Sunday, 6 July 2008

Participatory approaches to inclusion related staff development: reflections on processes and outcomes

On June 25th I co-presented a paper with Fani Theodorou ( a PAIRS participant) at the Instiutional Research Conference, hosted by Solent University. Fani and I offered our reflections on the success and value of the participatory evaluation project- PAIRS. Our slides can be found at this website:

In terms of my own reflections on the value of participatory projects to evaluate the student learning experience in higher education I offered the following reflections:

1. The identified issues were no surprise
  • Other evaluation methods had picked these up
  • Rather disappointing in a sense that the participatory did not reveal anything new or unexpected

2. What was surprising was the evidence about the impact of identified issues on students:

  • Self-esteem, confidence, identity
  • Academic AND home lives

Finding out more about this IMPACT has made the project worthwhile for me.

The audience responded well to our presentation. Fani did a fantastic job of presenting her material. I also learnt that she had tried to volunteer to take part in other research projects in the university only to be told that they only wanted native English speakers. It got be thinking about how exclusionary exclusion criteria for research projects are, in terms of how they make prospective participants feel when they are barred from participating. This is something I think is underestimated in research. For the LEXDIS project, we thought very carefully about this and tried hard to put recruitment procedures in place that did not make disabled students feel excluded or rejected.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Theorising Inclusion and the dogma of accessibility

On Wednesday 2nd July I attended a seminar hosted by the Southampton University School of Education and the BERA Inclusive Education Special Interest Group. The theme was theorising inclusion and the two speakers were Julie Allan and Roger Slee. Both talks gave me much food for thought in relation to my own research and practice.

Julie Allan's talk developed an argument that four philsophers of difference had the potential to rescue inclusion from the "spot of bother" it was in at the moment. The philsophers she chose to focus on were:

Deleuze & Guatarri- deterritorialization, rhizomic learning and difference
Foucault: practices of the self & transgression
Derrida: aporias & deconstruction

Rhizomic learning is offered as an alternative to the structured aboretal learning borne of rigid spaces. Rhizomic learning is about lines of flight rather than safe spaces. Learning through wandering produces maps rather than knowledge and what is learnt is unseen and unpredicted by us. In terms of inclusion, if such learning is encouraged then there will be less emphasis on marking learners out as different depending on what they do or don't know. Deterritorializing is about smoothing out rigid spaces ( Allan applied this concept to teacher education) by breaking rules. By asking questions that challenge thinking, that make you a foreigner in your own land. Allan gave an example by suggesting that rather than ask " what is inclusion?" we should ask "what does inclusion do?". Allan argues further that we don't need to refer to the groups we work in to gain approval or collective ownership of an idea, we just need to get on and do it (take a risk, be creative).

Aporias are two paths or two ways forward. Arguing against the dogma of inclusion that forces us to choose one path, Allan argues that inclusion is not about either/or; it is about also/and. There are times when it might be useful to hold two things in our mind (e.g deficit and social model re dyslexia). She argues that when we are forced to choose one path we can create injustices (e.g choosing which student to support over another). Derrida argued that we need to practice the art of deconstructing dogma- "reading a text twice"- looking behind a text (e.g inclusion policy) and seeing how it gets itself into trouble. Allan argued that we need to teach trainee teachers to see the undecidabilities of inclusion and how inlcusion texts close them down. Texts construct passive, dull and regulated teachers. This argument has real resonance for me when thinking about how accessibility guidelines closes down practice and how people fail to read the texts of "universal design" twice in order to see that it does not necessarily equate to a "one size fits all" approach to the provision of accessible technologies for disabled learners.

Allan then went on to use Foucault's notion of self practice or ethical work to arge that inclusion starts with ourselves- we are more in control of inclusion than we think we are and we need to make an analysis of where we are. She concluded by arguing that we can invent inclusion as something better than we've had before, but we need to re-frame inclusion as ethical and political. We should not be trying to pin inclusion down, but to open it up and out. This thing called inclusion won't come about through grand revolt, but through tiny ruptures which open up possibilities.

The audience discussion raised some interesting questions and issues:

  1. Is it dangerous to smooth out the spaces (i.e danger of blandness and sameness)? Julie responded by agreeing that difference is interesting and the danger is in fact in re-territorialization or re-inscribing.
  2. Does everyone have the credentials needed to cross the space?
  3. When student support services and others are required to construct a case for inclusion- this inevitably pathologises universities and students.
  4. Inclusion can be viewed as "tethering"- tethering people to particular streams of provision.

Roger Slee started off with an interesting metaphor in relation to "rescuing inclusion": Is it about throwing out the lifeboats of inclusion or draining the pool?

Roger agreed with Julie that inclusion starts with ourselves- examing our discomforts around inclusion.

