June 7, 2021

Class of 2021: Undergrad embraces empowering new way of thinking about people with disabilities

Aspen Lillywhite learns to critique systems and social constructs that 'fail people with disabilities'
Aspen Lillywhite
Aspen Lillywhite

Sometimes students are inspired to pursue a particular degree due to experiences with family or friends, but for Aspen Lillywhite, it was one friend in particular who inspired her journey to a Bachelor of Community Rehabilitation (BCR) at the University of Calgary.

Before commencing her BCR, Lillywhite spent time with a family friend, Kathleen, who has Down syndrome, and worked as her respite caregiver. As Lillywhite grew to understand more about Kathleen’s life and experiences, she wanted to expand her knowledge about disabilities.

“It piqued my interest to know there is actually a degree of study that focuses on disability, and from there I was just interested to learn more,” Lillywhite recalls.

Encouraged to embrace disability

Since beginning the BCR program, Lillywhite says her perspective on disability has shifted. Before university, she had a surface-level understanding that was shaped by society’s perceptions. In particular, her understanding aligned with a medicalized view that provides individuals with supports to overcome their disability. However, as a student, her beliefs shifted to creating environments where people are encouraged to embrace their disability.

“Over the course of my four years, I learned to critique systems and critique our social constructs and frameworks that are failing people with disabilities,” Lillywhite says.

One of the ways she learned to analyze these systems was through research. Lillywhite worked in a research group called the WolbPack, led by Dr. Gregor Wolbring, PhD. She focused her work on disability studies and its connection to other fields such as technology and undergraduate research. A critical thinking mindset and being drawn to areas where she could create change allowed her to connect with the topics she studied.

Research environment cultivates curiosity

“I think that having that inquisitive or curious mindset enabled me to thrive in that research environment,” Lillywhite says.

During her degree, Lillywhite published four peer-reviewed academic articles, led workshops and guest lectures on research methods, and presented at conferences. She embraced the opportunity to present with Wolbring at the Accenture offices in Calgary.

Beyond research, Lillywhite has been recognized for her leadership. She was awarded the Albert Jucker-Kiddle Memorial Scholarship for outstanding performance during her degree practicums.

“I’m really passionate about people, and conversing and meeting them where they’re at,” Lillywhite says. “To be recognized as someone who did outstanding work in their practicum, I was very honoured.”

Working to create change on campus

She also worked to create change on campus, launching the #enABLE petition and social media campaign with members of her first-year disability studies class. Lillywhite says they wanted to raise awareness about a lack of accessibility on campus.

“It’s honestly about starting conversations,” she says. “We saw problems on the university campus, so we wanted to encourage discussions around enabling others through a positive lens.”

Lillywhite has also volunteered her time to Taking Strides Calgary, a non-profit, student-run club aiming to improve physical literacy in children with disabilities. Lillywhite used her dance background to create the Rhythm and Strength program, which is meant to give kids the opportunity to explore movement, dance, music and rhythm.

“I saw a need, and created something I think has been very positive,” she says.

Children with disabilities learn dance and rhythm

Lillywhite says she is grateful and privileged to have done all of these things during her undergrad, as she has gained “an immense amount” of knowledge and skills that will set her up to pursue her future goals.

She has been accepted into medical school at the University of Alberta. She says she is very excited to start this journey and she believes her experiences in the BCR program have helped push her toward this goal.

“I think those experiences really shaped who I am as a person,” Lillywhite says. “These skills that I have enabled me to reach the goal of pursuing medicine.”

UCalgary convocation

Congratulations, Class of 2021!

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