Profound Intellectual Disability Symposium, Finland

In June I gave a paper at the Profound Intellectual Disability Symposium in Masala (Finland). You can read the paper here: Simmons, B (2017) Phenomenology of Intersubjectivity.

This was a fascinating symposium, organised by Prof. Simo Vehmas and involved eight participants writing papers which were critiqued by an established professor, followed by a whole-room discussion. Two things made the event unique. First, each paper was given about 90 minutes of discussion, which created a novel space for prolonged debate about challenging ideas (a novelty in the PMLD/PID field!). Second, papers focused specifically on philosophy/theory as applied to profound intellectual disability. People from a range of disciplines came together for two days for academic debate, lovely food, terrible drink, great views and networking.

Presenters/papers included:

Ben Curtis – Reflective Equilibrium, Moral Theory Construction, and the Rejection of Moral Status

Lucy Series – Empowerment through Mental Capacity Law: Governing the Small Places

Marion Godman – A Relationship of Value: The Social Intellect of Those with Intellectual Disabilities

Sonja Miettinen & Reetta Mietola – Everyday belonging and participation as rights: the social worlds of persons with profound learning disabilities

Erik Olsman – Stop measuring ‘Quality of Life’ and start to tell stories about persons with Profound Intellectual and Multiple Disabilities! A narrative identity approach to Quality of Life

Chrissie Rogers – Developing a Care Ethics Model: intellectual disability and caring

Stacy Clifford Simplican – Behaviors that Should Challenge Us:  Advancing a Relational Model of Challenging Behavior in Disability Studies

Tom Shakespeare provided thoughtful critique of my own paper and asked questions about embodiment, methodology, authenticity, and the use of verbal frameworks for analysing non-verbal actions. This was followed by an intellectual mauling for an hour by about 30 academics! Continental philosophy was clearly not the flavour of the month for this group, and anything involving phenomenology or post-structuralism was practically booed! But there were some thoughtful questions and challenges. For example, some were concerned about over-interpretation and misattributing meaning, agency or intersubjectivity to children with PMLD. Of course, this is always a concern, and in no way can I or anyone else be absolutely certain what another person is really thinking or experiencing. However, I argue that this is a positive not a negative insofar as it drives us to keep working on our interpretations, developing methodologies and finding exciting ways to know each other. I fear that if we shy away from interpretation and only value objective certainty we run the risk of valuing only those behaviourally-oriented approaches that dominate the field.  I think the quest for absolute truth is misguided and methodologically-speaking drags us back to scientism, or philosophically-speaking, traps us in centuries-old debates about the certainty of other minds.

A more interesting critique was interpretivist methodology was dangerous. This was a point that Levinas made – we should be obligated to the other, not because they are like us but simply because they are there. Part of the theoretical framework I was developing was about the phenomenology of the ‘we’, the experience of intersubjectivity etc., which in itself is unique and original in the PMLD field. But to say that children with PMLD are wholly different from myself, that they are discontinuous and that we should not try to understand the experiences of children with PMLD means that we stop listening, deny them voice, and ignore any experience of shared moments, belonging, participation and togetherness that may arise. This to me sounds like a more dangerous idea.

Food for thought, and all in all a great symposium.



(Pictured: view of the hotel lake)

PhD Viva – Dr Hannah Young

In May I examined Hannah Young’s PhD thesis at the University of Dundee (with Philip Dodd and Ian Barron). Hannah’s work explores the loss and bereavement experiences of people with profound intellectual disabilities and develops therapeutic approaches in the field.  The thesis challenges the reductionism at the heart of conventional cognitive accounts which hold that some people are too intellectually impaired to understand loss or benefit from support. A relational and embodied perspective is then advanced which helps make sense of the loss experiences of people with PID and guides the development of practice (e.g. multi-sensory story telling and memory boxes). Hannah’s work is deeply humanising, sensitively-written, and begins to fill a large hole in our knowledge and practice in this area. Her defence was passionate and thoughtful, and her publications essential reading in this area.


New paper: Finding “Mathematics”!

We’ve just had a paper published based on work undertaken for the Everyday Maths project. The aim of the project was to explore parents tacit or ‘everyday’ mathematical knowledge and investigate how this knowledge can be used to support children’s maths learning in informal contexts. Whilst the project itself sounds simple, what emerged was a range of tensions and conflicts around the meaning of maths and the ways it could (and should) be employed in out-of-school contexts. We examine these tensions in the paper using a theoretical lens based on Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction. This proved to be particularly fruitful in theorising the struggle between a school-centred and parent-centred maths binary.

