Co-Constructing Able-bodied Notions of Research/er by Holly Pearson

These are some thoughts on disability, social justice, education, and research/er that I have been contemplating on since my first research methods course.  As I noted in my previous contribution: the vision(s) of social justice and education are highly individualistic due to the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the people involved.  Therefore, I wish to avoid indicating that there is only one right method or perspective by engaging in a dialogue about disability, social justice, education, and research/er.  Reflecting upon being a doctoral student and researcher with significant hearing loss on one side (I wear a hearing aid on that side) and deaf on the other side, I have been wrestling with the taken for granted assumptions of what constitutes as research/er.  Visualizing my past interviewing experiences, there appears to be a “similar” scenario being set up: situated in a quiet yet well lit room where the individual and I are located on either side of the table facing each other with a tape recorder in the middle of the table.  Reflecting upon this scenario, I came to realize that I also participate in masking or rendering the presence of disability within the research process invisible; thus, perpetuating the neutrality of interview methods.

When searching for a location for an interview, I look for a room that is quiet, well lit with very few to no other individuals in the room.  What I mean by quiet is a room that has little ambient noise interference such as the air conditioning that will interfere with the quality of the digital recording of the interview or my ability to hear the individual.  A well-lit room enables me to read lips and understand more of the conversation.  Not being able to lip read makes it extremely difficult for me to understand conversations if I had to rely solely on hearing. Minimizing the presence of other people minimizes background noise that interferes with my ability to hear and minimizes visual distraction as well.  My visual abilities compensate for my hearing loss by being extra sensitive to movement, which can be extremely distracting as I am very conscious of every movement that is occurring within my visual parameter.  In addition, my accent resulting from my hearing loss is masked by my Asian American appearance in spite of the fact that sign language and English are my two first languages.

Furthermore, I purposefully try to locate a set up and situate the individual that is favorable for me.  This is not to say that I do not consider the other individual’s needs, but there appears to be an unconscious process where I intentionally seek out ways of masking the limitations of my hearing loss by seeking out situations that are favorable for me. Situating ourselves face-to-face enables me to read their lips and facial expressions without being too obvious that I am relying on lip-reading.  If I am not able to sit face to face, then I situate myself so that I am sitting with my left ear that has the hearing aid, closer to the individual.  Therefore, to engage with the interview method there are multiple steps utilized in order to mask the existence of my disability.

By my continuous efforts to mask the presence of my disability, I realized that my actions played a significant role in the co-construction of what constitutes research/er; therefore, there is a need to consider how social differences (e. g., race, class, gender, religion, language, age, sexuality, and disability) contribute to and shape the research process (Rossman & Rallis, 2012). Ellingson (1998) recognized:

My sense of embodiment keeps me deeply rooted in the awareness that knowledge is produced not by the disembodied voices that speak in official accounts of research in professional journals and books but by researchers, whose bodies unavoidably influence all aspects of the research process. (p. 298)

For example, when considering who embodies a researcher, typically, that involves imaging a person who is white, male, heterosexual, middle-class, masculine, and able-bodied (Ellingson, 2006), which raises the question of how that notion came into existence.  Therefore, by conceptualizing interviews as a form of social interaction, it allows one to see how interviewing plays a role in shaping meaning and assumptions about the research and the researcher within the context of able-bodied and disabled.  In other words, in the interviewing process, the two parties are co-constructing what constitutes research/er.

Returning to my personal experiences, through my efforts of masking the presence of my disability, I not only reinforced the able-bodied notions of who is a researcher and how research methods are employed. By masking my disability, I also masked the opportunity to counter the hegemonic notion of a researcher that is able-bodied.  Secondly, dominant notions of research methods were perpetuated by my efforts to interview in an oral and listening manner rather than utilizing services such as Real Time captioning or an interpreter.  By perpetuating able-bodied notions of what constitutes as research/er, the concept of research methods remains perceived as neutral and uncritically challenged.  Thus, by reframing what constitutes as a research/er through the lens of disability enables one to fractures the assumed neutrality that research process by critically highlighting the unspoken taken for granted notion of able-bodied.  In other words, the lens of disability provides an alternative way of conceptualizing the research/er.  Furthermore, there is a need to reexamine and reconsider alternative ways of learning, teaching, and understanding the role of methods within the process of research that fosters an environment where current and future researchers embrace and embody critical consciousness that continues to not only expand our knowledge of research methodologies and methods and the construction of knowledge; but also grapple with how the notions of normalcy, able-bodied, and disabled shape what we come to understand as research/er.

Thank you for taking the time to participate in this dialogue.


Ellingson, L. L. (2006). Embodied knowledge: Writing researcher’s bodies into qualitative health research. Qualitative Health Research, 16(2), 298-310. doi:10.1177/1049732305281944

Rossman, G. B., & Rallis, S. F. (2012). Learning in the field: An introduction to qualitative research (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE publication, Inc.

Holly Pearson is a doctoral student in the Chapman University Ph.D Education program.  She obtained her M.S. in Sociology from Iowa State University, and a B.A. in Sociology from University of Fairbanks Alaska.  Her areas of interests are Architectural Theory, Critical Space Studies, Disability Studies, Intersectionality, Critical Education, Social Justice, and Race and Ethnicity.  Presently she is focused on entwining all of her areas of interests in attempt to see if her dissertation topic is feasible.

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