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42. How to prepare for a conference with a team of researchers with learning disabilities

Written by Andrea Bruun, Research Associate, Kingston University.

Next week we are going to the Hospice UK Conference 2023 in Liverpool. We are going to present some of our work at the conference. Giving presentations can be scary and makes most people nervous. Some people with learning disabilities might also find it difficult going to new places. So how do you prepare for going to a conference in Liverpool with a team of researchers with learning disabilities? Let me tell you what we did!

Let me begin by telling you a bit about what we are doing at the Hospice UK conference. We are going to give a talk about our new resources for end-of-life care planning with people with learning disabilities and how we made them. You can read more about the brand-new resources here. We are also presenting a poster about our focus groups with people with learning disabilities from minoritised ethnic groups. You can read last week’s blog about the study here. We will also share the poster with you next week.

For our talk, we have Leon and David put down as the main speakers. They are the two names on the conference programme, they will be talking about our work on the stage – they are the stars of the show! I will be there on stage with them, and we also have Irene and Jo there to support us. The preparation and support start early. Thoughts about not being able to or not wanting to do a presentation are very normal for most people. Whether it is small school presentations or big conference talks, most of us have felt the butterflies in our stomachs and the sweaty palms.

The nervousness kicked in for one of our stars. We knew that might happen as it had happened before. Our colleague Jo to the rescue! Jo’s role is to support our researchers with a learning disability. This includes her checking in with them before and after our workdays. In one of her conversations with our colleague, she noticed the fear slowly growing bigger. Now we were all on a mission to make sure our colleague felt supported, valued, and heard. This involved several conversations about the conference - and a big confidence boost!

Last week in the office we had sat aside most of the day to prepare for the conference. We started the preparation with a chat about how we felt about going to the conference. We did that by choosing a smiley face that represented our feelings: A yellow smiley face meant you were excited and happy to go; a blue thoughtful smiley face meant you were not quite happy and somehow unsure about going; and a red smiley face meant you were terrified and really did not want to go. We then talked about our smiley face choices and feelings about going. If the person had chosen a blue smiley face, we talked about what might help the person – what could maybe change the smiley face into a yellow one?

We also shared experiences of presenting at conferences in the past. All of us had tried it before. For example, Leon and I gave a talk at a VODG meeting in September. We talked about how we were nervous before the presention, but also how great we felt after, and how people were clapping and saying nice things about us and our presentation.

On the conference preparation agenda for our workday, we had items such as:

  • Project refresher” (Reminding ourselves where we are in the project right now, what we have done so far, and what the next steps are – our brilliant project overview washing line in the office reminds us about the different steps).

  • Conference travel” (When are we meeting up at the train station? Where are we meeting up? Who will be there?).

  • Practical things” (What do you wear at a conference? Is there a stage? Where would we like to eat dinner?).

  • Conference presentation” (Go through the slides together, agree who says what, practice how to say it – we made a little post-it note with sentences we are going to say that we can practice at home in front of the mirror).

We also talked about how we are all up there and in it together during the presentation. “What if I forget what to say?” Then you have two colleagues up there, and two in the audience, who will help you out. It is okay not to remember everything. We often ask our researchers questions about the research when we do presentations. In this way, they simply have to answer the questions, and when doing so they tell us more about the research. If something has been left out or more details are needed, we can always ask them another or a different question. This turns the presentation into a very natural and casual conversation, which works really well. Some people might also find it difficult and confusing having to read and use slides with text on them. So having conversations are often much better for our colleagues.

After having been through our agenda and talked through every aspect of the conference, we had another chat about how we felt about going. And guess what? A blue smiley face turned into a yellow one!

All the preparation worked and made us feel more comfortable. We will keep having conversations about going to the conference. On the presentation day, we will go through the talk again – we may even practice the night before if needed. All this work was needed as one of our colleagues were quite nervous. Another team member might need less preparation or preparation in a different way. We have to tailor our conference preparation and support to each person.

See you in Liverpool!


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