People with disabilities find connection through art

How a lab at the University of Regina combines fine arts and social sciences research to help people with disabilities to express themselves through art
University of Regina
Fine Arts
Viewed from backstage, a group of people on a tour stand on stage looking toward the empty auditorium

Image of Kathleen Irwin

Kathleen Irwin leads the University of Regina's Vocally Oriented Investigations in Creative Expression Lab (VOICE Lab).
Image courtesy of Dorian Kristmanson

At the Vocally Oriented Investigations in Creative Expression Lab (VOICE Lab), people with disabilities explore and develop new avenues in art, culture and creativity. Decked out with digital tools and an artistic ambiance, the University of Regina lab provides people who are vocally challenged or use non-verbal communication a chance to produce podcasts, create digital sand paintings or make music. More to the point, by providing artistic support for disabled people, it provides a sense of what it means to identify as an artist within a community of other artists.

Opened for less than a year, the lab’s dedicated researchers quickly moved their work from a physical studio space to an online suite of tools to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions. Kathleen Irwin heads up the lab, which embraces “artivism,” the idea that art is activism, and where making and doing is the methodology and what is produced is a new form of knowledge. We spoke to Irwin to learn how art can provide everyone a way to gain confidence and develop agency.


What does artivism mean to you?

The role of the artist is to communicate. Art carries the artist’s unique voice. It’s a way to position oneself within society — it’s a political act. Conflating art and activism gives us “artivism.” Learning to be an artist is to become political. The notion of political voice or agency is very much at the heart of the VOICE Lab.

The work in our lab contributes to sharing personal and collective experiences of disability. Creating art and storytelling is one of many ways to empower folks to express themselves, affirm their personal agency, and push against normative ideas of disability and voice. Student researchers often tie their creative ideas to a desire to educate others about their experiences. 

We’ve seen so many upsetting headlines this year. Can art be used to empower people?

The research carried out by the VOICE Lab is absolutely relevant to this current moment — a period of time in which we have been required to reflect on, reset, reboot, redefine what we are doing and how we are listening to individuals who do not always voice loudly their place in the world — whether they are black, disabled or marginalized in any other way.  Art-making has the potential to amplify voices that are not always heard.

Talk about a time you saw someone gain their voice through performance.

Kelsey Culbert is a brilliant young woman who is a real artivist. She uses a wheelchair as a place from which to speak, and is becoming more and more central in the local performance community. She has proven her abilities as an artist and activist through writing, blogging, making podcasts and acting with a Regina-based performance company.

Deux femmes souriantes en pleine conversation

Kelsey Culbert (right) and Katherine Taylor, who works with Astonished! Inc., a community organization affiliated with the VOICELab
Image courtesy of Brenda MacLauchlan

Walk me through your lab. What goes on there?

Before the lockdown, if you entered the VOICE Lab, you would see a recording studio with computers, keyboards, sound recording equipment and microphones, as well as meeting and office space. Although it is not big, the doors are all wide enough for wheelchairs. You might see students and helpers creating blogs or podcasts, or experimenting with the looper and keyboards, or creating sand art and experimental music using iPads. Since COVID-19, our intern, Mia Bell, moved all our activities online, providing museum tours, singalongs, Zoom social hour chats, painting classes and things like that. While there are other VOICE-Lab-like research centres in Canada, ours is unique in its focus at the intersection of disability, social work and art making.

What was your path to this type of research?

I started as a theatre designer — that profession later came to be known as a scenographer. That shift indicated a way to think about stage space not merely as decorative, but as a form of representation that is multi-layered and culturally inflected. That was my first move towards theory, even as I continued to produce theatre.

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My second shift took me out of the theatre building and into found spaces, like an abandoned mental asylum, an old brick plant and a village in Saskatchewan struggling with cultural sustainability. In those spaces, the cultural, historical, political and theoretical layers are overt and pressing. The idea of how meaning is made in found space performance was the focus of my PhD.

With that, I became an artist with a PhD. In the final stage of my career change, I became very interested in training artists to think through practice and research. I also became interested in welcoming marginalized voices into art practices — and how that might change the world.