“Walk a mile in my shoes.” It’s a common metaphor, almost to the point of cliche, but one that I’ve been living, quite literally, for the past few months. Back in November, a moment of inattention on a set of stairs sent me tumbling and ended with a fractured metatarsal on my left foot and me in a walking cast for a month. Just as I was finishing my recovery from that injury, I ruptured my Achilles’ tendon in my other foot playing badminton: that incident was a bit more serious, requiring surgery to repair (which I had just last week) and me looking at a six-month recovery period before I’m back to one hundred percent.
Both of these injuries have had an impact on my daily life, particularly my mobility. Normal tasks became much more difficult, especially with the Achilles’ injury as I’m not yet at the stage where I can put weight on that foot. I’m adjusting to life with crutches, and while I can go short distances, walking to work won’t be an option for some time. Both injuries also created difficulties with events or routines that I had previously taken for granted: take a community event or networking night, which often takes place in crowded spaces with few options for sitting. I also started noticing barriers in the world. Those two steps into a building that I would be hard-pressed to notice before turned into an obstacle. When the local transit agency substituted an older bus onto a route that usually had low-floor vehicles, I noticed (and cursed). Searching for an elevator only to discover it’s out of service (or non-existent) would definitely knock the wind out of my sails.
These two injuries have provided me with just a tiny bit of insight into what life is like with a physical disability that impacts mobility. Unlike many others, I know that this status will (hopefully!) not be permanent, and I have many supports that can help me through the next few months. However, the lessons from these experiences won’t leave me soon – while physical accessibility was always on my checklist when planning an event I’ll definitely be more conscious of those barriers, both now and after I’m back to walking on two feet.
In the non-profit and social services sector, we don’t often have the opportunity to take a literal walk in another’s shoes (though there are some neat roleplaying exercises that try to provide those experiences). When we think about evaluation or program feedback or research, the first thing that usually comes to mind is a questionnaire or survey: while these set questions have their uses, there is the risk that we’re reducing people to a couple of numbers on predetermined scales, boxing them into our predefined concepts, and ignoring important contextual differences. If I was running an organization that helped people with mobility issues but based our practice solely on my experience with temporary injuries, our service would be of little use to seniors, single parents, or people with multiple health issues (just to provide a few examples). Although there would be some commonalities, I would not claim that they will follow the same path, or that what helped me would help them.
Fortunately, there are means by which we can better understand each other’s stories and make the link between abstract statistics and a person’s lived experiences:
- Participatory research methods can help participants’ voices to be heard, even for those who face barriers around literacy, language, or negative experiences around tests or forms.
- One research method that is seeing increased use, Photovoice, provides people with cameras that they can use to capture and share some aspect of their lives, such as “safe” and “unsafe” spaces or aspects of their neighbourhood that promotes or hinders healthy lifestyles.
- Taking the metaphor literally, inviting local residents to lead researchers or staff on a walking tour can vividly highlight both the needs and challenges that a community faces as well as its assets and strengths.
- A simple open-ended question like “Tell me about yourself”, together with an atmosphere of respect and confidentiality, can provide the space for someone to share their lived experiences.
- Approaches to research such as Participatory Action Research (PAR) and Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) consciously include the voices of those affected by the research through the full process of designing a study, collecting the data, and making sense of the results.
In developing or adapting programs to best support individuals and communities, we need to be open to, if not walking a mile together, at least learning more about their journey.