Roger argued that inclusion was born in a particular moment in time (politicallly, culturally and historically). As it has travelled it has lost its insurrectionary force. Instead of insurrection we now get orhodoxy we now imposed thought and forced adherence. Inclusion has therefore lost its effectiveness. Inclusion therefore, is political. It is about who is in, who is out and who decides. The history of inclusion ought to be the subject of interrogation. When Roger said this, it reminded me of the archeology metaphor I used in my book when I argued that learning technologists needed to dig deeper into the history of accessibility in order to understand where approaches to accessibility were derived.

According to Roger, inclusive education is a series of related "projects" and separating them is dangerous. Inclusion is about policy work, research work and ground work. Separation of these projects allows us to do analytical work, but they are related.

Inclusive education is:

  • not about indicators of inclusion, but about recognising exclusion;
  • a political undertaking;
  • a cultural then technical undertaking;
  • about all students ;
  • straighforward and complex ;
  • a project designed to bother- it therefore is always going to run into resistance .

Finally, Roger concluded: we are not straight about inclusion being complex- it can't be boiled down to specific techniques or tools.

I wish I could say something really clever now about how these talks have influenced by thinking, but the truth is I can't. At the moment all I know is that my thinking has been influenced, but in what way I can't yet say. Watch this space though because I think I might be about to go on a rhizomic learning journey- reflecting on how these ideas might help me develop my thinking about the development of accessibility practices in higher education. I certainly believe the dogma of accessibility needs to be deconstructed.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Research Methods Festival 2008: privilege and control

This week, with my NCRM hat on I attended the Research Methods Festival (see the programme and presentations slides at this website:

It's the first time I've been to the Festival, (which is held every two years) and so I did not know what to expect. I am pleased to report that I learnt a lot, and so I just wanted to share some highlights for you- focusing particularly on my interests in participatory research.

On Thursday I attended a session convened by Caroline Bryson called "Research with children-what are we still overlooking"? I attended the session because I wanted to see how different participatory research with children is, compared to participatory research with adults who have learning disabilities. One person in the audience asked: is research with children so different to any other kind of research? The panel replied yes. I would concur- in that what seemed to preoccupy the audience were issues of confidentiality- particularly what to do if a child revealed something sensitive and whether or not it should be passed on to a statutory agency such as social services. If the session had been about participatory research with people who have learning disabilities I suspect the audience would have been preoccupied with issues surrounding how much control the participants are actually given over the research (and the tensions between participatory and emancipatory research).

Despite the differences I observed, my ears pricked up at the following comments which I think do have resonance for learning disability research:

  1. Talking about the method of encouraging children to participate through creative activities such as drawing and then writing about our interpretations of these drawings Kay Tisdall asked a number of hard to answer questions : Why are we so fixated about translating the non-written into written text? Are we privileging "voice" and articulation and marginalising those who use other communication methods? Kay went on to suggest that perhaps we are getting distracted by the tools of participatory research (e.g. drawings) and losing focus on the participation.
  2. Talking about the role of ethics committees in participatory research, Jo Moran-Ellis an audience member argued that we need to challenge ethics committees who require us to see children as vulnerable with little capacity or resilience. When children are abused, control is taken away from them- when ethics committees make decisions for children- control is also taken away from them.

Research Methods Festival 2008:Where's the revolution?

This week, with my NCRM hat on I attended the Research Methods Festival (see the programme and presentations slides at this website: It's the first time I've been to the Festival, (which is held every two years) and so I did not know what to expect. I am pleased to report that I learnt a lot, and so I just wanted to share some highlights for you- focusing particularly on my interests in participatory research.

On Tuesday I attended a great session convened by Kathy Boxall and Peter Beresford called "How can users be effectively and inclusively involved in health and social care research"? There were three presenters- rather than precis the whole of what they said- I'll just share with you the gems and take home messages that I wrote down while listening to them:

Alison Faulkner- independent mental health service user and consulant:

User-led research will involve difference distress and dissent- Let's not pretend that it doesn't. e.g We can't expect people with distressing experiences not to bring that distress into the project. We need to find ways of negotiating disagreement.

In response to a question about how to ensure that service users were "representative" Alison responded that representation is about making it possible for everyone to take part in research that wants to.

Jennifer Taylor & Maggie Brennan, co-authors of "We are not Stupid" and members of People First Lambeth (an self-advocacy group for people with learning disabilities)
Even with the good support workers, we only have a say up to the point where they disagree with us
Vic Forrest- support worker
It's hard not to take control- even when you are really trying not to. I found I needed strategies for watching how I was feeling.
Roger Steel, PP Manager, UK Clinical Research Network
Relationships between researchers and service users become more difficult the more marginalised the service users are.
It's not about revolution, its about evolution. Large scale change in society attitudes is going to be slow.
Peter Beresford
We do need to think about how we support ourselves and each other in this endeavour.
The best gem was the "We are not stupid" book that I bought from Jennifer and Maggie at the end of the session. It's a great example of an accessible book, but the contents also give testament to a great example of user-led (emancipatory) research. They write:

"We wanted to look into the things we cared about the most and write about them in our book. What we cared about was what was happening in the lives of people with learning difficulties".
For information on how to buy a copy of the book you can go to this website:
So what will I take away from this session?
  1. Some great ideas for approaching the book that I am editing with Melanine Nind on "Concepts of Access", where three different self-advocates or advocay groups are contributing chapters in which they share their experiences of "access" issues. See my other blog here for more details:
  2. Some questions to ponder.. like is the best home for participatory research really universities? Are university researchers part of the problem or part of the solution? For many university researchers the reasons for doing research seem warped- its about funding, promotion, publications etc.and not about making a difference in the lives of the people they are researching. Now of course, I have no evidence to back this claim up, and in some ways I'm being deliberately provocative. But, the flip side of the coin is that the skills required to be an effective participatory researcher are supremely underestimated and undervalued (Jan Walmsley writes very well on this subject).

