ECP's Tara Flanagan is promoting inclusive education with SPARC (Social Policy, Advocacy, Research Community)


(the following extract is from Dialogues, newsletter of the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, McGill University, Faculty of Education, spring 2017 edition)

In this edition, the research of Dr. Tara Flanagan and her SPARC (Social Policy, Advocacy, Research Community) team is featured. SPARC’s mandate is to promote social inclusion among individuals with disabilities and other equity-seeking groups by emphasizing self-determination, community, and a shared responsibility for successful outcomes.

Dr. Flanagan is the director or SPARC (Social Policy, Advocacy, Research, Community), a research group that is comprised of graduate students from diverse backgrounds and having an array of strengths and interests. Past and present team members include students from Human Development and Law programs, a fellow at the McGill Institute of Health and Social Policy, and teachers, practitioners, and students with disabilities. SPARC's mandate is to promote social inclusion among individuals with disabilities and other equity-seeking groups by emphasizing self-determination, community, and a shared responsibility for successful outcomes. SPARC was featured in November of 2009 in the McGill Equity Research Calendar 2009-2010 as well as in the McGill Reporter in February of 2011.

Dr. Flanagan is currently supervising 14 students in MA, MEd, and PhD programs who are actively involved in projects that promote equity, inclusion, and empowerment. SPARC graduates are working in a diversity of settings to promote inclusive and empowering practices for people with disabilities, who identify as LGBTQ, and/or for other equity-seeking groups. 

Dr. Flanagan’s research interests stem from her front-line work in the disability field that began in 1997. She worked with children, adolescents, and adults with diverse abilities, disabilities, and needs in both inclusive and specialized educational and residential settings. She designed and implemented educational programs that promoted development in numerous areas while advocating for the rights and needs of individuals. This front-line work introduced her to some of the best practices in Inclusive Education that guide the main foci of her research. For example, she noticed that her work with people with a variety of abilities and disabilities was far more successful and rewarding when she made an effort to actively involve them in planning the tasks, when she offered choices, and when she incorporated their needs, interests, and strengths into the task design.  

This initial intuitive use of needs assessments and self-determination (Wehmeyer, 2007) is now formalized in the design of all of her research, in which the main stakeholders (the research participants) play an active role in her applied research aimed at improving their lives. Eleven of her grants have supported her applied research projects in authentic (rather than laboratory) settings. 

Her applied research designs involve working with collaborators in real-world settings, assessing stakeholder needs, designing program curricula, and implementing and evaluating the various programs. Though applied research is time-consuming and often labour-intensive, it aligns best with her primary research goal of doing work that is empowering and that has a positive impact on the lives of individuals.  

 13 people, people smiling

Three of these applied research projects took place at McGill with the purpose of improving the experiences of students. The first, Transition to Work for Pre-Service Teachers Identifying with the LGBTQ Community, was funded by McGill’s Mary H. Brown Endowment Fund (2009-2010). The data were collected during applied workshops held at McGill to assess pre-service teachers’ concerns regarding queer identity and their imminent transition from school (BEd program) into the workforce as teachers. The findings from this project were published in the Journal of Homosexuality (Benson, Smith & Flanagan, 2014) and highlight the need to plan for transitions and to create inclusive post-transition environments. In addition, the format of the workshops served as a model for Dr. Flanagan’s later work on supporting university students with disabilities with field placements necessary for their professional programs. 

The second project, also supported by the Mary H. Brown Endowment Fund (2009-2010), called Toward Better Support for McGill's Students with High-Functioning Autism: An Intra-university Initiative, aimed to better support the students with ASDs (autism spectrum disorders) on campus. This project stemmed from Dr. Flanagan’s collaboration with the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) and their desire to better support people with ASDs who were transitioning into new student roles. This project entailed a needs-assessment phase Spotlight on Research followed by a mentoring phase in which students with ASDs were provided with the supports that they requested. The impact of this small project was quite significant as it helped to change service provisions at the OSD by outlining a set of student needs. Also, it provided a foundation for a larger follow-up study that queried the entire student population receiving OSD services about their needs and experiences in relation to professional programs. These data are highlighted in two publications (Benson, Flanagan & Fovet, 2013) in Communiqué (a peer reviewed publicati on for disability service providers published by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services) and (Flanagan, Benson & Fovet, 2014) in Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching (a peer-reviewed journal that publishes scholarly and practice-based articles) that discuss the environmental barriers to student success in professional programs as well as offering practical suggestions to service providers. The impact of this project was also the impetus for a student-run club of the Student Society of McGill University, Neurodiverse Space.

The third project, a transition support program for young adults with autism spectrum disorders, addressed a significant gap in ASD support services for young adults. Dr. Flanagan and her colleague Dr. Nadig developed a novel project that addressed the needs of young adults with ASDs by including an initial assessment of needs that was used to guide, on a group-by-group basis, the format and curriculum of ten two-hour group sessions. These sessions focused on communication, self-determination, and working with others. The project, funded by the Max Bell Foundation (2011-2015) took place at McGill and involved more than thirty individuals with ASD over the four year period. A major component of the project, following the mandate of the Max Bell Foundation, was involving stakeholders and partnering with autism organizations, service providers, and governmental and social service offices in Québec to ultimately inform public policy. Diverse stakeholders were included in the model from the inception of the project; starting with curriculum design around participants’ expressed needs, then with two stakeholder conferences that were held at McGill (November, 2012 & January, 2016). This project culminated in a McGill website that contains an action document that has been signed by more than 500 people urging the promotion of inclusion.

In addition to pursuing their own research endeavours in areas of equity, inclusion, advocacy, and empowerment, SPARC members are engaged in a variety of Action Research projects in the community. The team is working with two schools for students with intellectual disabilities on projects to promote self-determination through a vocational program for adolescents and young adults. The program is flexible and individualized based on students' needs and is aimed at working on vocational skills while incorporating choices and personal empowerment. As students with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities are rarely given opportunities to express themselves and their interests, these collaborations are proving to be crucial opportunities in the community. SPARC is also involved in a project that promotes inclusive education across Canada. We, along with researchers across Canada, are engaged in a multi year examination of pre-service teachers' attitudes and experiences related to inclusive education with the larger aim of improving educational practices across the country.