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Photo exhibit tells stories of disabled students

One photograph features a trio of plastic toy animals: a kitten, a unicorn and green reptilian monster. Another shows a double-parked car in a garage. One is a tight shot of railing balusters in a dimly lit room, but there’s something unusual about its perspective: it was taken from an upside down angle.

The photographs displayed in the inaugural Photovoice Art Exhibition and Reception, along with their appended captions, tell stories of frustration, confusion, friendship and passion through the lenses of Ohio State students with disabilities. The exhibition, which debuted Friday at the Frank W. Hale Jr. Black Cultural Center, is part of a research project studying the factors that impact the academic experiences of students with disabilities.

“Basically, the research questions are what are the academic sort of things that foster academic success and the things that impede academic success from the perspective of students with disabilities?” said Daniel Newhart, associate director of Student Life Research and Assessment.

OSU wellness coordinator Katye Miller initiated the project in June after learning about the photovoice research methodology at an American College Health Association conference last year. The methodology has historically been used in the field of health promotion to provide a voice for underrepresented or disenfranchised groups and oftentimes, to influence policy change. Miller chose to adapt the methodology for her project and focus on students with disabilities because of the lack of research on the stressors that affect their academic success.

Seven students were recruited through the Nisonger Center and the Office of Disability Services participated in the project. The students met every two weeks throughout Winter Quarter. OSU English professor Brenda Brueggemann taught the students storytelling and community photographers Meredith Stone and Justin Luna trained them in photography. Outfitted with cameras, the students were given free range to take pictures of whatever they wanted, a key component to the research study.

“This exhibition, the way that we did it, was based on what they wanted to do,” Miller said. “So we don’t have a formal program because they didn’t want a formal program. We put (the photos) in the order that they wanted. We didn’t edit any of their words. It literally is their voice and what they wanted to say.”

What these students have to say are “loud messages,” said Dr. Bong Joo Hwang, a psychologist with Counseling and Consultation Service working with Miller on the Photovoice project.

“Some people talk about support systems they have here, so it can be really positive factors for their academic experiences,” he said. “Some people talk about things that make it difficult succeeding academically.”

One photograph, for instance, features a dozen neatly arranged bottles of prescriptions pills. The caption below discusses the photographer’s dependency on medication for mental illness: “I don’t eat to live; I eat so I can take my pills.”

“I guess my hope is that whoever comes here to see the photos and read the stories has some understanding about what these participants are talking about — the factors relating to academic success, which include the positive and negative,” Hwang said.

Students involved in the exhibit declined to provide their full names when contacted by The Lantern.

The Student Wellness Center, Shell Global, McAlister Framing and the Wexner Center for the Arts funded the study. The researchers will present their findings at the Multiple Perspectives on Access, Inclusion and Disability Annual 2011 Conference on May 4 and 5. The exhibition at the Hale Cultural Center will run through April and part of May.

Rooted in her interest in social justice, Miller hopes to continue Photovoice with a different population every year.

“Individuals who are not part of a particular population sometimes try to say that that’s what the population needs just because quantitative date says so without necessarily looking at the qualitative piece of it and through their particular eyes,” Miller said.

“So I think one of the biggest things is being able to allow the population to share their voice through visual as well as words.”

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