So where is the revolution then? Well, the revolution for me was in the two articulate presenters Jennfier and Maggie who spoke clearly and confidently to an audience of academics but who also insisted in a professional yet assertive manner that we as academics spoke in plain English, without any jargon. Some of the audience found this very hard to do! Research methods I guess are not just about collecting and analysing data, it is also about communicating and disseminating.

Not always the full text: visions of the future?

On Friday 4th July I attended the second day of a two day conference organised by CLAUD called "Not always the full text: working towards accessible learning resources". See their web site here: The majority of presentations were given by students sharing their knowledge and experience of print impairment and the problems they had accessing print (books, journals etc) for their studies.

Emma Rowlett a PhD student from Nottingham gave an overview of her PhD research in which she had interviewed staff and students from four universities about what reasonable adjustments were made for print impaired students. With my LEXDIS hat on I was more interested in the student experiences that Emma had to report and what she found is prettty similar to LEXDIS and other studies. For example: accessing ebooks etc is easier for print impaired students if it can be web-based, so that students can use the assistive technologies they have at home. But if they do access them in the library, using library PC's, they need to be able to adjust settings (e.g colours). Emma also reported that not all students in her study had problems with the library, but that many did not see libraries as playing a large part in the adjustments made for them. Thinking about our LEXDIS results, pretty much all of our students mentioned how important it was for them to be able to access books, journals and databases online. They too did not particularly mention libraries- and I wonder if this is because they see them as physical spaces rather than digital spaces. That is, that they perhaps don't appreciate the role libraries play in facilitating online access to books, journals etc.

Jane Lovett talked about her experiences of studying English as a student with a visual impairment. She talked about how it was a nightmare not being given reading lists early enough and how it took about two years for her tutors to give her a cut down reading list. What Jane and the other speakers stressed, that most tutors do not appreciate, is that when you are print impaired the time you could be spending reading is spent trying to get the print into an accessible format (e.g scanning, converting to braille). Students therefore simply cannot read everything they are given, and so find they have to be strategic and try to identify the essential texts/chapters/pages to access and read. Jane also had some horror stories to share of study in FE colleges. On one occasion, after help from RNIB and persistence Jane was able to successfully complete a GCSE course, despite being told on first enquiry " We have no facilities for blind people, we are not sure you can come here". On a second occassion, Jane dropped out of a course, because she felt seriously disadvanteged by tutors who did not give her handouts etc in advance. Jane finished by saying " All we are asking for is a fair crack of the whip; tutors do need to be pulled up". Sadly, Jane's experience is echoed by many other students, and like these other students Jane has found herself having to fight her corner and develop a resilient persistence that I imagine must get exhausting after a while.

Janette talked about her experiences of dyslexia (and Irlens syndrome). What was interesting about Janette was that she was studying a course on a subject that she had a supreme amount of practical experience and knowledge of (maritime history) and finding that she was failing. Janette explained that she is a slow reader, but also that due to short term memory problems she can forget what she has read. On her course- where she was expected to read "100 pages a week", she found she couldn't keep up. Her tutors were unhelpful- refusing to give her a cut down reading list and saying " you are reading for a degree; if you can't read, you have to seriously question what you are doing here". (I hope you are all gasping at this BTW!) Talking of scanning, Janette said "scanning is fine, but you can spend your life just scanning and not reading". Two things included on Janette's manifesto for change were: Longer loan periods for library books and getting reading lists in advance.

I was also interested to hear Geraldine Smith, a librarian from the OU, talk of her work in assessing the accessibility of library databases. The advice that she gives to students on the accessibility of these databases is available from this website:

In some senses today was a bit depressing in that the same old accessibility "horror stories" were being shared. However, let me end on a positive note and say that Jane was able to share how her university librarian had been fantastic and really helpful, and also how two IT technicians had gone out of their way (and apparently against the wishes of their boss- can't possibly imagine why, but answers on a postcard please!) to use a newly acquired embosser to convert texts to braille for her. So the moral of the story is, no matter how good the technology is, you still need people who are prepared to go that extra mile, break the rules or take a risk. This makes me smile wryly. Often when we talk of visions of the future, we talk of new, better, quicker, cleverer technology. But perhaps we just need braver and more creative people (i.e staff working in HE)?