Parents who have learning disabilities

Proven Practice: Learning Disabilities

About 12 per cent of Britain’s 14.1 million parents are disabled and 1.1 million households with dependent children have at least one disabled parent. As well as this, there are a large number of parents who have additional support needs. Disabled adults are twice as likely to live in low income households as their non-disabled counterparts, and their experiences of inequality have grown over the past 10 years.

For the purpose of this article, the term “disabled parents” encompasses parents with physical and/or sensory impairments, learning difficulties, mental health problems, long-term illnesses such as HIV/Aids, and drug or alcohol problems. Many of the parents who fall into one (or more) of these groups will not come into contact with either adults’ or children’s social care services, and for some groups most people will have no contact with statutory services in their role as parents. However, almost all of the current research literature concerns parents who are in contact with statutory and/or voluntary sector adults’ or children’s social care services.


A research review carried out for the Social Care Institute for Excellence found that, on the whole, there is not enough research around disabled parents to inform UK policy. There is a need for more research to address significant gaps in what is known about the needs and experiences of parents with additional support needs.

Disabled parents and those close to them have highlighted a number of areas that can act as barriers to successful parenting and receiving support. The low employment rates, low incomes and additional costs associated with disabled parenting can be particularly challenging for disabled parents in the UK. As can poor quality or inaccessible housing and neighbourhoods.

Disabled parents have also reported negative attitudes and discrimination as a major barrier to be able to fulfil their parenting aspirations. Some women experience negative attitudes to their pregnancy and parenthood: women with learning difficulties, physical or sensory impairments or mental health problems have all reported negative responses among professionals, family members and society generally. Parents with learning difficulties report harassment and bullying against them because of their learning difficulty and this can become a more common experience once they become parents. Their children can also be affected.

The anticipation of negative attitudes about particular needs and circumstances can act as a barrier to parents seeking support from social care services. A number of research studies find that parents with mental health problems, drug and/or alcohol problems, or learning difficulties are reluctant to approach social services for fear that their children will be taken into care. Research into the views of parents and children receiving services via the care programme approach found that they experienced and feared “discriminatory responses from local and professional communities and agencies that may lead to family separations or child protection procedures”.

Other main issues identified by disabled parents and their children include a lack of information about the statutory and voluntary sector support services available, and assistance to carry out everyday tasks – especially during pregnancy and early years. Most significantly, parents highlighted difficulties in working with both adults’ services and children and families’ services, with some reporting disputes about who is responsible for funding the support they need with carrying out parenting tasks.

Practitioners’ Messages

There is a need for:

Research to address significant gaps in what is known about the needs and experiences of parents with additional support needs.
The development of appropriate indicators for assessing how well families with a disabled parent are supported.
An exploration of the potential of mechanisms such as local public service agreements, local strategic partnerships, local area agreements and individual budgets for enabling social care commissioners and providers to better meet the support needs of disabled parents.
The promotion of practitioner networks to encourage good practice.
The involvement of disabled parents in all activities relating to improving support to families.
Eligibility criteria to be changed to take parenting needs into account so that responses can be put in place at lower levels of need than is currently recognised within specialist adult disability service.
Clear policies and procedures to enable an effective joint response across services and agencies (including those in the voluntary sector).
Joint commissioning and joint working, so that flexible, ongoing support that can respond to changes to both  impairment/illness and family circumstances is provided.
Anticipatory mechanisms to promote resilience and build parents’ ability to cope with future challenges.

More information

➔ Knowledge review 11: Supporting disabled parents and parents with additional support needs
The Disabled Parents Network 
➔ McGaw, S. and Newman, T. (2005) What Works for Parents with Learning Disabilities, Ilford: Barnardo’s.
➔ Olsen, R. and Wates, M. (2003) Disabled parents: Examining Research Assumptions, Dartington: Research in Practice.

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