U of T prof makes disability and accessibility research his life's work
When Ron Buliung’s youngest daughter was born, it changed his life both as a parent and as a researcher.
She was born with spinal muscular atrophy type 2, a genetic neuromuscular disease that causes progressive muscle weakness and requires her to use a wheelchair.
Since then, Buliung, a professor of geography, geomatics and environment at the University of Toronto Mississauga, has made disability and accessibility research his life’s work.
“It took me a while to process what was happening in my family,” he says. “I then decided I wanted to dedicate my professional life to disability study and the experiences of disabled persons in cities. Since I made that commitment, I haven’t really looked back.”
Over the years, Buliung has delved into disability and accessibility issues. One of his projects focused on food insecurity for people living with disabilities. He found that people with disabilities face both physical and economic barriers to accessing food – putting them at greater risk of food insecurity.
“That research was very timely, given the pandemic and subsequent rise in food prices,” says Buliung, who also teaches at the St. George campus. “The problems we identified in that work have been exacerbated by current conditions.”
Much of his research is motivated by his experiences as a father, as outlined in a recent article for the academic journal Disability and Society. For example, when his daughter started school, he felt frustrated as he watched her face physical barriers to school transportation – an experience shared by many other parents and caregivers of children with disabilities.
In a research project, he and graduate students found that young learners with disabilities face excess travel time to school, and early departure times at the end of the day, which can result in unacceptable levels of missed classroom time and peer interaction.
“We questioned the ways in which transportation can be both an enabler and barrier to access to education,” Buliung explains.
He also dug into disability and pedestrian injury research, finding that people with disabilities have a significantly higher risk of pedestrian collisions, injuries and fatalities. He wanted to study this issue after walking in Toronto’s The Junction neighbourhood with his daughter and noticing the hazards she faced as a pedestrian.
“I noticed her position and height, relative to parked cars, and the pedestrian countdown signal buttons,” he says. “Her visibility is an issue when she’s sitting in her power wheelchair and she was the height of a four- or five-year-old. If she was hit, all of her vital systems were in the path of a vehicle.”
Looking ahead, Buliung says he’s interested in studying the effects of climate change on people living with disabilities – for example, the barriers they face when they must evacuate due to extreme events like wildfires.
“If you look at the casualty figures of extreme weather events, you’ll find a disproportionate representation of elderly and disabled persons. It’s terrible, and unnecessary,” he says. “If you think about the pace of the recent fire in Maui ... the fire swept through so quickly – imagine trying to remove yourself if you have a mobility challenge.”
Buliung was recently named a Distinguished Professor in Geographies of Disability and Ableism for a five-year term. He joins two other U of T Mississauga faculty members – Kent Moore of the department of chemical and physical sciences and Robert Gerlai of the department of psychology – in the latest cohort of the program.
Buliung describes the designation as a “very big deal” for his research focus.
“This designation is honouring the subject matter of the work, and bringing maybe a bit more attention to disabilities in cities and the academy,” he says.
Over the next five years, he hopes to study the experience of siblings (with disabilities and/or without) of children with disabilities – a topic that is personally meaningful and aligns with his multidisciplinary approach to work.
As the father of three, he thinks about the experiences of all his children.
“There is more work to be done looking at how siblings, parents, other family members and outside care workers relate to one another and disability within a family or household,” he says. “There can be some challenges around the disproportionate amount of time that can be associated with engaging in care work for one child.”
Buliung ultimately hopes his research will draw attention to important issues and ultimately create changes that will make people’s lives easier.
“The idea behind my research is: let’s just make things work. Let’s try to shape things in such a way that people who are disabled and their families have to do less work to basically access the same kinds of things that many other people do.”