Sept. 28, 2022

Innovative research into inclusivity for disabled communities is 1 of 14 projects to receive federal funding

UCalgary researcher has a vision to create a more equitable society
Kathleen Sitter
Kathleen Sitter Faculty of Social Work

Researchers across the country are seeking innovative solutions to create a more inclusive society for Canadians with disabilities.

One proposal out of the University of Calgary will not only help them find solutions, it will also be the first of its kind in the world in how it makes this research more accessible.

Dr. Kathleen Sitter, PhD’12, associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work and Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Multisensory Storytelling in Research and Knowledge Translation, has been awarded more than $400,000 from Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) toward her research that aims to create a multisensory storytelling research studio. The goal, she says, is to lead “new understandings of life stories and create better solutions that support quality of life and accessible societies.”   

Sitter’s project is one of 14 from UCalgary to receive funding through CFI’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF).

“Researchers are coming up with necessary solutions to complex global issues through innovative thinking and cutting-edge infrastructure,” says Dr. William Ghali, UCalgary’s vice-president (research). “CFI’s investment will support researchers like Dr. Sitter, whose project will contribute to the expansion of a more inclusive and equitable society.”

Sitter currently runs the online Multisensory Studio, which has three guiding principles: tell stories through the senses; make research accessible; and celebrate difference. The proposed research facility is an extension of her CRC work.

“‘Multisensory storytelling’ refers to life stories we look at, listen to, smell and taste, feel and experience,” says Sitter. “It centres disability, inclusive design and knowledge translation processes that incorporate multisensory and innovative technology data applications.”

Sitter notes that one in five Canadians over the age of 15 is categorized as disabled, and says her research is important as it focuses on “prioritizing sensory techniques in research and knowledge translation [providing] opportunities for disabled people to share embodied experiences in novel ways.”

Representation matters

People with disabilities are often marginalized and experience multiple barriers to fully participate in society. There has yet to be a program that prioritizes sensory modalities with the goal of creating accessible methods in fieldwork, analysis and knowledge translation, with a focus on working alongside the disability community specifically, which is the driving reason behind Sitter's work.

“Disability intersects across all demographics. Historically, disabled people have been excluded from decision-making that impacts their lives,” says Sitter. “As most social research [focuses on] speaking and writing methods to understand experiences, this inherently creates participation barriers for many people.”

For these sensory modalities to be used effectively by Sitter and her colleagues, they needed to rethink predominated and often exclusionary data such as interviews, surveys and participant observations. This research focuses on the experiences of people with disabilities and aims to facilitate specific and blended senses in research design.

The first studio of its kind in the world

The Multisensory Research Studio will include a series of sensory suites: a visual suite, a sound suite, a tactile wall, an olfactory suite, a gustatory suite, a 4D theatre, a makers workshop and a studio archive. Others involved in the research with Sitter have included Dr. adam patrick bell, PhD, and Dr. David Nicholas, PhD.

When planning and creating the infrastructure of the studio, Sitter and her team consulted and worked closely with an advisory group that included persons with lived experience and expertise, to ensure its accessible design. There will also be an advisory council consisting of disability-organization personnel, disability community members, scholars and government officials.

This initiative — the first of its kind in the world — will monumentally change the way research is done while offering a vibrant and accessible training environment for everyone.

Sitter knows it will reach further than that. “Making research accessible for everyone, one story at a time, will lead to solutions that will create a more accessible society for everyone,” she says.

The 14 UCalgary research projects to receive CFI JELF funding

  • Dr. Arshad Ayyaz, PhD (Faculty of Science): “Ex Vivo Models of Intestinal Regeneration and Disease”
  • Dr. Johnathan Canton, PhD (Veterinary Medicine): “Investigating the Molecular Mechanism(s) of Antigen Cross-Presentation by Dendritic Cells”
  • Dr. May Choi, MD (Cumming School of Medicine): “CatalystDx: Comprehensive Autoimmune and A.I. Laboratory Testing and Diagnostics”
  • Dr. Jackson Cone, PhD (Faculty of Arts): “Signal Readout and Plasticity for Perception and Action”
  • Dr. Wendy Huang, PhD (Schulich School of Engineering): “Development of Bioelectrochemical Systems for Wastewater Treatment in Cold Climates”
  • Dr. Pierre LeVan, PhD (Cumming School of Medicine): “Localization of Electroencephalographic Biomarkers of Epileptic Brain Areas”
  • Dr. Kelsey Lucas, PhD (Faculty of Science): “Aquatic Biomechanics Infrastructure for Studying the Mechanics of Underwater Movement and its Impact on Aquatic Ecology”
  • Dr. Martin MacInnis, PhD (Faculty of Kinesiology): “Investigating the Regulation, Responsiveness, and Relevance of Skeletal Muscle Mitochondria in Exercising Humans”
  • Dr. Juan Murias, PhD (Faculty of Kinesiology): “Central and Peripheral Cardiovascular Adaptations to Personalized Exercise Training in Older and Young Females and Males”
  • Dr. Wilten Nicola, PhD (Cumming School of Medicine): “Training Biophysically Detailed Networks Neurons to Display Organism Level Behaviours”
  • Dr. Alain Pietroniro, PhD (Schulich School of Engineering): “Developing the Next Generation of Flow Forecasting System in Cold Regions”
  • Dr. Kathleen Sitter, PhD (Faculty of Social Work): “Multisensory Storytelling Research Studio”
  • Dr. Holly Sparks, DVM, PhD (Veterinary Medicine): “Development of a Comparative Musculoskeletal and Translational Regenerative Medicine Research Program”
  • Dr. Marinka Twilt, MD, PhD (Cumming School of Medicine): “Advanced Multi-Modal Imaging and Biologic Discovery to Understand Childhood Arthritis”