Strengths of people with disabilities emphasized: FASD


Whitehorse played host last week to an international research project that is using improvisation to highlight the strengths of people with disabilities.

Researchers Dr. Rebecca Caines and Dr. Michelle Stewart from the University of Regina held workshops in the city. They were conducted in partnership with the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society Yukon (FASSY) and other community organizations.

The two used theatre, music, visual arts, improvised games and creative technologies including iPad apps to help people communicate, make art and share their stories and experiences.

The Star caught up with the pair last Friday afternoon during a drop-in workshop at the Whitehorse Public Library, to learn more about the project.

“One of the things we see with many disabilities, but also with FASD, is a list of deficits,” said Stewart, who is a strategic lead with the Canada FASD Research Network.

“Some of the things that I heard as deficits I asked Rebecca, ‘aren’t these potentially strengths? Could we kind of stay in the moment with people instead of treating it like it’s a problem?’”

Caines is a community-engaged artist and researcher and site lead for the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, a Canada-wide research network that explores improvised arts.

She explained, “Things like taking risks, having a capacity for imagination, living in the moment, impulses, these are all thought of as deficits in FASD but that’s actually what you need to be a good improviser.”

According to FASSY, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD) is a group of effects that can occur in a person whose mother consumed alcohol during pregnancy.

Individuals with FASD can face a range of challenges including developmental delays, hypersensitivity, attention deficits, and difficulty with memory and communication due to damage or physical changes in their brains.

Caines said providing a safe space for people to be creative through the workshops has led to amazing results.

“Just imagine what it’s like to see someone who comes across as very restrained or very quiet or very unsure, to really suddenly tap into some creative potential, play music for the first time in their lives,” she said.

“It’s hard to describe what it’s like to improvise together but once you’ve had a taste of it, it’s actually a lot of fun.”

Over the week, they had about 60 people participate in workshops and staff training that took place at locations across the city, including day programming and living community centres.

The Yukon Arts Centre and Northern Institute for Social Justice have also shown interest in the project.

“People are clearly enjoying playing music, doing theatre games and drawing and colouring,” said Caines.

“And also learning how to have fun, have a laugh, feel like you can be creative in a new way.”

Whitehorse is the Canadian site for the international project. In the coming year, it will be linked to projects in Northern Ireland and Australia.

Stewart visited Whitehorse last summer for a national research project focused on justice programs and community initiatives around FASD.

She said strong connections in the community along with long-term organizations and active community members made it an ideal location for the improvisation project.

“The art scene’s so vibrant here,” added Caines.

“You’ve got this kind of base of people who are very creative, there’s also been very long running arts-based work with communities that has clearly had an impact because we hear about those projects again and again from people.”

Caines and Stewart hope to pass on skills and resources from the workshops that can grow in the community.

In 2016, the pair completed a pilot project focused on FASD and improvisation. They have since secured international funding to disseminate the findings and resources across Canada.

“What we’re hoping to do over the next probably year, maybe couple of years, is bring the project and the ideas to a community, figure out what’s a good fit,” explained Stewart.

“That’s why we’ve been meeting with so many individuals and having so many workshops is so people can see it in different modes.”

The project has received support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, and Canada FASD Research Network.

More information on the project and resources can be found at

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