You can download the paper by clicking the link below.

Jay, T., Rose, J., and Simmons, B. (2017) Finding “Mathematics”: Parents Questioning School-Centered Approaches to Involvement in Children’s Mathematics Learning, School Community Journal, 2017, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 201-230.


This paper reports on a study of parental involvement in children’s mathematics learning in the context of a series of workshops carried out in four primary schools in the United Kingdom. Previous research suggests that, while there are high correlations between parental involvement and positive student outcomes, it can be difficult to raise student achievement via parental involvement interventions. We suggest that part of the reason for this, at least in relation to mathematics, is that parents experience considerable difficulties in negotiating school-centered definitions of and approaches to mathematics. We employed a design and analytic approach informed by Derridean concepts including decentering and différance. We encouraged parents to work with their children to “find the math” in everyday life and activity. A significant component of the discussion in each school involved sustained, critical reflection about the meaning of “mathematics” and about parents’ interpretations of parental involvement in children’s education. We made sense of parents’ discussions during the workshop by offering an account whereby parents grappled with mathematics as a socially constructed domain, dominated by school-centered ideology. As parents became more confident in their own analysis of the mathematics in everyday family life, they developed new strategies for sharing this mathematical thinking and awareness with their children. Implications for school parental engagement strategies are discussed.


(Picture: inside Will’s Memorial, Bristol)

New Book Contract

On Friday I received an email from Sense Publishers saying that my monograph proposal was positively received and that a book contract was on its way. What a great way to start the Easter break! It’s been three years since The PMLD Ambiguity was published and I’ve been keen to write a follow-up. The new book (based on research undertaken for my postdoc fellowship) will draw on phenomenological theory and case studies to explore the meaning of ‘inclusion’ as it relates to children with PMLD.  Given the distinct lack of theory, research and knowledge in this area the book will hopefully become a catalyst for future debate.

The experience of being and belonging: a phenomenological account of inclusion for children with profound and multiple learning disabilities will be out in 2018.


Everyday Maths Project

I was clearing my desk at work and stumbled across a report from the Everyday Maths Project (something I was involved with as an RA before my postdoc). The Everyday Maths Project was a fascinating piece of work, led by Tim Jay (now at Sheffield Hallam University) and Jo Rose, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The project essentially involved working with parents of primary school children in order to develop maths workshops that support parent-child maths interaction. The project was controversial in nature as it went beyond abstract, school-based maths to explore the (potentially latent) practical maths that parents employ on a daily basis. Through a series of workshops, parents maths knowledge was made explicit and we explored ways that this can be used to support children’s maths learning within everyday contexts (e.g. travelling to school, playing in the park, shopping for food). As dad of two small kids this work was timely and my own maths confidence developed during the project. If you are number shy and would like to learn more about innovative ways of introducing maths in everyday life, then you can download the final report. There are further resources on the website including conference proceedings (, as well as a paper due out in spring 2017.


Pictured: Pero’s Bridge in Bristol. (Can you find the maths?)



New Term and New Unit: Education, Schooling & Diversity

It’s a cold and frosty start to the new academic term but it’s always lovely to meet students again. This term I’m down as the convenor and tutor for an undergraduate unit called Education, Schooling & Diversity for the BSc Childhood Studies, and I’m literally about to leave the office for the first tutorial. If I was a student again this is the kind of unit I would want to study – 24 lectures, delivered by 10 member of staffs, group projects, visits to Bristol’s learning centres, and a critical assignment pulling it all together in the end. Given that this is a first year unit I suspect that students will be new to special and inclusive educational theory, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into teaching over the coming weeks.


Picture: Brandon Hill, Bristol.

Teaching at School for Policy Studies

Today was my last seminar for the BSc unit Education & Society. I was a tutor for the unit, which consisted of leading a seminar group for 10 weeks and giving an interactive lecture in the middle. I’ve not taught undergraduates before and have been impressed at the level of debate in seminars! Each week two students present key readings which we then critique as a group. The readings are typically anchored in sociology of education and revolve around issues of social justice, which we found to be a controversial concept! I’ll miss the gang, but look forward to marking exam papers and assignments after Christmas to see how debates have fed into assessed work. 

Next semester I’ll be teaching a year 1 unit (Education, Schooling, & Diversity) so it will be interesting to see how the newer students get on. Watch this space!

Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol

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