Guest article by our main researchers on Project Citizenship,
Nancy Spencer-Cavaliere, PhD and Bethan Kingsley PhD Candidate, Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, University of Alberta
In 2011, through shared interest, people in common, and some very good luck, we learned about Project Citizenship. Our first meeting with Skills Society leaders led to an invitation to be part of the project and to collaborate from a research perspective. Over the past several years, we have been attending think tank meetings, the University Action Hall, and PC events and celebrations. We have also been conducting interviews with Skills staff, University of Alberta students, project allies and family members, and the citizens themselves, whose stories have been the focus of PC. In this article, we outline some of the learnings that have come from the research and how we might use these to further strengthen our practices in supporting the meaningful citizenship of people who experience disability.
This is a very important question to be able to answer and a critical starting point for engagement in the project. Having a good understanding of what PC is means that we also need to have a common understanding of citizenship. In our interviews, we learned that while most people had a similar understanding of citizenship after being involved in PC for some time, a clearer understanding at the outset would be helpful. We think the following definition offered by Knox (2006) well summarizes the meaning of citizenship in line with the project. According to her, citizenship is
“A person being integral to their community, a person who both is valued and respected, and feels valued and respected within their community; a person whose inherent dignity as a human being is upheld; and a person whose uniqueness is not only recognized but is also considered a valuable contribution to a rich and dynamic societal fabric” (p.3).
While having a common starting point, by way of a definition of citizenship is important, we also learned that involvement in this project requires being able to ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and ‘think outside the box.’ The Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary (2014) defines these phrases as “to do something difficult without the necessary skill or experience” and “to think using your imagination and having new ideas instead of traditional or expected ones.” In describing PC, one staff shared:
“It’s just that different kind of thinking, letting loose to new ideas and a different way of doing stuff.”
When first introduced to PC, many staff and students were hesitant about their roles and concerned about being able to make worthy contributions. In reflection, they talked about how the support of colleagues, peers, Skills leaders, and community allies helped to ease these uncertainties and encouraged them to think in creative ways to further the goals of the project. Presentations and opportunities to interact with family members and community experts also supported their engagement. Being involved in PC requires a willingness to take leaps of faith and collaboration with others makes this more possible.
The importance of others has been a constant and critical theme in our interviews and observations. Whether speaking with staff, students, allies, families, or people who experience disability, having and developing meaningful relationships are necessary, not only for creating the PC stories, but essential for enhancing citizenship. This is exemplified in the following quote from a community ally:
“He made a big difference in everybody’s lives. I know we made a big difference in his, but he sure did the same for everyone else too.”
Study participants articulated how the processes involved in PC brought about a sense of reciprocity and community. This was accomplished when everyone had opportunities to share their needs, aspirations, fears, and experiences. Environments and activities that are thoughtfully constructed to enhance the citizenship experiences of all people involved must be considered. The significance of what we share and what connects us can lead to a profound understanding of the other. It is this understanding coupled, with the recognition of what people who experience disability encounter differently in their lives, that are of great consequence to creating change at both an individual level and more broadly in our communities. As one student stated:
“I think you can’t really understand or see a perspective until you are like actually interacting with someone.”
Creating change is a primary goal of PC. While this change is one designed to enhance the lives of people who experience disability, leaders at Skills have often quoted Burton Blatt (1974) over the course of the project. He wrote:
“Some stories enhance life and others degrade it so we must be careful about the stories we tell”.
This quote is a reminder to all involved in the project that there is power in stories and we must be careful and responsible for the ones we tell and the ones we create. People who experience disability have and continue to be systematically denied meaningful opportunities to participate in activities that facilitate a sense of citizenship (Yeung, Passmore & Packer, 2008). Because this is so prevalent in society, constantly questioning our own assumptions and ongoing critical reflection are paramount, even when we think we are doing something for the better. A student involved in the project penned the following:
“I went into this project thinking I was to help her, to get her story out so she can be a valued part of the community, but in actuality it was about helping myself, and facing my own subconscious assumptions that barricade her from fully being part of the community.”
Engagement for the purposes of change requires that we challenge our assumptions. Within the context of PC, this means ensuring the voices of people who experience disability are at the forefront and that what constitutes a “good life” (quote from a citizen) is both represented and actualized from the perspective of the person who lives it. As a parent whose son has his story documented reminds us,
“All people have rights to be included everywhere no matter what your abilities are, disability or whatever.”
Although there is more we could say about our research findings and certainly the learning continues, we offer the following summary:
First, a common understanding of citizenship is a necessary starting point. If change is what we want, we need a clear vision of what it looks like?
Second, creating change means doing things differently, being willing to try, and to be a bit uncomfortable in the process. Collaborating with willing others will make this easier.
Third, relationships are vital. Having a sense of community and belonging is what citizenship is all about. If we want to make change, creating deliberate opportunities to experience reciprocity and to increase our understanding of each other is a rich place to begin.
Fourth, always question. To inspire change we must continually reflect on our history, our beliefs, and the taken for granted. Our openness to think and do differently has the potential to truly enhance the lives of people who experience disability.
Blatt, B. (1974). Christmas in Purgatory: A Photographic Essay on Mental Retardation.
Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary (2014). Retrieved from
Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary (2014). Retrieved from
Knox, M. (2006). He’s more than just a service user, you know. Crucial Times, 36, 3–4. Retrieved from http://www.cru.org.au/crutimes/CT36/ct36.pdf
Yeung, P. H. Y., Passmore, A. E., & Packer, T. L. (2008). Active citizens or passive recipients: How Australian young adults with cerebral palsy define citizenship. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 33, 65-75. doi:10.1080/13668250701875129