Context is everything

  • In this blog I argue that people’s ideas about what is right and wrong is affected by their situation;
  • I use a Twitter conversation involving Simone Aspis, Chris Hatton and others to show how this sometimes happens;
  • I then talk about why I think that Simone makes some important points and is entitled to say what she thinks;
  • I also say why I think that Chris Hatton’s work on social media has been very important for people with learning disabilities and for universities;
  • In the second part of the blog I argue that social media plays an important role in our society and that researchers like Chris have been very good at using it to share their understanding and knowledge;
  • But in my opinion researchers who use social media well, have not been supported by their universities;
  • I then make some suggestions about the ways that universities could support researchers who are active on social media;
  • I finish by suggesting that we should try harder to be kind to each other.

Context is everything.

I was reminded of this a while ago in a tweet that the self-advocate Simone Aspis had written about academics who write about the lives of people with learning disabilities – I can’t remember the exact wording but the gist of it was that if you write about people with learning disabilities you should always publish an easy read version of your article. It’s a fair point and something that few people who write about the lives and rights of people with learning disabilities actually do and I would very much include myself in that. But like I said context is everything.

In the Twitter conversation in which the point was made the academic in question was Chris Hatton, who I’ve worked with on a couple of projects. Chris had just published a timely blog and analysis about the impact of Covid-19 on people with learning disabilities, and Simone was challenging him on his failure to publish an accessible version of the article, after having challenged him a number of times in previous weeks. Since then Chris has made the decision to leave Twitter.

I don’t know and I’m not really interested in the question of whether or not Simone or anybody else played a role in Chris’ decision to leave Twitter. Simone is one of the country’s leading self-advocates she is entitled to her opinion. But news in the Health Service Journal yesterday that NHS England and NHS Improvement are recruiting people to investigate the disproportionate number of deaths of people with learning disabilities during the Covid-19 pandemic – a month after they had denied the increase in their response to the blog post from Chris Hatton that Simone had complained about – made it clear to me just what a loss Chris’ withdrawal from Twitter actually represents. In my opinion a loss not just for people with learning disabilities and autistic people and their families but also for the credibility of research across the country.

For some of us, especially those of us who retain some commitment to the aspirations of The Enlightenment, one of the principal reasons for doing social research is to try and make the world in which we live a better place, and a key means of doing that is influencing government policy. But social media has changed the way in which government policies are developed. The days of policy being the product of a decade or more’s research and evidence-based practice, are long gone. Policy is increasingly being developed in response to the news and social media agendas and the problem with a lot of academic social research – is the difficulty that universities have in being able to produce knowledge and insight at the time at which it is most likely to make a difference. Which in today’s politics is usually yesterday.

Chris Hatton is one of the few researchers who really knows how to use social media as a platform to deliver substantive knowledge and insight in a form that is likely to influence the news agenda and policy. But like most of the small number of researchers who are active in this way, I suspect that Chris and others like him do so without significant support from the academic institutions by which they are employed. Each working late into the night to produce some of the best and most timely social insight that we are likely to read. Social insight that isn’t funded by government or large institutions – but social insight that is rooted in the concerns and conversations of communities. The problem for people who work in this way is that it leaves them isolated and without support in dealing with the criticism that will inevitably come their way. Criticism that is the essence of social media and something that we all struggle with.

But imagine if it was different. Imagine a university that encouraged its researchers to engage in social media in a way that made their collective body of knowledge and expertise accessible beyond the boundaries of their institution. Such a university might have a very rapid peer review system that allowed their researchers to test their thoughts and ideas before publishing them in a blog. And if that university specialised in researching the views and experiences of people with learning disabilities they would, as a matter of course, have the capacity to produce easy read and accessible versions of articles and blogs produced by their researchers – who they would actively support to engage with social media. All of this would be done as a part of the university’s need to make itself meaningful not just to the governments and organisations that fund it but also the communities upon whose experiences it is ultimately so dependent.

Whether we like it or not social media will continue to transform the societies in which we live and if organisations want to remain relevant they will need to commit to social media in ways that are meaningful and authentic and supportive of their people who engage with it – as for the rest of us maybe we should just try a little harder to be kind – I know I should.


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