Senior Researcher - Imagine Better
Research for change: Addressing the needs of disabled people
Carey-Ann Morrison came to the University of Waikato straight from high school certain she’d graduate as a geography teacher. That didn’t happen. Today she is Dr Carey-Ann Morrison and she leads the research programme at Imagine Better, a not-for-profit disability rights and advocacy organisation based in Wellington.
For Carey-Ann, university was truly life-changing.
“When I came to university I didn’t fully appreciate the career options a geography degree afforded. The undergraduate papers in my I enrolled in exposed me to new ways of thinking and gave me new tools – theoretical frameworks such as feminism and poststructuralism – to help understand the world.”
Carey-Ann studied a Bachelor of Social Sciences (BSocSc) and then completed a Master of Social Sciences (MSocSc) and capped off her studies with a PhD. She learned about embodied difference (gender, sexuality, race and dis/ability), power and inequalities and how they relate to spaces and places. “I was encouraged to think about my embodied places in the world and how I could use this knowledge to challenge dominant relations and create positive social change,” she says.
Carey-Ann’s area of expertise is feminist geography, and she’s interested in issues around gender sexuality and, more recently, disability.
Her interest in disability is personal as well as professional. Carey-Ann’s eight-year-old son Lachie has Down syndrome, and it’s Lachie who drives her commitment to the work she does now as a researcher; striving to make our communities more accessible, inclusive and welcoming of disabled people.
Carey-Ann’s immersion in feminist geography was greatly influenced by Waikato professors Lynda Johnston and Robyn Longhurst who have international reputations as leaders in the discipline. They supervised Carey-Ann’s PhD which examined the relationship between heterosexual love and home in contemporary New Zealand. Her subjects were 14 couples aged between 20 and 40 years old, and she used a variety of techniques including interviews, solicited diaries, self-directed photography and questionnaires to gain information on their experiences, applying feminist, poststructural, and geographical theories on ‘the body’ to underpin her research.
She was awarded a Ministry of Education Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship and the Evelyn Stokes Doctorial Memorial Scholarship, amongst others. “That meant I could focus on my study and take up amazing opportunities to attend national and international conferences, and connect with a global community of geographers,” she says.
“I look back over my career to date and can wholeheartedly say that my years as a doctoral student were the best years of my career. There aren’t many times in a person’s life where it’s possible to do in-depth research on one particular topic.”
Carey-Ann retains links with the University of Waikato as an honorary associate in the Geography Programme, and with her PhD supervisors she’s undertaken research on disabled people’s experiences of belonging, place and community.
When Carey-Ann sent her CV to Imagine Better they weren’t looking to employ a researcher at the time. But she must’ve been convincing because they created the position for her. As lead researcher she’s involved in all stages of research, from development of proposals, literature reviews, data gathering, analysis and dissemination.
“Our research aims to create positive social change for disabled people, their families and whānau. I’ve led research projects on disabled people’s access to mental health services through to evaluations of services that are provided for disabled people.”
Disabled people make up 24% of Aotearoa New Zealand’s population – the largest minority group in the country, but Carey-Ann says their voices are often silenced in public conversations on issues like housing, health, and employment. Research shows that as a result of a combination of structural barriers and discrimination disabled people experience poorer health outcomes, lower education achievements, less economic participation and higher rates of poverty than non-disabled people.
“So, we want to drive change, advance the health and wellbeing outcomes for disabled people, through reduced poverty, more accessible homes, more inclusive schools, communities and workplaces, better health and stronger relationships.” And Carey-Ann says we need to make sure that research is driven by the needs and expertise of the disabled community, rather than oriented around the agendas of typically non-disabled researchers and funding agencies.
“When I started university all those years ago, I would never have thought that life’s twists and turns would have got me to where I am today. I have a beautiful son, am part of a wonderful wider community of disabled people and their whanau, and I have an amazing career that allows me to contribute to making our communities better places for everyone. It was absolutely my university studies that laid the foundations for me to navigate this journey.”