Deepening our understanding of inclusion

Faculty of Education
Equity, diversity and inclusion
Research and innovation
Virginie Abat-Roy
Virginie Abat-Roy | Image credit: C. L. Cusack
Inclusion researcher Virginie Abat-Roy (PhD ’24) says ableism (the discrimination of those with disabilities) is a daily obstacle for people with assistance dogs. “It’s shocking to hear some of the judgemental things people say to those who live with handicaps," she explains.

For Abat-Roy, it’s not only a question of educating the public, but also an issue of social justice. With her canine companion Toulouse by her side, she is a vocal advocate for equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility. She seeks to amplify the voices of marginalized people in Canada and raise awareness about the exclusion of those with disabilities who are assisted by guide or service dogs.

We had the chance to speak with Abat-Roy about her research on inclusion, the lived experiences of her doctoral study participants, and her work as a professor in inclusive education. This interview is part of our Scholars in Education series.

Tell us about yourself and your career.

I started my career in education at the University of Ottawa. Near the end of my bachelor’s, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in teaching in the Faculty of Education. That’s when I found the topic of inclusion had me hooked! I wanted answers to my questions and to hone my critical thinking. I developed a project close to my heart: an animal-assisted teaching program with my lovely Toulouse, a service dog from the Mira Foundation. This inclusion measure benefits all students, not just those who have a diagnosis.

Teaching brought many experiences, including work in a Steiner-Waldorf school and a specialized, one-on-one teaching job where I provided resources to students who had been expelled, suspended or had special medical needs. Together, these left a lasting impression on me.

I worked on my PhD while teaching. I had the opportunity to develop more expertise in the field of inclusion, particularly in addressing the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, and in inclusive and innovative teaching and accessibility. After several years of teaching (including at the University of Ottawa and the Université de l’Ontario français), I have the privilege of being a professor at the Université de Moncton in New Brunswick. I’m advancing my research on inclusion and helping to train current and future teachers.

Could you give us a quick summary of your PhD thesis?

My doctoral project was on the experience of accessibility and inclusion for disabled people with guide or service dogs. It was a qualitative research study using the photovoice method. Research participants could take photos or videos of their accessibility experiences, publish them on a private Facebook group, exchange posts, and then discuss certain themes in-depth during individual interviews. This research was very rewarding, both at the scholarly and social levels. It allowed me to better understand the daily experiences of a very diverse population, whether it’s a future teacher with a service dog, a blind person with a guide dog looking for a job, a person with a disability, and a service dog looking for new accessible paths, or a parent preparing their autistic child to attend school with their dog.

What prompted you to pursue this line of research?

The first time that I went out in public with Toulouse, someone stopped right in front of me, looked me up and down, and said: “Come on, you don’t look disabled. What’s wrong with you?” I was taken aback by this experience and shaken by several others that followed. It was a shock to discover it was part of the daily experience of people with guide or service dogs, who are very poorly represented in research. It was then that I realized the importance of exploring this issue, working with those who are negatively impacted to expose the systemic obstacles that still exist, despite the inclusion and accessibility objectives of different government bodies.

The idea to use photovoice as the research method came from a discussion with a person with a service dog. She told me that she has always felt underrepresented in surveys, that her disability is often perceived as a statistic, and it would be better if people could gain a deeper understanding about her daily life.

Did anything unexpected emerge?

Great question! The main finding of my research is about the dynamics of inclusion. The biggest obstacle to accessibility and inclusion isn’t the physical environment, as the Government of Canada claims (automatic doors, for example), but rather negative social interactions. There are people who, when faced with a person with a disability, will ask inappropriate questions, make unwanted physical contact, refuse access to the human-animal pair despite accessibility legislation, or even make inappropriate comments. 

These barriers usually stem from a lack of understanding or knowledge of the laws and regulations that protect people with disabilities, or even from the power dynamics between people. There is something that gives me a lot of hope: almost everyone in the group said that children are great at respecting guide or service dogs as well as people with disabilities.

Something else that surprised me in this research: the majority of group members asked me to identify them and their dogs and to publish their photos, to personalize the research. It’s rare in the field and I am lucky to have been able to do this project.

Who could benefit from your work?

I hope to give back to the community of people with guide or service dogs, who have contributed so generously to this research, as well as to others affected by issues of accessibility and inclusion. The biggest obstacle to inclusion and accessibility is the negative social interactions, or “encounters with the other.” If the general public were to be sensitized and educated, many obstacles could be reduced or eliminated right from the start, then these people could also contribute to an inclusive society! The responsibility for doing this lies with governments and decision-making bodies, who have a real effect on the way society functions and what it values.

How about your upcoming projects?

I'm privileged to be able to continue my research as a teacher of inclusive education. I aim to continue in this direction and conduct research that enriches social and scientific discussions on inclusion. My next project focuses on the professional integration of teachers from diverse backgrounds in French-speaking minority environments. While the inclusion of students has been at the heart of discussions for years, the inclusion of teachers from diverse backgrounds remains unexplored. It is crucial to have teaching personnel who represent the diversity of students, and who contribute to informed educational decision-making. The first phase of the research will focus on New Brunswick, followed by a second phase in other provinces with French-speaking minority communities.

The research community has given me ideas to spread my work and I’m gradually exploring them. I have some scholarly activities already underway, like articles and conferences, and other projects are in preparation, including a children’s book and an immersive website.

Virginie Abat-Roy is a professor of inclusive education in the Faculty of Education at the Université de Moncton. Her work has been published in La Conversation and elsewhere. Discover more about her contributions to educational research.

Virginie Abat-Roy standing with service dog during graduation.
Virginie Abat-Roy, with service dog Toulouse, stands with Chancellor Claudette Commanda and President Jacques Frémont during the 2024 University of Ottawa convocation ceremony.