A Professional Life Dedicated to Educating People About Vulnerable Communities

Emma Donaldson has committed much of her professional life to addressing disability, mental health and inclusion challenges. As a senior lecturer at Torrens University Australia, Emma develops curricula that takes a co-design approach, where the lived experiences of people from vulnerable communities are integral.

Emma has led and co-designed programs about autism, depression and Down syndrome  – all with the intention of increasing knowledge and understanding that will help drive social change.

“My work has always been in vulnerable communities. I have a background in advocating for people with autism and mental health, and the opportunities provided at Torrens University has meant that we can be more innovative in educating the wider community about these communities and what their experiences are,” Emma said.

“Often, we have a ‘deficit model’ of looking at people with depression and autism. I want to push the boundaries so that we all can gain a better understanding of people and their experiences.”

Emma’s latest project at Torrens University is a free, massive open online course (MOOC) about the impacts of living with depression. Commencing on October 26, Understanding Depression: Learning from Lived Experience will help people ‘on the outside’ better connect with, and respond to, those affected by depression. The online course, requiring just two hours commitment a week for four weeks, is free and open to anyone, anywhere in the world.

“It is really important that clinicians, mental health professionals or educators are not speaking on behalf of a person with depression, in this course, the individual and their family member is sharing their own story. And the story isn’t about advocacy; it’s about their day-to-day experiences, and what has helped them, or what led to their depression.” Emma says this socialization of lived experience offers course participants a deeper insight.  

In another social impact project, in 2018, Emma co-led Torrens University’s Voices of Autism MOOC, which reached over 13,000 people in 88 countries. The first of its kind, the MOOC gave participants an understanding of autism from the perspective of the person experiencing it. Participants were challenged to put themselves in the place of the person with autism, and to consider solutions to a wide range of situations. 

One year later, in 2019, Emma helped initiate a world-first training program to educate young people with Down Syndrome and help them find meaningful employment. The Impact 21 pilot program saw 13 students, aged 22 to 35, attend workplace ready classes at Torrens University in Melbourne’s CBD for 12 months, before they moved into guaranteed jobs with national employers, committed to workplace diversity and inclusion.

“There’s a lot of stigma around Down syndrome. But if we can create more programs like this, where there is diversity within employment, then that is groundbreaking,” Emma said.

Aside from her full-time work at Torrens University, Emma is studying a PhD, with her research project focused on this transformational learning, and how a project that’s been designed with vulnerable communities is able to influence perceptions.

In addition to work and study, Emma sits on the World Autism Organisation Council of Administration and is Co-Director of a not-for-profit organization in the Cayman Islands, offering support, accommodation and inclusion for neurodiverse individuals.

It’s not hard to see why, as a result of her social impact work, Emma was awarded a Laureate Global Here For Good staff honoree in 2018. We congratulate and thank Emma for her dedication to the transformative power of education to change lives and deliver positive change.

This article is based on an interview Natalia Venegas conducted with Emma Donaldson in September 2020. Natalia is a member of Laureate’s corporate communications team, based in Honduras, and has been mentored by Emma for three months.