Category Archives: Conference Presentations & Talks

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)


Profound Intellectual Disability Symposium: Finland (2017)

One of the perks of being an academic is the opportunity to travel and talk to people about issues that you feel passionate about. Over the last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to share my research with international audiences (e.g. in Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Australia). I’ve also listened to inspiring presentations about work being conducted in different parts of the world. However, I rarely meet fellow researchers with an interest in people with PMLD. This is partly because there are relatively few ‘research active’ academics in the PMLD field, and partly because those that do undertake research tend to engage in experiments and present at scientific conferences. As a critical and qualitative researcher with a penchant for theory I find myself yearning for a group of peers who are keen to debate major themes in the PMLD field such as personhood, ethics, inclusion, quality of life, and methodological innovation. Such topics are on the fringe of the PMLD field yet should be at its core.

Perhaps things are about to change. I was recently invited by Simo Vehmas (Helsinki) to take part in a two-day symposium in Finland about people with profound intellectual disabilities. The idea is for 8 people to present papers on the intersection of philosophy/theory and empirical research as it relates to people with PMLD. The participants are big hitters in disability studies, feminism, anthropology, and philosophy, and include Eva Kittay (New York), Tom Shakespeare (UEA), Don Kulick (Chicago) and Nick Watson (Glasgow).  This is a novel symposium that will hopefully provide space for fascinating discussions which significantly push the boundaries of the PMLD field. Whilst it’s humbling being invited to present alongside esteemed colleagues, I’m excited to share ideas with a group who can significantly challenge and extend my own thinking in this area.

This symposium is still far off (2017) but I look forward to sharing more about it in due course.

CREAB Research in Progress Seminar

Today I gave a work-in-progress presentation for CREAB (“Centre for Research Across Boundaries in theory and practice”). CREAB is based at Bristol’s Graduate School of Education. I’m only half-way through data collection and haven’t conducted any formal analysis yet.  However, I thought I’d write a blog post to share some of the emerging findings for those that are interested in the project.

Project title:

Examining the situated and emerging sociability of children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) across educational contexts 


The aim of the research is to explore whether different school environments (e.g. mainstream and special) provide alternative social interaction opportunities for children with PMLD. The research also explores how children with PMLD respond to different kinds of social opportunities, and how this impacts on their emerging social awareness and communication skills.

Sample and time frame:

8 children with PMLD will be recruited to the project. Each child will be observed one day a week in a mainstream school and one day a week in special school for a 10-week period. A special school teaching assistant (TA) will accompany each child with PMLD when attending mainstream school.

To date, 1 reception and 2 primary school children have participated in the project. The next stage involves recruiting secondary school students with PMLD.


The methodology is similar to that developed for my PhD (you can read about that here and here).

The methodology is richly interpretivist and qualitative. It involves the researcher working with children, parents, and school staff. There are three components to this approach. First, parents and school staff are asked to describe children’s communication abilities (e.g. through semi-structured interviews). This gives the researcher a frame of reference for interpreting children’s behaviours. Second, the researcher works as a participant observer and gets to know children involved in the study by engaging with them in their daily routines. Third, the researcher generates data by writing “vignettes”, which are qualitative field notes describing observed social interactions between children with PMLD and the people they engage with in schools. The researcher and school staff then discuss observations/vignettes and share interpretations (staff are asked to comment on the researcher’s interpretation in order to help deepen his/her understanding of observed behaviours).

Impressionistic findings:

No formal data analysis has taken place so the following statements must be taken tentatively. However, an impressionistic reading of the data suggests that:

  • To date, all children participating in the project experienced meaningful opportunities for social interaction in both mainstream schools and special schools.
  • The nature of social interactions in the special schools was often respectful yet functional, and typically involved school staff. (For example, school staff interacted in order to teach children how to communicate.)
  • There was little interaction observed between children with PMLD and their special school peers.
  • By contrast, there was lots of interaction between children with PMLD and their mainstream school peers. The nature of this interaction was often spontaneous, playful, and unstructured.
  • One child exhibited a potentially new form of symbolic communication – a hand gesture – in his mainstream school that was never observed in his special school.
  • Whilst two children appeared reserved in mainstream school when they first started, they soon became more confident and learned to enjoy being in the presence of other children.
  • Groups of “friends” formed around children with PMLD in mainstream school. (These were peers who regularly played with children with PMLD, pushed their wheelchair, supported them in class, read to them, held their hand, gave them sensory objects , etc.)
  • Targets set by special school teachers were sometimes met in mainstream schools. (For example, one child’s target involved lifting his head for 30 seconds in the presence of others. Early on in the research we noted that he raised his head for 3-4 minutes in the presence of mainstream school peers.)
  • The success of mainstream school placements for children with PMLD depended on the flexibility of the school and the creativity, knowledge, and confidence of the special school TAs who accompanied the children.

