Otago Polytechnic
Mary Butler 2015 11

Understanding disability by walking

Mary Butler

I saw a real vulnerability and fragility in people during walking interviews even though they were verbally being very brave,” says Mary Butler, Senior Lecturer in the School of Occupational Therapy.

Backed by a prestigious ACC Post-Doctoral Career Development Award, one of only three awarded throughout New Zealand, Mary Butler set out to attempt to understand the longitudinal impacts of injury in those with pre-existing disabilities. Following a small cohort of participants with pre-existing co-morbidities including brain injuries, polio and severe burns, for a period of two years, she wanted to find out what factors mediate the speed of recovery. What she discovered was that “it all depends on support networks – the social capital available made all the difference in how quickly people recovered and how much they were able to function without continuing disability.”

Along the way she also made some subsequent discoveries. One of these discoveries was the validation of walking as a method of interviewing for adding richness and depth to the data. “When I sat down with people and interviewed people ‘normally’, that is, in a sedentary interview, the stories I got were very conforming. People would significantly downplay their injuries. However when we went for a walk where people would choose to walk and how far we would go would be very revealing of the reality of their bodies and injuries,” says Mary, “Mostly we want to say that people with disabilities can live life like everyone else, however sometimes there are significant adjustments and changes they have to face that in one way or another bring retirement from various occupations closer.”

“Taking research out of a fixed environment creates new understandings of disability,” says Mary.


Butler, M (2014). The Walking interview: an approach to investigating injury and people with pre-existing co-morbidities. Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice. http://ijahsp.nova.edu Vol. 12 No. 3 ISSN 1540-580X