SCIE Research briefing 13: Helping parents with a physical or sensory impairment in their role as parents

Published February 2005

Introduction - What is the issue?

The topic of this briefing is parents with physical or sensory impairments and ways of addressing any perceived barriers to their parenting. This briefing does not consider any supposed impact of a parent’s disability on their children, but only describes some of the specialist requirements of parents with physical or sensory impairments. For reasons of space and consistency this briefing does not cover parents with learning disabilities, HIV/AIDS, mental health problems or some form of addiction, or pregnancy and childbirth among disabled women. Parents with physical or sensory impairments may also experience one or more of these other conditions, but these issues are not considered separately in this briefing, only where the combination is specifically addressed by the research. Also, the type of support most effective for parents who have learning disabilities or issues with substance misuse is in some ways quite distinct from what parents with physical or sensory impairments find helpful, and is therefore covered by other briefings in this series. Nor does this briefing cover disabled parents with disabled children. The parents covered by this briefing are those with physical disabilities such as arthritis, asthma, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, end stage renal disease, neuromuscular diseases, spinal cord injury, and also those with various degrees of deafness and blindness. The parents covered by this briefing do not constitute a clearly homogenous group, but their parenting has particular common themes, such as a potential need for assistance with looking after children, domestic tasks and transportation.

It is acknowledged that many parents with physical impairments do not need to look to social services or other professionals for assistance with their parenting, and that other factors such as family structure, poverty and social exclusion are important and affect any parent’s ability to perform their role. Parents with the same physical or sensory impairment can also have differences in terms of their needs, capabilities and limitations. How individual parents respond to the issues raised by their impairment and these socio-economic variables can differ from person to person also. It is also acknowledged that services in local authorities tend to be organised according to either medical or social categories, rather than the more holistic reality of family life, and that parents with physical or sensory impairments encounter many of the same social and organisational barriers as parents with other forms of disability. The briefing focuses on what some parents find helpful when faced with disabling barriers.

The aim of this briefing therefore is only to examine the general findings of the research and policy literature into how to overcome the barriers experienced by parents with physical or sensory impairments in their parenting, if such help is required. This focuses on helping them as parents with regard to certain aspects of their disability, as well as alleviating any broader, relevant socio-economic elements. It must be stressed therefore that this briefing is "parent-centred", but may be read in conjunction with the briefing on young carers, which is "child-centred". In combination, the two briefings hopefully offer a balanced examination of the topic.

Key messages

  • Eligibility criteria are applied by social services to the parenting needs of all parents.
  • The parenting responsibilities and role of disabled parents needs to be recognised, and policies developed across community care services to support this role.
  • Potential barriers to the development and maintenance of specialised and/or multi-agency services for disabled parents include limited funding, a lack of skills among professionals for assessing the needs of disabled parents, and entrenched attitudes about the respective services’ responsibilities towards children and adults.
  • Much research looks only at the experiences of parents primarily in terms of their physical or sensory impairments, and the barriers they face as a direct result of their impairments, rather than examining the broader social barriers encountered by disabled parents.
  • The research reports that parents with physical or sensory impairments can experience great difficulty in performing a range of domestic and child care tasks. However, parents do develop coping strategies, and there are environmental and physical means of supporting these parents in their roles.
  • Direct payments are also valued by parents because they can arrange help to suit their own needs, rather than having to accept the less flexible support provided by other services.

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