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.

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(Pictured: view of the hotel lake)

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