With her doctoral thesis Baiba Baikovska hopes to alter public opinion on disability
Baiba Baikovska has been very loyal to Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) – she obtained a Bachelor’s degree in international relations and a Master’s degree in communication at RSU and is currently studying in the Communication Culture and Multimedia doctoral study programme.
Talking about her experience Baiba concludes that the most important aspect, and also the most difficult, is to choose ones research topic: ‘If you are passionate about what you are studying, if you are prepared to talk extensively about this subject, then you will be able to overcome all the challenges that come with your doctoral studies.’
How did you arrive to the decision to apply for doctoral studies?
Although I was repeatedly invited to continue my studies at RSU, it took me five years between obtaining my Master’s degree and entering the doctoral study programme. The main reason for not doing this sooner was that I didn’t have a clearly defined topic. Three years ago I finally realised that I was ready to study the concept of disability – frankly speaking, I wanted to apply my life experience to my studies [Baiba uses a wheelchair on a daily basis – ed. comment]. I was interested in looking at legislative issues that hamper the well-being of disabled people. Analysis of disability by applying specific research methods gives me objective arguments in the discussion of issues that are topical for one out of eleven residents of our country1. In other words, my doctoral studies will make my voice louder. Another goal when starting my doctoral studies was to bring research about disability discourse into the academic environment – up until now disability has not been studied at this level.
What were your main concerns when starting your studies?
I am still concerned about this decision [laughs]. On a more serious note I was worried about two things – the topic and amount of work. I have to admit that I was very naive at the beginning because it seemed easy to write about disability since I have 30 years of personal experience. But my experience did not mean much in the wider context. Yes, there is more weight to what I say when I talk about disability, but it does not really facilitate the actual research process.
What exactly are you researching?
In my doctoral thesis I am studying the construction of disability in the political, media and NGO discourse in Latvia, namely, I analyse how politicians, representatives of the non-governmental sector and the media speak and write about disability issues. I took the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) as my starting point – has been binding in Latvia since 2010. This document is based on the assertion that disability is not just a medical diagnosis but also a set of psychological and social factors. In Latvian law disability is interpreted as a diagnosis only.
What are the consequences of such an approach?
At the moment, the state organises people into disability groups and grants benefits depending on which group you belong to. This stands in contradiction to CRPD because it ignores the environmental impact of any one group’s well-being. The focus of the Latvian approach is not on creating an environment where a disabled person can study or work, for example, but rather money is given to compensate for the fact that they cannot study and are not working. What does this mean to the wider public? This approach facilitates the belief that a disabled person cannot take care of themselves and disregards the fact that the person might be a great employee by giving them no chance to prove it.
What are your initial conclusions?
Unfortunately it must be concluded that disability is still defined only as a medical diagnosis by Latvian laws and regulations. People with the same diagnosis can live very different lives, however, and we should therefore not ignore the environmental factor. The role of the state in this situation is to help create conditions where disabled people can live their life to the fullest. If we assess disabled people individually, we can motivate them to work and to pay taxes. This would change the public attitude and, more importantly, the self-esteem of disabled people.
With my doctoral thesis, I would like to draw the public’s attention, including politicians and the media, to the fact that our laws are still not in line with the CRPD document we have ratified, and call for a re-evaluation of the concept of disability and for corresponding decisions to be made.
Disability is formed by biology, sociology, and psychology, and I actively and clearly communicate this view. One of the small victories I have enjoyed already is that my supervisor Agita Lūse and I will teach a course on disability to the students of the Health Communication Master’s degree programme next year.
You mentioned the amount of work as the second challenge when starting your studies. How do you deal with it?
The biggest difficulty associated with the work load is that for most doctoral students these studies are a hobby. Many doctoral students simply cannot afford to just do research. In my case, the biggest challenge is to find the time for all the activities I am involved in. This requires some skill in time management. Doctoral students also have to write scientific papers, speak at conferences and all these things take time. And you shouldn’t forget to rest! I know from experience that when you work with too much intensity for a long time that at one point your body will tell you that enough is enough! We cannot forget to renew our resources on a regular basis.
What would you recommend to prospective doctoral students?
I would recommend them not to hurry and to think carefully about their topic, and to understand why they want to study in a doctoral study programme. Once you find an inspiring topic everything else suddenly becomes possible. If you are having difficulties formulating your topic, talk to your potential academic advisor – they will definitely help you deal with it. In my case my academic supervisor Prof. Sergejs Kruks concluded that for a high-quality doctoral thesis we would have to attract another advisor. This is how I got this great team of Professor Kruks and Associate Professor Agita Lūse.
Before starting your studies you should definitely evaluate how much time you have and be prepared to work systematically on your doctoral thesis from the first year of your doctoral studies.
The doctoral thesis is not the only way in which you address the topic of disability. Another one is your stand-up routine! Why did you decide to start doing stand-up?
It is a good way I can laugh about the things I have experienced. At first it was a challenge, but now I see it as an opportunity to let others laugh about the subject. I see that it relaxes people, changes their perception and helps me to get a little closer to my end goal – to make people look at disability not as a diagnosis, but rather as a life challenge that can have its own benefits!
1 According to Ministry of Welfare data, 9.3% of the Latvian population are considered disabled.