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Researching Researchers – Sheenagh Morrison Interviews Patrick McDonagh

August 30, 2012

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1) Patrick, you developed and produced a documentary DVD, which is distributed by Spectrum Press, called “And that is how I got free of my isolation” Conversations on Isolation. Can you tell us a little bit about this documentary and why you think it is important for people to watch?

I filmed the documentary because I had been working on a web site ( on the history of lives of people who had been labeled as having intellectual disabilities, and I had been going to a lot of People First meetings in my research for this web site.  The interviews in the film were shot at a People First Canada conference in Saskatoon, and the focus of the conference was on isolation. That also ended up being the focus of the film, as people were eager to talk about their experiences with isolation and also about freeing themselves from isolation. They had some really compelling stories. It actually took me a long time to make the final documentary after shooting the interviews, because people had so many good things to say, I didn’t know what to include. Eventually, a friend helped me out by editing the footage for me, or I might never have finished. I think the documentary is important because it tells stories of people working together to overcome obstacles in order to lead lives that are full, to have close friendships, jobs, and so on. Of course, as a lot of people in the documentary make clear, the problem of isolation remains a very big one for people with disabilities.

2) In terms of intellectual disability, what are your current research interests?

I’m mainly a historian, so I’ve written about the history of ideas of intellectual disability. I’m primarily interested in looking at how people are represented in the past, which involves looking at how plays or movies or novels or poems represented people with intellectual disabilities and trying to figure out why people might have been portrayed in particular ways. I’m now working with a few other people to put together an anthology of historical research on the idea of intellectual disability, although we’ve really just begun. Tim Stainton, who you have already interviewed, is one of the people I’m working with. I’m also starting to work on a history of ideas of intelligence as well – this is closely connected, because intelligence and intellectual disability often get defined as opposites, although I think that is a big mistake. So I want to learn more about the history of those ideas of intelligence to see how they have affected what we think about intellectual disability.

3) Spectrum Press has an anthology coming out in October titled Institutions to Individuals: On Becoming Person-Centred for which you have contributed two interviews. Who did you interview and why did you choose them?

My interviews with Peter Park and Paul Young originally appeared on the labelgame web site. I interviewed these two individuals because they have both done a lot to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. They’ve helped lead People First. Paul was the first Chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities to have an intellectual disability. They are true activists, I have tremendous respect for them, and that’s what drew me to them as interview subjects. I really just wanted to hear what they had to say about their lives.

4) Can you tell a brief story about one of your friends who has a disability and what you think they bring to their community?

There are many possibilities!  I’ll pick an international example. My friend Ellen lives in London, England, where she is a poet, an actor and a musician. I have a copy of her CD, and enjoy it very much. She wrote most of the songs on it. I think everyone who meets her is impressed by how much energy she has, and how strong her creative spirit is. She is a really impressive, hard-working individual, and lots of fun to be with. She is very close to her brother and spends a lot of time with their mutual friends. There is a real sense of energy and enthusiasm to her and her life, and that’s what she shares with the people around her – that energy and enthusiasm and creativity.

5) Do you think there is a role for people with intellectual disabilities in research related to them?

Absolutely there is! I think as often as possible people with intellectual disabilities should be part of research related to them. When I was putting together the labelgame web site I consulted with people with intellectual disabilities to see what sort of focus they would like the web site to have and how it could be useful to them. That web site has been in a suspended state for the last few years, unfortunately, due to a lack of money and time to update it. Recently, though, I met with the representative of Openstorytellers ( in England. They do a lot of advocacy through storytelling, both personal and historical stories, and we are thinking of working together to find a way to bring the labelgame site up to date. This would be a big job, and without the past and future contribution of people with intellectual disabilities I don’t think it would be very good. That is an example of how, in my field, people with intellectual disabilities can be involved in research and the products of that research.

6) Is there anything else you would like to say?

Thanks for interviewing me!


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