Dr Imelda Burgman
Dr Imelda Burgman from ArtsHealth: Centre for Research and Practice has shown that art can be used to facilitate scientific discussion during a study into how children with disability use spiritual qualities in their everyday life.
Dr Burgman, a lecturer in occupational therapy at the University of Newcastle, conducted the study as part of her PhD at the University of Sydney. Her research priority was, and continues to be, to support the voices of children, youth and families to be heard by health professionals.
The study was based in phenomenology, which is a philosophy of science that attempts to create conditions for the objective study of subjective matter.
During the study, Dr Burgman worked with upper primary school children with both physical and intellectual disability. She visited them individually at their homes in NSW and the ACT, because she believed it was "important to see them in their territory".
The study looked at how children with disability engaged with the world. "I was interested in how they used spiritual qualities like courage and hope and trust in their everyday lives, particularly in relation to taking risks," Dr Burgman said.
In keeping with phenomenology, Dr Burgman used art to create conditions for the objective study of subjective matter. This meant she used a combination of drawing, creative media and photography as the background to her discussions with the children.
"While I was having a conversation with the children about family and friends, and the rest of their lives, we would create art together. I did it with them. Everything they did, I did," she said. "And while that happened, I asked them about who they were, how they lived their lives and what mattered to them."
Dr Burgman found that taking part in activities together fostered trust between the interviewer and the interviewee. It also increased the enjoyment of the process. "There was a lot of joy for both of us. Undertaking an activity together, as opposed to just sitting and talking, was important. We were sharing an experience, which created a more equal relationship."
Dr Burgman said the study was about occupational therapy, not art therapy. "I wasn’t interested in interpreting what they had created, even though some things stood out. The art was there to facilitate the discussion and the relationship. The children created what they wanted to create. They often drew their family or a pet that had died, something of significance to them."
"The quality of the art didn’t matter, but the children's work was very good," she said. "The images were quite amazing and it was a real passion for some of them."
The children were also given a disposable camera as part of the study, and were asked to take photos of things that mattered to them - people or places.
"When they had finished taking the photos and I had developed them, we sat down together and they would tell me about them. It meant I could find out a lot more about their world, which was really helpful. It also meant that if they spoke about someone they could show me that person as well, so it was a good visual aid."
Dr Burgman said the project's photographic component also created a sense of empowerment. "It's unusual for children of that age to have unsupervised access to a camera. I told them, 'This is yours to do what you want. If you break it, it doesn't matter. I can give you another one. And if you take 24 pictures of the same thing, that's fine as well.' The power of having their own camera was immense, even if it was just a little disposable one."
Dr Burgman hopes to undertake further projects relating to art and science through the ArtsHealth: Centre for Research and Practice. "From the children's comments, I realise it was an important time for them and an enjoyable time for all involved. I think finding a common language between health professionals and artists has real benefits for health and wellbeing, particularly for people with disability. Being able to bring these two worlds closer together is incredibly important."