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Supporting disabled parents

The parents covered by this briefing are those with physical impairments who may for example have mobility impairments, hearing and/or visual impairments or chronic illnesses.

Parents may have several impairments and complex access requirements. Parents with learning disabilities are not covered by this briefing, for information to support this group vist the Health Scotland website

Parents with physical or sensory impairments do not constitute a clearly homogenous group.  Like all parents factors such as family support, poverty and social exclusion will have a big impact on their ability to manage. All services need to consider the individual and families strengths and needs in order to support people in their parenting role. 

Although parents with physical or sensory impairments will have differences in terms of needs, support for their parenting role has particular common themes, such as a potential need for assistance with looking after children, domestic tasks, transportation and accessible information or flexible appointments (e.g. for health visitors).

Parents with a physical or sensory impairment can still experience a fairly high level of prejudice. Attitudinal discrimination can include stereotypes and prejudice that disabled parents won’t make good parents, or that their children will be subject to a substandard family environment and level of parenting. This can stop disabled parents accessing support services, due to a concern that their children will be removed, or that their ability to be a good parent will be questioned. But there’s no evidence to support the view that having a physical or sensory impairment will result in a reduced ability to parent.

‘Anna’s’ story 

‘Throughout my pregnancy I felt I was constantly fighting for support. The majority of professionals I met made negative presumptions about my ability to parent. I’m a wheelchair user with complex health needs, who had taken seriously the need to assess what kind of support I would require. Despite being very positive myself, I felt undermined by the attitudes and treatment I received. My husband and I fought hard to agree a care plan with the midwives that described in detail the extra support I would need with my disability once our baby was born. We were horrified when not only was the care plan ignored after the birth; we were informed by one of the nurses that they had no knowledge of my additional needs. Not only was this very frightening, it left me with inadequate care for me and my son.

In addition, we were forced to have meetings with social work that seemed focused only on scrutinising our abilities, and not on offering solutions. They seemed unaware of any help that was available, and disregarded the research we’d done ourselves into what we were entitled to. The treatment we had left us feeling discouraged and depressed. Thankfully we were able to use our own resources to put together what has proved to be a very effective system of support for our family. However, we meet so many families who are not so fortunate.’

Key messages

This briefing focuses on elements to support disabled parents with regard to certain aspects of their access requirements, as well as alleviating any broader, relevant socio-economic elements.

Working together

The parenting responsibilities and role of disabled parents should be recognized by all services in contact with disabled people. Services working with adults and children should work together to embed the Getting it Right for Every Child approach, to keep the child and family at the centre of all service provision.

Holistic assets based assessment

Support should be based on assessments of parent’s needs and strengths.  Professionals should speak to the person to find out what skills they have and what they need. The main experience described by disabled parents is that they feel ‘undermined’.

Disabled parents are often experts in their own conditions and need to be respected in their ability to articulate this expertise to professionals. Involving them as part of seeking solutions, rather than as receivers of knowledge both strengthens confidence and inspires positive relationships.

When there are difficulties in communication, adequate and accessible support should be provided to a disabled parent to enable them to give and receive information. This may be in the form of an interpreter, or a member of staff allocated to assist in liaising with both parties

Assessment should consider both physical or sensory impairments, and the barriers parents with these impairments experience as a direct result of their impairments, as well as the broader social barriers encountered by disabled parents.  A family with disability is more vulnerable to additional factors having a detrimental effect. Areas such as adequate finance, housing and equipment required can make substantial differences to quality of life.

Timely support

Provision needs to be made so that access to inclusive information and support exists from as early as pre-conception to allow disabled parents to explore their personal support needs.

A disabled parent does not only require adequate access to services provided. They may have substantial equipment needs such as additional mobility aids, hoists required, accessible birthing pools, dietary requirements, additional staff, and detailed consultation may be required to ensure these are assessed during antenatal appointments.

Inclusive attitudes

Children’s needs are usually best met by supporting their parents to look after them.  A commitment to inclusive attitudes ensures disabled parents can parent with confidence and expect additional support where necessary. 

The following quote[i] illustrates the detrimental impact that following standard health information could potentially have on an individual.

“I know we’re [visually impaired mums] a minority.  But it was really important for me to know that it [breast feeding] could be done and the other ways to do it.  Had I not known and I had tried the non tactile way breast feeding may not have been successful which would have had significant physical and psychological implications for me.”

[i] Tornow M, 2012’