Future research:

There are 18 months left of the project. The aim is to recruit 4-5 for more children/young people in secondary school and (if possible) post-16 settings. Formal data analysis will take place in 2017 and the findings will be reported in due course.

Talk on Applying for Postdoctoral Funding

Yesterday I gave a talk to early career researchers at Bristol University on writing postdoc funding applications. I’ve talked to applicants and run sessions on the topic in the past. As an applicant myself in 2013 I remember benefiting a lot from these kind of sessions before securing funding from the British Academy  (pictured above). Applicants can often be anxious, particularly given how competitive these awards are. To combat nerves and help with your application, here are my top 10 tips.

  1. Plan your time. Successful applications take time to write and revise. There is so much to consider that last-minute applications will never succeed. You’ve got to think about peer review, draft revisions, completing complicated on-line applications, chasing up references, improving your CV to match the funder, working with finance to cost your project, etc. Plan sensibly and start early!
  2. Take peer review seriously. If you’ve never won postdoctoral funding before you may not know what a successful application looks like. However, your research directors and senior academics will do. Address the issues they refer to.
  3. Be concise. Word count is limited and on-line forms will cut you off if you write too much.
  4. Avoid jargon and be clear what your research is about. Reviewers are unlikely to know your subject specialism inside out.
  5. Target your application to the funder. Different funders want different things.
  6. Read everything you can get your hands on and read between the lines. Funders often say what they want to see in your application so make sure you put it in!
  7. Improve your CV. Some schemes (e.g. ESRC Future Leaders) demand a first-class CV so make sure you publish, teach, take on admin etc.
  8. Applying feels egotistical. I don’t like selling myself but that’s part of the game. Become that kind of person and be confident and bold.
  9. Don’t put all your eggs in the same basket. There are several schemes out there so make sure you apply to them all. Competition is fierce.
  10. Be tenacious. If you get turned down apply again. Failure is an essential component for learning. Dust yourself off and do better.

Good luck!

Australian Association for Research in Education 2015 (University of Notre Dame, Fremantle)

I recently presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) annual conference, based a the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle. The conference was surprisingly intimate given that it’s Australia’s main educational research conference, but the presentation themes were diverse. It’s clear that Australia has a strong body of critical researchers with a passion for social justice. I sat in presentations on gender violence in schools, exclusion of aboriginal Australians in the educational system, and the role of poverty in rural communities. The methodological creativity was astounding, with narrative inquiry and post-structuralism at the heart of most presentations that I saw.

However, I was also deeply disappointed with how scientific the inclusive education stream was, and the lack of criticality and creativity in that stream. I sat through presentations on experimental designs, interventions and treatment, and academics trying to flog their behavioural programming packages to members of the audience. (The promise being that people with social emotional and behavioural difficulties would sit down for longer and make more eye contact). What did all of this have to do with “inclusion”? Presenters happily revealed the names of schools participating in their research and failed to adequately theorise the the topic of discussion. In many ways this was my worse nightmare. However, there were some saving graces. Vijaya Dharan from Massey University (New Zealand) presented a paper which called into question the meaning of SEBD itself, the experiences of people with SEBD in mainstream schools, and the patterns of school exclusions owing to unusual and strict rules in New Zealand. I chuckled to myself at the state of New Zealand exclusion policies, then discovered that a school close to where I grew up actually excludes people if they colour their hair!

My own presentation seemed to go “OK” (Qualitatively mapping the social interaction opportunities of children with PMLD in school contexts). This presentation was basically an interim report based on the descriptive findings of my postdoc to date. The behavioural psychologists didn’t like to make eye contact with me during the presentation (go figure!), but a keen group of teachers and early career researchers were genuinely interested in the topic of “PMLD”. To my surprise, interested parties had never met people with PMLD and the concept was entirely new to them. We spent time a fair amount of time chatting about everyday classroom practices, the type of staff that work in special schools, and the needs of children with PMLD. This left me wondering about the absence of children with PMLD in the inclusive education literature. If there are academics in inclusive education that have never heard of PMLD (or “PMD” – the Aussie term) then how can we take them seriously? Their models of inclusion are not inclusive of all children. And this is the crux of the problem in the field – no matter how complex debates are about inclusion, or how extensive the research literature is, if we are trying to forge a new world without asking what all children want and need then surely we are missing the point. “Nothing for us without us” rings so true here. This makes me think of the work undertaken recently by Melanie Nind on “Inclusive Research”. Admittedly, I’ve yet to read her latest book, but I hope that it’s full of promise regarding ways of supporting children with PMLD in the research process. Children with PMLD do have a voice and academics need to learn to listen before their models of inclusion can be taken seriously.

Dr Debbie Watson and I recently published a paper that may hold promise in the area of methodological innovation for children with PMLD. I’ll soon post about this in more detail, but you can read the paper here.