SPHERU Stories

Taking a Holistic View of Disability

A reflection by Dr. Michelle Stewart.

Dr. Michelle Stewart’s research focuses on community-engaged projects and partnerships around cognitive disabilities, mental health, and racialized health inequalities.

In my research, I’m trying to take a holistic view of a disability and address the social justice issues that surround it.

This includes the impacts of systemic racism, settler colonialism, social isolation, and stigma. This view includes considerations of what the practical interventions can be, as well as an understanding that systematic and transformational change must happen to fundamentally bring about big changes in people’s lives. However, in the interim, we need realistic short-term strategies to address the structural inequalities. My work focuses on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). This is a disability anyone can have but my work looks specifically at the outcomes and challenges when someone has FASD and is Indigenous.

For the nine years I’ve been working on FASD and the justice system, I can see a disproportionate focus on the question of justice outcomes with less attention to root causes.

The roots of the issue, when we’re talking about Indigenous individuals with FASD, is a conversation about settler colonialismand most white people (settlers) avoid that conversation. When looking at FASD, there are social justice questions that need to be addressed and there are multiple vantage points from which to do so.

Indigenous individuals with FASD are overrepresented in the justice system.

Many settlers bracket out the question of settler colonialism when talking about FASD and justice and instead focus on the disability. The disability outside of the context can mean the social determinants of health framework is lost and, instead, is replaced with the outcome: justice system involvement.

Practically speaking, at the end of the day, research has indicated that people with FASD are understood to have an average life expectancy of 34 years of age and the leading cause of death is suicide or accident.

So there is an incredible need to address the social isolation and structural inequality that surrounds individuals with FASD which is what I try to do with my work.

o there is an incredible need to address the social isolation and structural inequality that surrounds individuals with FASD, which is what I try to do with my work. Whether it is a community-arts project that uses improvisation to host peer mentoring workshops or a frontline justice program to support individuals involved in the justice system, my work is usually trying to bring together collaborative community-based research with a strength-based approach that seeks to address the broader contexts surrounding FASD. Our projects, near and far, are trying to figure out where people’s strengths lie, identify those strengths, and then work collaboratively to foster those strengths to transform our understandings into a real world application and change. 

Learn more about Dr. Stewart’s research with the FASD Project: Applied Research for Social Change

Dr. Stewart is involved in a range of projects, from those that focus on FASD and the justice system to strength-based projects that focus on interventions to help address social isolation.