Breaking down barriers: The merging of the arts and rehabilitation


By Mary Boulos & Conor Sheridan

In Tim Marshall’s (1) book Divided: Why We’re Living in an Age of Walls, he discusses past and present borders, barriers, and boundaries that have been used to separate societies. Globally, each wall in Marshall’s book was erected, maintained, and in some cases, destroyed as an architectural manifestation of the conflict bearing out between sides. In rehabilitation, barriers too―metaphorical and literal―wall off access to and delivery of quality services.

Social determinants of health (e.g., social support, education, socioeconomic status) segregate individuals from the care they need, often resulting in tension between patients and providers. Others face barriers internally―an individual who is post-stroke may feel as though sections of their brain have been walled off from the areas responsible for controlling their hands or feet.

These biological barriers can isolate individuals from the society in which they once spoke, walked, and thrived. As long as these problems exist, it is the role of the research community to find the walls in need of crumbling.

Dealing with walls of this magnitude can be a daunting task, often requiring bold creativity. Marshall describes such attributes in the British artist Banksy. Known for propaganda works, his polarizing murals both near and on the wall between Israel and Palestine provoked thought and increased worldwide awareness about the conflict between the countries. Marshall (1) notes that supporters of the mural say, “It is playing a part in building bridges…”

Photography by KOREphotos “Banksy dove in bethlehem”

For every Banksy drawing of a white dove wearing a bulletproof vest, there are countless rehabilitation researchers creatively traversing the barriers impinging on the lives of those with physical, cognitive, or psychological impairment. For instance, enhanced virtual reality environments are being programmed to transcend material boundaries and help those with post-traumatic stress disorder overcome the barriers limiting their complete reintegration to life (2).

For those with declining cognitive function in the aging population, research into the use of visual art in rehabilitation can help bring down the walls between an individual’s memory and reality, and hopefully increase the connection between affected patients and providers (3). With the influx of art and creativity into the field of rehabilitation research, our rehabINK team wanted to know what rehabilitation represents to others―what murals are painted on the walls of their mind?

rehabINK sought to bring art onto its pages in two ways. First, an online survey was distributed to rehabilitation scientists, students, and clients within the community. Participants were asked to describe the first word or image that came to mind when the following words were presented in the context of rehabilitation: disability, recovery, equity, and knowledge translation. Participants were then asked these questions: What colour do you associate with rehabilitation science? What represents creativity in rehabilitation? What objects do you associate most with rehabilitation science?

To illustrate the diverse perspectives gathered from the rehabilitation community, rehabINK editor Sally Abudiab analyzed the survey responses and teamed up with talented artist and Rehabilitation Sciences Institute graduate student, Jennifer Bautista. Jennifer was commissioned to produce a visual expression of the meaning of rehabilitation using the survey data. In a stunning image, major themes embodying the world of rehabilitation came to life.

“Rehabilitation is multifaceted, like this art piece… We wanted to tell a story using images to represent words like recovery and knowledge translation, abstract words that are commonly used in rehabilitation sciences… It was important to create an image that encouraged people to reflect, explore, discuss, and recalibrate what their idea of rehabilitation is.”

– Sally Abudiab & Jennifer Bautista

This image, in accordance with this issue’s theme of “Creativity, Innovation, and the Arts” showcases the diversity of the perspectives in the rehabilitation sector.

Illustration by Jennifer Bautista for rehabINK

This issue of rehabINK stands out thanks to our budding collaboration with student illustrators from the Master of Science in Biomedical Communications (BMC) program at the University of Toronto. This program is unique in Canada and offers a combination of “theoretical and applied approaches to the profession of medical and scientific visualization.” (4)

Regarding the intersection between our worlds, the BMC illustrators commented, “To bring science and art together is a unique place that holds the power to inspire others to understand the complexities of our scientific universe… the merging of art and science moves beyond just communicating information―there is also the capacity for therapy and for healing when we join the two.”

The visual representations of rehabilitation sciences embedded throughout this issue are the products of a partnership between our editors and the talented BMC illustrators. As one of the illustrators remarked, “Art as a visual communication tool can be used to progress and inform scientific discovery.” This is only one example of the ways in which art and rehabilitation can join to bridge the divide between disciplines.

Ultimately, when art is used productively, it can be an innovative avenue to achieve the common goal of optimizing patient care, advocating for clients, and improving quality of life. Join us as we map the merger between arts and science, as it applies to creativity in rehabilitation.


Featured illustration by Jennifer Bautista for rehabINK.

To refer to this article, it can be cited as:

Boulos M, Sheridan C. Breaking down barriers: The merging of the arts and rehabilitation. rehabINK. 2019;6. Available from:


  1. Marshall T. Divided: why we’re living in an age of walls. 1st ed. London: Elliott & Thompson Limited; 2018
  2. Botella C., Serrano B., Baños R.M., Garcia-Palacios A. Virtual reality exposure-based therapy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder: a review of its efficacy, the adequacy of the treatment protocol, and its acceptability. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. 2015; 11:2533-2545.
  3. Beard R.L. Art therapies and dementia care: a systematic review. Dementia. 2012; 11(5):633-656.
  4. About BMC: Master of Science in Biomedical Communication [Internet]. Toronto: University of Toronto; [date unknown]. Available from: