Podcast with Stuart Murray and David Tabron
In this episode, Brandy speaks to Stuart Murray and David Tabron. David works for Blueberry Academy, a business that operates in special educational needs. “We’re a training provider, a post-16 training provider. And we also operate in health and social care,” David explains. Blueberry Academy was set up in 2007 and is localized to York in the North Yorkshire region. They provide job coaching and personalized learning and education. They have spent the past year working with Stuart Murray and livingbodiesobjects, seeking ways to implement VR into learning for Blueberry participants.
BRANDY SCHILLACE: Hello and welcome back to the Medical Humanities Podcast. I’m Brandy Schillace, Editor in Chief. Today I’m here with two guests. One you’ve heard from before, Stuart Murray—member of LivingBodiesObjects team and lots of other things, which he’ll be telling us more about—and David Tabron, a member of the Blueberry Academy team in York. And we’re gonna talk a little bit about these projects and overlaps and intersections. And life is more interesting at the intersections, wouldn’t you two agree?
STUART MURRAY: Absolutely.
DAVID TABRON: Yeah, very much so.
SCHILLACE: So, why don’t, first of all, since our listeners actually do know you a little bit, Stuart, why don’t we start with David telling us a bit about yourself and what you do and about the Blueberry Academy itself?
TABRON: Yeah, I’d really like to. It’s a great way to start and thank you for the invite to be on the podcast. So, I’m Dave Tabron, and I work in York at Blueberry Academy. And Blueberry Academy is a business that operates in special educational needs, and we’re a training provider, a post-16 training provider. And we also operate in health and social care. Blueberry Academy was set up in 2007 and is kind of localized to York in the North Yorkshire region. And it was set up actually by a couple of colleagues and dear friends of mine who we’ve been working together and known in the city for a number of years in different sort of ways. So, when the Academy was set up, we very much believed in local and were very much with a kind of employment focus initially. So, we were sort of job coaching and supporting people into employment. And the local Council who know of us were very much interested in, were interested if we would extend into personalized learning and education.
So, the Blueberry Academy journey basically has been from 2007. We’re based in the city. We now deliver education on behalf of City York Council, and then in the wider North Yorkshire area, a different kind of contract. But we provide personalized learning and health and social care to North Yorkshire County Council. And our target age range is that post-16 to 25 for education, but anywhere through adulthood. And I’m sure it’ll come out in the podcast, but basically, we’ve got four strands. We really focus on all sorts of creative activities and different approaches relating to employment, independent living, community inclusion, and health.
SCHILLACE: That’s brilliant. That’s brilliant. So, Stuart, tell me, how have you been interacting with— Well, first of all, I suppose I should ask for a quick update on LivingBodiesObjects, ‘cause I know things have changed since we last spoke. But then I’m really interested to hear how you’re interacting with the Blueberry Academy.
MURRAY: Yes, I think when the last podcast was done, it was about our first residency partners, which was Interplay Theatre, and I think the artistic director of the theatre, Amelia DeFalco, came on and spoke to you. So, Blueberry Academy are our second partners in the overall three-year project, and we’ve been working with them since the end of February. And as with Interplay, what we did was we went to them, and we said that we have a research project, and we’d like to hear how we can best work with you to do what you want to do. So, it’s very much founded on those LBO principles of finding out what research is by doing it and kind of having an open start, knowing that we wanted to focus on questions of health and issues of technology in particular. So, we sat down with Blueberry—and Dave and I have talked a little bit about this in the past—and we were kind of wondering how this was gonna go. It was a very open conversation.
I’d never worked with an employment provider before. I wasn’t sure what it was gonna look like. I think Dave has said that having a bunch of academics come into the building was also relatively unusual. So, we were looking for common ground at the start, and one of the things that came up very early in our conversations was connected to the well-being and particular issues around anxiety and mental health that some of Blueberry’s trainees have about things like independence, about things like traveling on their own. And so, what we immediately said is, why don’t we use the VR technology that we have in LBO to see how we can do something about that? And we went from there. And we’ve been going in and working together as a team every Thursday, pretty much since February.
SCHILLACE: That’s great. And just for our listeners, just in case you’ve entered this podcast, and you haven’t heard the other two where I spoke to Stuart, LivingBodiesObjects is a project which I actually almost describe, it’s like trying to see outside your own head, which is very difficult to look at your own eyeball or something. Because they’re trying to do research as research happens in this very open way, in a very nontraditional way for research to happen in academia, but with a hands-on approach that makes a lot more sense, I think, out in the lived world of lived experience. So, it’s a unique project, and obviously, it’s about living bodies and objects. But the words are all connected together because in many respects, there aren’t those clear boundaries between these things in real life. So, the VR technology he’s talking about is also, it’s a virtual reality where you wear goggles. Is that right, Stuart?
MURRAY: Yeah. Yeah, with headsets.
SCHILLACE: And it allows you to kind of experience. I believe you told me at one point you all were in a room together, and there were kind of virtual trees, and so it really lets you kind of explore a space. So, is the virtual reality a way of allowing the participants in the Blueberry Academy to explore themselves, to explore new spaces or experiences?
MURRAY: All of those. I think we…. Some of the trainees had, if not used VR very much before, they were quite accomplished gamers, and they had experience of the sort of almost like the motor movements that you would do and using hand controllers, for example, to move around environments, virtual environments. And so, we— And others didn’t have any experience at all, and some were nervous.
MURRAY: And so, we built up from a kind of a zero starting point in some way. And it was exactly as you say, Brandy. We wanted to see if by creating virtual spaces, by being in them, if there was any connection that we could make to the idea of a safe space, basically, one we might design or co-design or make, why you would make it in that way, what things would you put in your safe space?
MURRAY: And so, as the weeks went on, we were doing this every week, just building on the previous week. And it’s been enormously enjoyable, and I think really, really productive.
SCHILLACE: It sounds fabulous. David, what are some of the responses that you’re getting from the members?
TABRON: That’s, I have to say that it has been fantastic, but I think if you listen on a podcast, it’s probably important to know what does that mean, and maybe what’s Blueberry Academy’s starting point here? The things, obviously, from what Stuart said, is absolutely right, and that’s our experience. But I just wanna highlight that Blueberry Academy, at the space that we are, we run our own curriculums. We have space to, we work with employers, we work with outside agents, we work with, you know, we’ve got freedom to kind of go hunt best practice. And we do a thing called personalized learning, and we’re really trying to do an individual program.
TABRON: And we’ve got a lot of flexibility. So, some of my week, for example, I can be delivering a program, one-to-one out in the community. And we have this great old building space, what we call a learning hub. And we’ve got different, we’ve got a retail shop, and people can look it up online and find out a bit about us. But the one thing that I really wanna point out is Blueberry Academy didn’t have a team of technicians who had knowledge relating to VR, and what the LBO opportunity for us was to look at kind of immersive technologies.
TABRON: And we’ve touched on sound and lots of things, but we were starting on this journey as a team with staff—
TABRON: —you know, from a scratching-our-heads point almost.
TABRON: And the key thing that I was kind of interested in on an individual basis, I was the first to kind of meet up and start to design with Stuart and other colleagues on the LBO team about what we’re gonna do is that Blueberry Academy basically kind of looked at me when I said we’ve got this opportunity, and we’re keen to get involved. But it just started with a blank page, and I was very worried that everyone would think I’d be a leading expert in VR and how to do all this stuff. But actually, the journey’s been really informative, and I think what I’d really like to say is the Blueberry Academy journey—and it’s similar to staff and our trainees, young people we work with—has been a journey, and we’re gonna continue it. And if we’ve been able to do this and find positive stuff, any other organization who’s sat outside listening to this, I’d just encourage you to have a little explore. Maybe look at there’s a research paper, I think, that’s coming out from us that could actually encourage and help other people. So, our starting point at Blueberry Academy, while we’ve used film and we use music and we’ve used theatre and we’ve got dance studios and all of that, but we’d never done anything in terms of VR. So, that was our starting point, okay?
SCHILLACE: That’s really lovely. Yeah. Because I think to me, you said several things that I just wanna draw out for our audience. One is I think even when we, different times we’ve tried to talk about LivingBodiesObjects, it tends to stay, it sounds philosophical. It’s hard for people, I think, to get their head around exactly what it is and does, because unlike some projects that, you know, “This is our thesis, and this is the outcome we’re looking for, and these are the goals,” this is much more about the researchers themselves starting also kind of on page one. And the description that you just gave me of both the participants and your staff starting on the same page together, I mean, what a wonderful way to build community, that you’re doing this together. It’s not, it’s sort of a level playing field instead of that kind of teeter totter where someone’s above someone else. And this is a problem, this is something we talk about a lot in Medical Humanities, in medicine in general, because, say, doctor/patient relationships, right? They’re always uneven. But this is a ground where you all get to start at the same place. And I think one of the things that LivingBodiesObjects is attempting to do is say, what if the researchers and the academics and the public were all doing something, were all going on a journey and starting at the same place, too?
TABRON: That’s…. It feels like you’ve been sat in the sessions that’ve been delivered here with the team from Leeds University, from our great colleague Dave Lynch, from Immersive Networks, who comes in. From our own staff here and our trainees, it is, we try to have at Blueberry a certain level of our trainees. This isn’t, shouldn’t be something that is done to you, your personalized program.
TABRON: It’s something we want you to embrace ‘cause you understand it’s your journey, and we wanna support you to be as independent into your adult life as possible. And the LBO team have just come in, and from that day one, we’ve tried out different things. I think the term, in some ways, we’ve played together, you know?
TABRON: When our staff have, the Blueberry Academy staff, can’t work out to do something, a trainee, one of our young adults who can do it, show us. And it’s the same, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re from Leeds Uni. And our trainees, we tend to recap so they do understand that the team, the LivingBodiesObjects team, they understand that they’re taking part in a research project. And we’ve actually grown it. And we didn’t really set off with this concept, but we were kind of aware that it might flow in that way. Now everybody—when I say everybody, that’s the researchers, that’s the Blueberry Academy staff, and it’s our trainees—we are LivingBodiesObjects researchers together.
SCHILLACE: Right, right.
TABRON: That’s a very, very strong thing. At the start of the project, I’d have never thought that. And it’s given an ownership, and maybe that mirrors what we’ve been trying to look at is can technologies, can people feel a relationship with them that kind of gives them an enhancing or an enabling relationship? And I think that’s very much been a feel for our work, and I think that’s been a real experience for the trainees. And I really have to stress that this research hasn’t been done to any young people. It hasn’t been done to Blueberry Academy. We’ve all joined in and gone on a journey together.
TABRON: And the way that the researchers have been as individuals in our environment here, if you can come into our learning environment and be accepted and people be comfortable and you can work alongside for the month, week in, week out that we have, it does speak volumes for how people have come without any pretense, without any status. It’s created no fear. And that’s getting people to put on equipment they’ve not seen before, experience different worlds, kind of how that interacts with their senses. So, it’s been quite remarkable some of the way that people have felt comfortable with what’s gone on.
MURRAY: That’s such a lovely description. And I think, Brandy, what we found early on was the rhythm of the day. So, we would go in on a Thursday morning and start to work with the trainees and then have a break for lunch. But we would all have lunch together, for example, and then an afternoon session as well. And the rhythm of the days and everybody starting off in conversation with one another and talking about whatever was on our minds, it absolutely set up this sense of feeling like a team together. And when we needed things to slow down a bit because other things were going on, that was exactly what we did. And as Dave says, there was quite a lot of play. It was useful to be able to introduce some of the technology by playing with it.
MURRAY: But it is also great to know, for example, that, as David said, a number of the young adults at Blueberry will have personal health plans, yeah? So, we knew that some of the things we were doing could make interventions in those plans, so in those documents that are official documents about their health futures in a way. So, we’re in this wonderful situation of being able to experiment, being kind of very true to LBO’s sort of principles, but at the same time knowing, well, if this goes right, it will go in someone’s file. It will go into their plan. And that could have really good future outcomes for them. It was a great combination.
SCHILLACE: Well, and here at Medical Humanities, one of our big interests in LBO and also your other projects, Stuart, on disability, which I know is going to be a special issue for us down the road, is we’re very, very focused on accessibility, and that accessibility takes a number of different forms. And we’re interested in social justice accessibility, so who has access to not just to medical care, but who has access to health, which is a much broader understanding. It incorporates things like how independent you can be in how you live your life, and can you live in a way that is meaningful to you and that brings you joy? And so, we’re very interested in accessibility and in disability. We have many disability papers that’ve been coming in. We’ve been really trying to court those. Actually, I myself am autistic, and so my interaction with the world is often interestingly mediated by technology too. So, I think my biggest interest in what you’re trying to do is how do we open up research, medicine, medical humanities, health, concepts of technology? How do we create community with these things?
MURRAY: I think one answer to that could be looking at this residency as a way to stimulate that thinking would be exactly the way that Dave mentioned, in that we were able to get a postgraduate research assistant. We’ve got one for each of the four residencies on the LBO project. And this research assistant came into Blueberry, and we said to her—her name’s Dee Ricketts—“What work is out there on the interaction between young disabled people and immersive technologies? Go have a look and come up with a report.” And she came up with this absolutely fabulous report. And the whole point about that was we wanted to pass it on to Blueberry staff, and we wanted to say, “Here it is. Do with it what you want.” And I know, Dave, you were just looking over it last week ‘cause you sent me a wonderful, enthusiastic email. And I think one answer to your question, Brandy, and here I think the thing to do is to pass over to Dave, is that you immediately could see how you could get that report out into the world, didn’t you, Dave?
TABRON: Yeah, straight away. No, I wanna remind people who are listening that while very open, I’m not an academic researcher. And this journey of sitting with an academic research team, I think the first time, in truth, I left the table, even though they were really wonderful and welcoming, I think I might’ve left with a few nails left. I was a little bit biting my nails thinking, “Oh my God! I’m working with all these academics, and I might not understand what on earth they say.” But I did and I do. And so, as soon as we got the paper, which is gonna be out there, and we encourage everyone to have a look at it, we sat in our team has said, “Okay, how are we gonna use this? How can we use this as a foundation stone for going forward? And also, how can we get this information out?” And there’s a good example is we deliver our education on behalf of York County Council, and North Yorkshire Council said we deliver on their behalf in terms of education. Well, we’ve been feeding into their team. Obviously, they have management and senior management within their organizations, and we invited them in to see. And the same with health and social care. So, we’re rolling it out across our own team of practitioners. We wanna be an open book so people can learn. And we’ve actually asked, and we’re just going through the process with Stuart to see for Dee, could we have some of her time to help us to understand. So, we want the research from a, literally, a practitioner perspective to be almost a tool kit, almost a, “Here’s your start point. This is how you can go.” And we wanna share that with as many people in that we’ve been very fortunate to be supported by the LBO team. But there’s loads of lessons and practical things in there that any organization, you know, you can find me if you, perhaps Stuart in the thing, you know, if anyone wants to contact me and ask, “How does it work? What did you do?” some very, very simple things. And if we can help other people, maybe take away some of the fear, you know?
SCHILLACE: Oh, yeah.
TABRON: [inaudible; cross-talk] not know how something works, but if we can get going. So, our key is we wanna be using Dee’s research to shape the direction that we’re gonna be going within Blueberry in the next year or two and on beyond because this is definitely, the LBO is something that’s grown, our residency, feel like it’s grown, and it’s just gonna keep going without it being prescriptive. We’re just interested in what works, okay. What works for individuals, what works for groups, what works for staff. And it isn’t that immersive technology is the be all and end all. However, it is, in the right place and the right time, it can remove barriers and obstacles, and that’s very much something that we’re keen to do.
SCHILLACE: That’s fantastic, a fantastic descriptor of how it’s working for you. But also, for me, as someone who, yes, I was, I am an academic. I sort of absconded from academia. Most of you know [laughs] that I’m a freelance person now. But we’re very interested in perspectives that are much broader than that. And there’s a lot of talk in disability community, you know, not about us without us, not being a kind of afterthought, but being part of the development of technologies and of plans. And so, this concept of individual care, individual structures, individual planning, I mean, this is something that could be used in a range of communities and in a range of ways. And so, I love the idea that this, that academic research can have this very positive real-world connection. Because for me, that’s what gives it any value or meaning. So, if you’re making those kinds of connections, you’re doing something right.
MURRAY: And I think what we feel about that is, and what goes back to kind of LBO’s principles, is while we knew at the start some kind of outcome like that would be absolutely wonderful, we had no idea if we were gonna get there. You know, it was like an aspiration. But we all said if it doesn’t go that way, that’s fine. And I think that from a research point of view, having the luxury, if you like, not to have to get in quickly, not to be bound by time constraints and all those things that researchers have to deal with, but to be able to spend time to let the days when we are in Blueberry develop as they developed, to let them, in many cases, be led by the young people. And it’s just the same.
And listeners may remember when we talked about Interplay Theatre. When we started that residency, we had no idea what we were going to make, and we ended up making a performance piece. And it’s the same with Blueberry. I think the part of the reason it’s been so successful and this formed these ideas of communities and exchange, just like you’re saying, Brandy, the reason this was happening, I think, was because we were thinking about research in this way, in ways of thinking about pace, thinking about timing, thinking about interaction, thinking about community and togetherness. And it’s really, both residencies have been really good examples of when you let things happen, really good things happen!
SCHILLACE: Well, I think it’s a, you know, making academe get out of its own space is, as I said before, it’s like getting out of your own head. It’s the ability to put yourself in a different plane, in a different kind of situation. I think academics, I know this personally because I’m now a freelance writer who works and writes in a very different space. I do a lot of journalism. And when you suddenly have to remove yourself from that academic context and realize that this much broader context requires a whole different set of skills and for you to lose a lot of your assumptions. So, I think it’s just been a powerful, I think this is yet another powerful indication that LBO is on to something that I hope is going to be replicable in the future in other ways. So, thank you both so much for joining me today. Is there anything you wanted to leave us with?
TABRON: I’d add maybe, just a very quick one. I’d encourage people—whatever it is, you know, the LBO project’s gonna be running for another few years with other residents, and obviously, we’ll be involved behind—I would encourage people to maybe just check it out. I’m not saying that for trying to promote or anything, but I know from a practitioner, my colleague John McGrath, who works at Blueberry, our journey, we have learned lots of practical stuff that is gonna be really helpful for individuals, families, groups, whatever out there. And however that we get that information out, I really do generally believe it could be helpful to other people’s worlds of health, leisure space, whatever it is. So, if people are interested, they can get in touch with us and anything we can do to signpost. But the reports will be out there, and I’m sure there’s some little tips that might help other practitioners and other people out there.
SCHILLACE: Actually, speaking of contacting, Stuart, I think you also have an update about your website. Is that right?
MURRAY: We do. We do. So, our website is now live, and listeners can find it by going to LivingBodiesObjects—with no spaces, all lowercase and no spaces between the three words—LivingBodiesObjects.org. And that gives, we hope, some really good detail around our ways of working. We’ve got a living glossary there where we try and put terms that are meaningful to us, and we say why, and we say where they’re from. And in some cases, they might be from books or research articles, or they might be things we’ve overheard from Blueberry residents, for example, and things like that. So, yeah, please look at the website. And we’ll put the podcast on, references to the podcast on there as well.
So, we’ve got, I just wanted to say, to kind of close off, we’ve got four weeks left with Blueberry, and they’re gonna be absolutely fantastic. We’re going to review what we’ve done, and we’re gonna see what we’ve learned from it. We’re gonna talk to the trainees and ask them what they’ve made of it. And then next month we’re gonna do the transition into our third residence, which is the Bhopal Medical Appeal, so a charity which is invested in finding ways to carry on the memory and the work that needs to be done in the wake of the Bhopal medical disaster, which was nearly 40 years ago now. And that transition, I think, is gonna be really interesting because we try and kind of have a continuity from one residency to the next. So, having Blueberry talk to Bhopal, I think, as we make the transition is gonna be a really wonderful thing.
SCHILLACE: That sounds wonderful. Well, I’m so glad to have had a chance to speak to you again and to meet you, David. And for our listeners, I’m sure we’ll get another one of these to talk about that third residency down the road. So, thank you all for joining us and being part of the conversation.