Imagine the difference your actions could make
Counsellor. Advocate. Human rights defender.
Sticking up for others has been a lifelong habit for Karen Heslop. Growing up, she gravitated toward the runt of the litter and always had an eye out for the “little guy.” Today, she keeps an eye out for those society tries to relegate to the sidelines.
“My daughters joke about how even in watching sports I’m always cheering for the underdog,” she laughs. “It’s been ingrained in me since I was a child, I guess.”
Karen’s father was a union negotiator, so from an early age, she had a heightened awareness of people who were being oppressed or disregarded. “In my family, I grew up knowing about the civil rights movement,” she explains. “In literature, the disability movement is often referred to as the last civil rights movement, so I have this real passion in terms of people with disabilities being marginalized.”
Throughout her education and career, Karen has worked in the field of disability. From her studies in sociology, community rehabilitation and disability studies to her work on the frontlines, within policy reform and in education, Karen has been involved in helping those with disabilities and their families.
“I’ve always moved along this really broad spectrum of social policy and organizational perspective to focus on the individual,” says Karen. “On one hand, I’m drawn to the big-picture thinking, but I always miss working with individuals when I move to the social policy area. Right now I have a great balance, because as a program chair, I get to do this administrative, broad thinking, but I also get to be in the classroom working with students.”
In 2007, Karen fulfilled a dream and become a psychologist, and started a small private practice. As a counsellor, she primarily works with people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD, once referred to as Asperger’s Syndrome).
“One of the things that I work on with this group is identity development,” she explains. “We talk about people with disabilities as a separate culture—a culture to be proud of—as opposed to being marginalized and not being part of community.”
“ For some people, a label can be helpful—for others, not so much.”
Karen explains that the individuals she works with are fairly high-functioning, often managing work or school responsibilities. They understand that they are different, and often struggle with feeling like they’re outside of the mainstream of society.
“It’s important to help them come to an understanding and a place where they can see there is nothing wrong with them. They need to understand that they can take pride in who they are and find their place. They need to become accepting of themselves,” says Karen.
“It can be really difficult for someone with a disability to grow up in a family where his or her sibling is dating, or getting married. For people with ASD, it’s especially difficult to form relationships and keep them, so we work on that as well. But it’s really about forming their identity and coming to terms with who they are as a person who has that kind of label.”
The idea of labelling can be a hot-button topic for many involved in the field, and Karen’s feelings are mixed on the subject.
“For some people, a label can be helpful—for others, not so much,” she cautions. “In some cases it can help access funding for educational support or assistance as an adult, if necessary. However, some students are reluctant to be labelled, because they’re embarrassed when things are really highlighted as special for them.”
As part of her current research, Karen is exploring universal design in education, which involves designing courses and curriculum in such a way that they are accessible to all people. She explains that ideally the classroom should be able to accommodate those with learning disabilities.
“We can do a lot as teachers if we are knowledgeable about how we can organize our classes and what creates good design for anyone to learn.”
She notes that this issue is a big one in the universal design discussion, because it centres on the social justice paradigm versus a disability one.
“The whole labelling thing goes far beyond disability,” she explains. “And we really have to think about that.
Karen’s passion for advocating for and working with people with disabilities is fortified by some of the activity she sees happening around this civil rights movement—especially close to home.
“In Alberta it’s been very cool, because people with disabilities are learning to self-advocate, and these self-advocates have been developing as a movement fairly recently,” she says. “They’re borrowing from past civil rights movements such as the gay pride movements, and local gay pride groups have, in many ways, lent themselves as allies to this movement, giving advice on how to be in a movement, how to take power and how to see yourself as a culture—how to be proud of who you are.”
While this last civil rights movement continues, Karen looks forward to contributing through her work with those who need the help and by teaching those who will offer it. Although working through policy and supporting others as they struggle can be discouraging at times, she really can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I always manage to rediscover my passion and my energy to work in this field,” she says with a smile. “Every time I try to take a step away from it, I always end up back here, so I know it’s the right thing for me to do.”
Karen is a faculty member with the Faculty of Health and Community Studies. Learn more about our programs in MacEwan.ca/Community.