Forging her own path, blazing a trail for others | Work of Arts
Forging her own path, blazing a trail for others | Work of Arts

Forging her own path, blazing a trail for others

by | February 26, 2015
Photography by Eva Colmers
Professor and Arts alumna Heidi Janz has become a voice for people with disabilities

Heidi Janz (’03 PhD, English & Film Studies) is an accomplished woman. A playwright and an academic, she holds three degrees from UAlberta’s Faculty of Arts, has completed two post-doctoral fellowships, has had four plays produced and has published a short novel. It is an impressive CV by anyone’s standards, but Janz also has cerebral palsy. She gets around in an electric wheelchair and makes her home in an integrated condo complex with on-site 24/7 attendant care. Her speech is impaired to the point where it is difficult for others to understand her and her physical movements are so limited that typing 250 words takes her three to four hours.

Yet she is both a writer and a teacher, as well as a scholar. Her accomplishments have forged a path for others with disabilities. “It’s been quite the ride,” says Janz modestly.

Mayors Awards 2014 croppedWhen Janz started at UAlberta in 1985, no one with disabilities as severe as hers had ever attended university. She first took a university-level English course while still attending high school at a “special” school for children with disabilities to see if she could “hack it,” as she puts it. Far from struggling, she thrived. She went on to complete a BA in the Honours English program, followed by a master’s degree in 1996, and finally a PhD in English Literature in 2003.

Janz credits her PhD supervisor, the late Bruce Stovel, for providing the support and encouragement she needed to succeed. The professor in the Department of English & Film Studies also encouraged her to teach, which led Janz, and then-junior faculty member Julie Rak, to develop and pioneer a method called “echoing” in which a teaching partner repeats her words to the class. As students became more familiar with Janz’s speech they began taking turns acting as her echo, a technique with the added benefit of helping them better remember the material.

Today, Janz uses the echoing method as a guest lecturer and adjunct professor in UAlberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine and the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre. She teaches medical students and rehabilitation medicine students about disability ethics, her current academic focus.

Through her academic work and her many achievements, Janz has become a voice for people with disabilities. Recently, she has been very outspoken on the Supreme Court of Canada decision reversing the ban on doctor-assisted suicide. “I was horrified,” she says of the decision. “I think it’s a dangerous path.” Janz fears that the ruling will further reinforce societal views that already see a life like hers — lived in a wheelchair and requiring assistance and care — as not worth living. The ruling also offers no incentive to improve access to palliative care, she points out. Janz would like to see more energy directed to end-of-life care to alleviate pain and suffering, and assisted living to help people with disabilities lead dignified and fulfilling lives.

Janz has built just such a life for herself, although she is quick to point out that she has been very fortunate to find communities along the way to support her endeavours. “Nothing that I’ve done occurred in a vacuum,” she emphasizes. “From getting up in the morning to the thousands of hours of reading for my PhD that were recorded onto tape for me by my former school principal.”

Today, Janz continues to find inspiration in the work she does. “I want to be a voice for people who don’t have a voice in academia and the medical/bioethics field,” she says. “There are still very few people with disabilities working in this area.” With Janz forging the way, that will no doubt soon change.


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  • Ralph Watzke

    A very encouraging and thought provoking article, kudos to Professor Janz for her perseverance, and her many successes! I’m a U of A alumnus (Arts and Law), living in Regina SK, who also has a keen personal interest, pertaining to the difficulties that differently abled persons with disabilities, even mild ones, encounter even today in important aspects of life such as obtaining and maintaining meaningful employment. I would be interested in entering a discussion with Dr. Janz and any readers, about how we as a society, and the academic community in particular, can enable p.w.d to reach their full potentials. Comments or responses? I can be contacted at Ralph Watzke, 122 Carter Cr., Regina, SK, S4X2C7, phone 1-306-502-5030 (cell), ralphwatzke@gmail.com

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