KITE trainee’s research seeks to confront institutional racism in rehabilitation

Samira Omar is sharing her story ahead of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Samira Omar was interested in pursuing a career in science at a young age, and was even planning to become an occupational therapist, when her younger brother suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in 2014.    

The incident was an eye-opener for Omar, who says she was forced to fight tooth and nail to help her brother find the proper treatment for his injury.

“I didn’t understand why I had to convince people in the healthcare system to treat my brother,” said Omar, a member of the KITE Research Institute’s Acquired Brain Injury & Society team. “People were making assumptions that because he was a young black kid that he deserved to have those injuries, which meant that they didn’t need to treat him like he deserves to have a future and a life worth living.”

The experience motivated Omar to pursue a PhD in rehabilitation science at the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute (RSI) at the University of Toronto. Her research, which is the first of its kind in Canada, focuses on confronting and addressing institutionalized racism in the rehabilitation research and practice of black people with TBI.

Omar is sharing her story ahead of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, an annual awareness event organized by the United Nation taking place this Saturday that aims to promote equal access and participation for women and girls in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

“This important research focuses on a community that has long been overlooked and underserved,” says KITE Scientist Dr. Angela Colantonio, who leads the Acquired Brain Injury & Society team and is also director of the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute at UofT. “Ms. Omar is an extraordinary leader and I am humbled to learn from her. I thank everyone who supported her to do this necessary work.”

Her dissertation can be divided into two parts. In the first part, Omar conducted a scoping review of the clinical care journey of black people with TBI. In this review, she identified several ways racism occurs in practice through policies and procedures from a systematic, educational and research perspective based on academic literature. In the second part, Omar interviewed black survivors of TBI, their family care givers, and rehabilitation providers about their experience in the rehabilitation healthcare system. Based on this data and the review Omar will make recommendations on how to create anti-racist rehabilitation practices. 

“I hope this project provides a set of scholarly articles that people can than cite as proof that these issues do exist. We know that in order for policy to change, in order for people to actually make changes, they need to have the evidence to refer back to,” says Omar. 

“People need to understand the realities that are faced by black people with traumatic brain injuries so that we can provide the kinds of services and care they need in order to live fulfilling and meaningful lives.”

Like most PhD candidates, Omar has faced several obstacles while conducting her research, but was able to overcome them thanks to her strong support network of women – which includes Dr. Colantonio, who is also her PhD supervisor. 

“I never worked with anyone that actually believed, motivated, and supported me as much as Dr. Colantonio,” said Omar. “She continues to inspire me to aim high and consider opportunities in spaces that I would have never even have imagined. Her supervision and mentorship has been invaluable and I’m very grateful to be part of the Acquired Brain Injury & Society team.”

Omar expects to defend her dissertation and publish papers about her research by late 2023.