Look, listen, learn

Researcher profile: Josée Boulanger

Josée Boulanger, a graduate student in the interdisciplinary master’s program in disability studies, says “I went to university to become a social activist.” Boulanger began her studies at the University of Ottawa with an honours degree in communications and recently defended her thesis at the University of Manitoba.

Boulanger’s tool for social activism is video storytelling. She chose video for its “ability to give the illusion of reality and its capability to reach people regardless of their level of literacy.” Her thesis, titled “Look, Listen, Learn: Collaborative Video Storytelling By/With People Who Have Been Labelled With An Intellectual Disability” describes her video collaborations and the feature-length documentary she co-directed with members of the self-advocacy group People First.

Boulanger and her co-directors began The Freedom Tour in 2006. With financial support from the National Film Board of Canada and People First of Canada, their film idea grew from a Manitoba focus to a Prairie-wide project. It was released in 2008, bringing critical acclaim to Boulanger and the People First co-directors, as well as raising awareness of the experiences of people in Canadian institutions.

Boulanger spoke to the Gradzette from her family-owned farm in Vars, Ontario, a town just outside Ottawa. She has vivid memories of her first encounter with members of People First of Manitoba. One cold evening in February, 2005, People First staged a rally in front of the Legislative Building to protest the government’s announcement to provide $40 million to keep the Manitoba Developmental Centre, a large institution for people labelled with intellectual disability, then in operation. At the time of the protest many from the disability community considered the Developmental Centre to be an outdated system of care that kept its residents from contributing to a community setting.

As Boulanger filmed the activists holding up signs and making speeches, she realized “these people were not weak, they were not victims, they were tough!” Despite the freezing temperature, and being seven months pregnant, Boulanger recalls feeling “energized by their open resistance.” She says she feels “lucky to have had the opportunity to work with people who were passionate and committed” to their cause.

Boulanger’s understanding of intellectual disability is informed by the social model of disability.

“[I have come] to understand intellectual disability as a construct largely defined by a medical perspective that pathologizes difference. The value and the meaning we, as people, attribute to difference is based on our cultural beliefs and interpretations and lived experiences.”

For Boulanger, challenging notions of intellectual disability has an immediate connection because her younger brother, Stéphane, has this label.

“For me, it’s personal: C’est une histoire de famille.”

“When people who have been labelled receive the support and have the power to tell their own stories using an accessible medium such as video, social stereotypes may be shattered since they do not fit the varied and complex realities of people with so-called ‘intellectual disabilities.’”

After her degree at the University of Ottawa, Boulanger worked with Freeze Frame, the Media Arts Centre for Young People, to teach media production to students throughout Manitoba in both French and English. In 2004, while helping her mother find disability-related information on the internet, Boulanger stumbled across the University of Manitoba’s interdisciplinary master’s program in disability studies.

Finding this program was “a real eureka moment,” says Boulanger. “The pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place.”

“It dawned on me that this program might allow me to explore the theory related to disability, so that I could help people make videos that would destabilize accepted ideas about people labelled with intellectual disability.”

In her thesis, Boulanger adopted an autoethnographic approach to reflect the same process of experience-based story-telling that she encouraged in others. Her advisor, Dr. Nancy Hansen, director of the interdisciplinary master’s in disability studies, says Boulanger’s thesis is “the finest example of this type of participatory action research and autoethnography that I have ever seen.”

“[She is] the finest example of the academic activist,” says Hansen. “Her work illustrates the best ways that the academy and people with intellectual disabilities can work together to facilitate meaningful social change.”

Boulanger says that being a sister to Stéphane has nurtured her desire for social justice as well as her curiosity about human behaviour. Now that she has completed her thesis, Boulanger feels that she is still far from finishing her mission. She compares the experience of writing a thesis to travelling.

“Just when you begin to feel comfortable and confident with the language you have acquired, the trip is over and it’s time to go home! Finishing my thesis was just the beginning. I feel that I have just scratched the surface. There are so many more stories that need to be told from the experience of people who have been labelled with an intellectual disability.”

The videos Boulanger created with members of People First can be seen on the Label Free Zone / Zone sans étiquettes on YouTube. Copies of The Freedom Tour can be ordered from the People First of Canada website.

This article was originally published in the Gradzette.