U of R’s VOICE Lab: Innovative research project exploring disability and art

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: August 17, 2020 11:00 a.m.

Before COVID-19, VOICE Lab participants gather to use the app Thisissand to create colourful digital sand art.
Before COVID-19, VOICE Lab participants gather to use the app Thisissand to create colourful digital sand art. Photo courtesy of Brenda MacLauchlan

In late 2019, an innovative multimedia studio space opened on the University of Regina’s main campus that is giving individuals with disabilities new ways to creatively express themselves. VOICE Lab (Vocally Oriented Investigation in Creative Expression), is a research project that brings inventive technologies to people with disabilities and their support networks.  

Since opening, the Lab has been an incubator for imaginative soundscapes, beat creations, conferences, workshops, and the VOICE Lab podcast – a podcast devoted to disability, art, culture, and access. People have come together in the space for jam sessions, to develop digital multimedia work, and to engage in a variety of improvisatory and exploratory arts practices. 

The VOICE Lab project is a partnership between the U of R’s Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance, Faculty of Social Work, and Astonished!, an on-campus organization that works to address barriers facing young adults with complex physical disabilities. Funding for VOICE Lab is provided by the George Reed Foundation and Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organization that builds partnerships between academia and industry.


U of R master’s student Mia Bell is the Mitacs intern at VOICE Lab and one of the hosts of the VOICE Lab podcast. Photo courtesy of Astonished! Website

Mia Bell, a master’s student pursuing interdisciplinary studies in the Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance, is the Mitacs intern on the project. She’s also one of the hosts of the VOICE Lab podcast. Her keen interests in disability arts, community-based art, improvisatory arts, and trauma studies make her perfectly suited for her role in the Lab. 

“My interest comes from personal experiences of disability and trauma, and my lifelong love of art,” Bell says. “I believe that art can be a transformative way of expressing and processing personal experiences and communicating those experiences to others. Creative processes can bring up difficult personal experiences and community spaces can often be inaccessible, so I’m interested in how we can best care for each other in these spaces and increase access to the arts,” she adds. 

Bell says that through a series of workshops this summer, those associated with the lab have been exploring many different ways of sharing “voice”. Voice, in the context of the Lab, includes movement, the body, personal agency, and other means of expressing self and identity through art - through zines, memes, eco-art, mask making, or digital art. For example, participants have used the app Thisissand to create colourful digital sand art and to start conversations about communicating with visual art. Although, Bell points out, due to the pandemic, all the interaction is being conducted virtually.

Kathleen Irwin is a theatre professor in the Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance and is the faculty representative on the project. She reiterates that VOICE Lab not only gives individuals living with a disability a voice, but also, the research enhances well-being. 


MAP faculty member Kathleen Irwin gives
Astonished! Molly and Kaitlyn a tour of
the University’s theatre facilities.
Photo courtesy of Mia Bell

“This research is aimed at individuals with disabilities who require support, digital and otherwise, to express themselves both at a fundamental level and in more complex and abstract ways, to improve their quality of life, and increase capacity,” says Irwin. “Many,” she adds, “lack means and opportunities to address their circumstances to speak out with confidence, to argue, for example, for adequate disability supports through a variety of means of communication including art making.” 

Randy Johner, a retired associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work, represents the faculty on the project. 

“For me, the greatest strength of VOICE Lab is a community of individuals who perceive voice, art, and communication, all differently, but who work together to bring a synergy of possibilities within a research environment,” Johner emphasizes. “In other words, the Lab invites a rich environment for research that pushes academic disciplinary thinking and ableist conventions. The VOICE Lab is a research lab, but one immersed in communities, particularly the community of Astonished! This immersion is our pulse, the energy that guides our research.” 

The Lab has also been exploring art through virtual tours of galleries such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and local art organizations including New Dance Horizons. 

Bell, who is just one of a number of podcast hosts from various communities, says the intention of the VOICE Lab podcast is to share information about disability arts in Saskatchewan and Canada, to share personal experiences of disability and accessibility, and to communicate about creative projects from the VOICE Lab. She says it has been a great way to connect with people outside of the VOICE Lab and learn about people’s experiences of disability, art, access and especially now, during the pandemic, it has been a way to build upon conversations remotely.  

And where does Bell find the greatest satisfaction from her involvement with the Lab? 

“Without question, connecting with and getting to know the members of Astonished! has been the most satisfying,” she says. “It has been an honour to collaborate and share space - whether in person or virtually - with the student researchers, core members, their families and support networks, and the wonderful staff and Summer students at Astonished! Astonished! is a strong community, full of creative and thoughtful people – we are lucky to have them as part of the wider University of Regina community. Being in this position has also provided me with vital experiential learning regarding community and arts-based research, I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to experience this with.” 

Episodes of the VOICE Lab podcast will continue to be released through September. It is available on several platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Anchor, and Spotify. Links to each of those platforms and the podcast can be found here.