Gray: Critical qualitative health research helps us to re-think and overturn assumptions and move towards change. The tricky thing with assumptions is that we don’t often know we have them. But critical qualitative research provides approaches to be able to engage in this kind of process.

‘Qualitative research’ broadly encompasses many different kinds of inquiry, but it frames science as mediated by humans, including how we interpret discourses and language we use, institutions and social structures, and also our own position as researchers. Qualitative research attempts to explore the interrelationship of these things regarding a given topic using a range of data collection and analysis methods such as observation, interviews, and textual and visual data analysis (including arts-based). The ‘critical’ part comes into play when you start to ask questions that challenge ‘the norm’ or the assumptions I mentioned earlier.

Critical qualitative health research can help us to recognize the role of power in health-related research – if we continue to do things the way we’ve always done them, how and why might that (or might that not) be a problem? Science needs critical qualitative health research.