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)