PhD Profile: Rehabilitation Sciences Institute Graduate Dr. Gail Teachman Receives Governor General’s Gold Medal

Dr. Teachman is recognized for her research on issues of inclusion and disability in childhood.

The Office of the Governor General awards gold medals annually to honour academic excellence at the graduate level. One of the most prestigious awards a Canadian graduate student can receive, the Gold Medal is awarded to three University of Toronto students who achieve the highest academic standing.

“Receiving the Governor General’s award is a true honour” says Dr. Teachman. “This recognition highlights the importance of my research, and brings issues of inclusion for disabled children to the forefront.”

Dr. Teachman, who worked for over 20 years as an occupational therapist at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, was doctoral student to Department of Physical Therapy professor Dr. Barbara Gibson.  “My PhD research explored how young people with physical and communication impairments are affected by dominant social understandings of inclusion as a universal good” explains Dr. Teachman.

Initially, she worked as a Research Assistant for Dr. Gibson, where she built on Dr. Gibson’s previous work developing methods for interviewing disabled children. For example, Dr. Teachman adapted strategies that include cartoon-captioning and the use of puppets to elicit discuSmall human puppets in wheelchairs to elicit discussions with childrenssions with children. She also co-authored a chapter in Dr. Gibson’s new book Rehabilitation: A Post-Critical Approach. In her doctoral training, Dr. Teachman wanted to build upon her mentor’s existing work. “Barbara’s research encourages us to re-think many of the ideas and principles that currently underlie practices in rehabilitation. I find her work inspiring, and decided to focus my PhD thesis on inclusion, examining how it operates in our society.”

Dr. Teachman’s study found that what we may think of as inclusionary practices can sometimes have exclusionary effects. For example, often disabled children attend “special education” programs in mainstream schools, which is considered a move toward inclusion. However, some young people that Dr. Teachman interviewed said they felt excluded in this environment, because a “normal students” vs. “special students” dynamic existed. They struggled to be “as normal as possible” in order to feel included. Other study participants felt most included within segregated environments. Over time, they had absorbed social values that frame disabled people as somehow lesser, or disability as a type of failure. As a result, they felt they “belonged” in separate, or excluded social settings.

Example of cartoon-captioning to elicit discussions with children. The cartoon shows a young girl in a wheel chair talking to a young boy standing. There are thought and conversation "bubbles" above their heads.

 

While these are simplified examples of the complex social, economic and political issues surrounding inclusion, Dr. Teachman stresses that we should seek creative and alternative ways of improving the lives of disabled children that move beyond idealized notions of inclusion.

 

“The goal of my research is to engage rehabilitation clinicians and researchers in conversations around inclusion, providing them with new conceptual tools that challenge our assumptions about disability, and how we can help these children thrive” says Dr. Teachman. “It has been an incredible honour to work with Dr. Gibson, as her mentorship has really guided the evolution of my research. Her work is truly unique and interdisciplinary. I admire her commitment to the discipline of physical therapy. Her work is changing the way we all think about rehabilitation.”

After completing her PhD at University of Toronto in February 2016, Dr. Teachman was awarded Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) funding and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at McGill University.

Barbara Gibson and Gail Teachman at the awards ceremony
Dr. Gibson and Dr. Teachman at the School of Graduate Studies awards ceremony.