The Support Centre for Inclusive Higher Education (SIHO) supports the Flemish higher education (Belgium) to become inclusive. SIHO is led by the UN-Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and works from a Disability Studies perspective.
To support all the Flemish higher education institutions our three main tasks are service provision, networking and research.
When we started in 2008 we discovered that in the material and the research available in Flanders, the perspective of students with disabilities was missing completely. We saw it as our responsibility to inquire the perspectives of students with disabilities, to learn from their experiences, to get in-sight. After a first qualitative research project (n=9) we felt the need for a method that did right to the complexity of the phenomenon of disability in higher education.
In this way we discovered the arts-based research method Portraiture.
Discovering Portraiture as a method allowed us to inquire the perspectives of students and professionals with disabilities. Research through Portraiture is driven by the dialogue between art and science, by mingling research and activism, by combining rigor and creativity. A portrait always contains a layered narrative and a creative or artistic component.
Since 2009 we used the method of Portraiture (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997) in a combination of contexts (the course on Disability Studies and the course on Interpretative Methods of Research at Ghent University, the course on Inclusive Education at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel; and a research project for SIHO, the Support Centre for Inclusive Higher Education).
The space and time for research is limited within SIHO. By supporting students in the above mentioned courses to work for SIHO, we created with them 38 portraits of students or professionals with a disability. There are 3 series of portraits: portraits of students with a disability studying in higher education, portraits of students with a disability on international exchange and portraits of professionals with a disability who are at work after graduating from higher education.
Our main research aim was to understand the perspectives of students and professionals with a disability and to understand the complexity of disability. As a side-effect we learned a lot about the process of Portraiture. As reflective practitioners, we reflected critically during the process of Portraiture, together with the students that functioned as the portraitists and with the people who were portrayed. We had email contact, face to face intervisions and a virtual platform to exchange experience. Through that we inquired ourselves on who’s making the portrait, on whose portrait it is, and on what happens between the portraitist, the participant and the audience.
We discovered that driven by the Disability Studies framework, we gave an extra twist to the method of Portraiture. The participant is given the lead of the research process and the design of the portrait. All of the 38 portraits are unique, which we will show in the presentation. In every portrait the design of the artistic component originates from the person who’s portrayed. The researcher doesn’t decide.
Portraiture feels very intense, the method is clear, but very open and doesn’t have very strict or practical guidelines. The researcher and participant have to dare and search together. One cannot make the portrait without the other. The portrait can only be made in close and horizontal relation between researcher and participant.
When the portrait finds its way to an audience, meaning-making naturally happens through a similar kind of interplay between ‘portrait and audience’. The intimacy of the ‘portraitist participant’-relation flows over to the audience, who gets connected and engaged in an embodied understanding of the portrait.
The method Portraiture fits our need for a research method to that does right to the complexity of the phenomenon disability. It gives all the space to include the missing perspectives of people with disabilities in practice, policy and research.
Next to that, as researchers with a Disability Studies perspective we added a valuable approach to research through Portraiture. All portraits get co-constructed in an intense intra-action between the ‘so called participant’ and the ‘so called researcher’.
Portraiture ‘in a Disability Studies version of the method’, is all about becoming and belonging. One becomes (an)other in several ways. Where we originally thought of inquiring insider perspectives of students or professionals with disabilities, we discovered that inside and outside are no discrete concepts anymore, neither for researcher, participant and audience.
Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. & Davis, J.H. (1997). The Art and Science of Portraiture. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.