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BYU team employs photography to see through the eyes of disabled students

Many children with developmental disabilities have limited means of communicating their everyday experiences, thoughts and feelings. However, researchers from Brigham Young University have recognized that snapshot photography can open a whole new world of expression.

For their study, "Snapshots of Life: Perspectives of School-aged Individuals with Developmental Disabilities," published in the current issue of Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, researchers gave disposable cameras to 15 children with developmental disabilities. Participants were instructed to take pictures of the things that were most important to them over a two-week period.

"This study differs from most because its primary informants were the children with disabilities themselves," said Tina Dyches, associate professor of counseling and special education and lead researcher. "A picture of life with disabilities is incomplete without input from individuals who actually have disabilities."

Once the photos were developed and sorted by category and sub-category, several themes began to emerge including family, friends, objects and buildings.

More than half the 331 snapshots contained people, with family as the prevailing sub-category. Most of the family snapshots were taken of the participants themselves or siblings. The next most frequent group was parents and then some mixture of family members followed by extended family.

When asked why family pictures were important, those who could respond expressed sentiments similar to 11-year-old Kyle's: "My beautiful Mom. I love her so much I can't stand it." He also explained the importance of his siblings in his life, "They're my favorite. I love them so much I can't stand it."

"Friends" was the next most frequent category. Interestingly, only two participants took pictures of their friends with disabilities; all others pictured were friends without obvious disabilities.

"This may suggest that they are successfully integrated into community environments such as school or church," said Susanne Olsen, associate professor of marriage, family and human development.

The pictures of objects included household items like a kitchen table, lamp or bed; items for recreation or entertainment such as a computer, video game, crayons, toys, swing set or scooter; vehicles; and outside areas such as a hiking trail or the front yard.

When talking about a picture of a book, participant Abby explained its importance, "I draw stories in there like I am a magician."

The final prominent category was buildings. Nearly 60 percent of these snapshots were of houses or rooms in a house. The remaining photos were of bookstores, shopping malls, schools, churches or other community buildings.

"For the participants in this study, these records of their lives may resemble what we might expect of children without disabilities," said Barbara Mandleco, associate professor of nursing. "While they may face different challenges, they still value what most of us value in life-- family, friends, places and items of comfort or enjoyment. In many respects, they are very much like you and I."

In addition to gaining insight into what children with developmental disabilities value in life, results from the study indicate that photography is a viable means of communication for them. The researchers encourage parents, teachers and speech pathologists to explore the possibilities that photography offers.

"These children were able express visually what they might have difficulty expressing verbally," said Elizabeth Cichella, a BYU graduate student in counseling and special education.

Research Contacts:

  • Tina Dyches

  • Elizabeth Cichella

  • Susanne Olsen

  • Barbara Mandleco


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