By Deborah Melman-Clement
"Life has given me this really interesting question, and I'm so lucky that I get to spend my time answering it," says Barbara Roberts, a doctoral student at the Queen's Faculty of Education.
The question came to her in the midst of her work as a Disability Services Advisor in the university's Health, Counselling and Disability Services. "I got very interested in the theoretical aspects of my work," she explains. "I had been doing a lot of advocacy, awareness training and policy development, and I wanted to look at how we construct schooling , how it affects students with disabilities in professional education. I thought it would be interesting to explore the application of human rights case law in higher education."Accessibility for disabled students remains a sticky issue at most universities, particularly in the professional programs such as medicine and education. A student may be refused accommodation because her needs can't be met in a clinical setting. She could then challenge the decision as discriminatory under the Human Rights Code.
"Nobody thinks about human rights law when they're designing academic requirements," Roberts says, "but the law has identified standards for discrimination. So how do you determine which needs can be accommodated and which ones can't? I thought it was a fascinating question."
Roberts shared her ideas with Magda Lewis, a professor in the Faculty of Education, who found the question equally fascinating and encouraged her to apply to the PhD program. She took Lewis's advice and, after passing a qualifying course, joined the program on a part-time basis while continuing her work in Disability Services.
While combining doctoral studies with a demanding job may be difficult for some, Roberts has been relishing the experience. "It's a true cross-pollination," she says. "Everything I've studied has been visible in my work and everything I see at work shows up in my studies. It's like a wonderful symphony."
"It's a really rich experience," she says. And the richness shows up in both her job and her studies. "I bring the dual perspective to everything I do. It's more meaningful to be involved this way. I don't know what's work and what's school half of the time."
Roberts's attitude has been a key contributor to her experience. Now in her mid-50s, she's not under the kind of pressure that younger students routinely put on themselves. "I'm doing this purely for the joy of learning," she says. "I'm not doing it for a tenure-track position at this stage in my life, so I'm not uptight about how it goes; I'm here to make a contribution to the field, and feed my head."
Fortunately, she's got plenty of company. Among her classmates are several contemporaries who are similarly motivated. "We have such incredibly stimulating conversations," she says. "It's very rewarding."
Roberts' experience has only been possible because the university encourages its staff to pursue graduate studies. "Queen's is very supportive of staff taking part in higher education," she says. "I would encourage anyone to do it. It enriches your work if you love it, and if you don't, it enriches you."