Rehabilitation research focuses on social barriers
Often when thinking about rehabilitation sciences, the physical environments people face is the first thing that comes to mind.
Gayle Restall, a researcher in the department of occupational therapy in the College of Rehabilitation Sciences, Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, focuses on the social environments and attitudes people face that could support or hamper their participation in the activities they value like, work, family, and community life.
While most people can grasp the physical barriers a patient may encounter, the social barriers and attitudes may not be so readily apparent.
Restall’s research work has been centred on three main areas: Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), mental health conditions and HIV. These three conditions have something in common in that they’re ‘episodic’ disabilities, meaning people can have relatively long periods of good health before experiencing a setback. The episodic nature of these conditions creates a set of needs quite different from those of people living with permanent disabilities.
Restall says that her interest in social environments stems from her clinical work experience.
“I worked with people living with mental health conditions and the social component is important for that group,” Restall says. “I’ve worked in many different settings and the importance of environments became obvious to me and how willing and open the environment is to supporting people, regardless of their impairments.”
Currently, Restall is working with a research team focused on people living with IBD.
“One of the areas we looked at was work and how it impacts those living with that particular chronic disease,” Restall says. “Some of it was focused on the physical environment, but a lot more was around the social environment, whether it was peoples’ attitudes if someone disclosed they had IBD; or attitudes they may face if they needed some kind of workplace accommodation; or the willingness of an organization to create and provide accommodations. Our interest is in how all those things came together to either help or hinder people to have long-term employment.”
Restall’s other research area is in HIV.
“HIV used to be considered a terminal illness but because of advances in medical treatments it’s now considered a chronic long term health condition,” Restall says. “One of the research projects we’ve been working on is developing delivery service models that include occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech language pathology to support those living with HIV and also looking at what people living with HIV perceive as the things they need in terms of long term support.”
The stigma attached to HIV is also a major component in the social environment of those living with this chronic condition.
“One of the things that strike us when we look at the information and the research is the impact of stigma” Restall says. “Our research is looking at ways that we can both monitor the experience of stigma for people living with HIV and develop some interventions to reduce the kinds of stigma that people feel, whether in the health care system or the community at large.”
In all her research, Restall strives to work closely with the community and encourages the participation of those who will be impacted by her work.
“The thread that goes through my research is the whole idea that people who live with chronic health conditions are active participants, not only in research, but in their own health and the development of health services and social policy,” she says. “When I do research I like to really focus on effective ways of making sure their voices are heard, honoured and respected.”