Archive for the 'Children, Young People and Families' Category

How to turn a children’s social services crisis into a catastrophe

Ray Jones

Ray Jones, author of In whose interest?

How to turn a crisis into a calamity and catastrophe?

Well, it is not that difficult as shown by the current state of children’s social services in England. But it does require commitment and continuity over time.

Here’s how to do it.

First, see the banker-created crisis of ten years ago as an opportunity. Blame Labour’s commitment to, and expenditure on, public services such as the NHS, schools and children’s social work for creating the crisis, ignoring that it was reckless and selfish behaviours within the financial private sector which took the UK and others to the economic cliff edge.

“When elected to government continue the script that what is required is a good and lengthy dose of austerity with cuts targeted at poor people and public services.”

Secondly, when elected to government continue the script that what is required is a good and lengthy dose of austerity with cuts targeted at poor people and public services. Keep this narrative going through a friendly media with programmes and news reports about shirkers and skivers and about failing public services and incompetent public servants.

Thirdly, create a self-fulfilling prophecy by cutting funding for public services year on year at a time when families are moving from deprivation to destitution amongst the slicing away of social security benefits so that it becomes harder and harder to provide help for children and families who have been left stranded and neglected by the state. Then ratchet-up the story-line that it is the private sector that is the solution to crumbling public services.

Fourthly, change the legislation so that even very personal services such as children’s social work and child protection can be contracted out to private companies who see this as an opportunity to make money. Their route to generating a profit is by cutting back and down-skilling the workforce, reducing terms and conditions of employment, and asset-stripping by selling off buildings and land. And if it all gets too hot, the international venture capitalists who have now come into this commercial market place of the children’s services ‘industry’ sell on their businesses or just walk away.

This is now the context for statutory children’s services and social work in England. Companies such as G4S, Serco, Virgin Care, Amey and Mouchel have all attended meetings with the Department for Education to work on creating and opening up this market place, and the market analysts Laing Buisson have been commissioned by the government to advise on how to create a privatised market in children’s social services.

“Over 70% of children’s homes in England are owned privately and run to provide a profit.”

And it is already happening. Over 70% of children’s homes in England are owned privately and run to provide a profit. A third of foster care is now provided through for-profit foster care agencies. Almost 20% of children’s social workers working within local authorities are employed through private for-profit employment agencies. And international accountancy firms such as KPMG are now paid by government to shape the future of children’s social services.

Hundreds of millions of pounds every year are being taken as private profit out of the public funding allocated to children’s services, money which should instead be used to help and assist children and families in difficulty and to protect children when necessary.

So a crisis created by the bankers has been used as the context to sustain policies of politically-chosen austerity creating a calamity for public services and a catastrophe for children and families but also profit-opportunities for private companies. And the commitment of the government is to even more cuts in the funding for public services, even more draconian cuts in welfare benefits, and even more privatisation. Absolutely awful, and it is without shame or humanity from those who still use a crisis of 10 years ago to hurt and hinder children today.

 

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Protecting Children: Time for a new story

 

Protecting children [FC]

Protecting children is out now

As their new book, Protecting children: A social model, publishes this week, Brid Featherstone, Anna Gupta, Kate Morris and Susan White look at how child protection practice must adapt to reflect our changing world.

And so it goes on: the roll call of more children coming into care, more children living in poverty, more families using food banks and more families living in overcrowded and unsuitable accommodation.

 

It is painfully apparent that the settlement between the state and its citizens, forged post-war, has been undermined profoundly, if not broken, over the last decades. Increasingly, expectations of decent work, secure and affordable homes and enough to eat can no longer be guaranteed by a state that is experienced as both intrusive and neglectful, especially by those living in poverty, with a subsequent loss of trust and widespread feelings of alienation and disconnection.

The policies and practices that have been developed to protect children must be understood and located within this wider canvas. While the state and its resources allegedly shrink, its gaze is harder and its tongue sharper. As part of an increasingly residual role, the system has become narrowly focused on an atomised child, severed from family, relationships and economic and social circumstances:  a precarious object of ‘prevention’, or rescue. As its categories and definitions have gradually grown, the gap between child protection services and family support, or ordinary help has, somewhat paradoxically, widened.

Indeed, the child protection mandate struggles to move beyond holding individuals (usually mothers) responsible for managing children’s protection, thus, in effect, privatising what are often public troubles and outsourcing their management to those often most harmed by such troubles.  When they almost inevitably struggle to cope, state responses incline towards removal and the rupture of connections and networks with ethical and human rights considerations becoming casualties of a risk averse climate and narrow and reductive understandings of children’s outcomes.

“Austerity has made things very much worse as successive governments, since 2010, have pummelled the poorest areas of our country and the poorest families relentlessly.”

Austerity has made things very much worse as successive governments, since 2010, have pummelled the poorest areas of our country and the poorest families relentlessly.   But it is vital we recognise the roots of our current malaise go way back and are intimately connected to a long-standing tendency to see child protection as something apart, the province of uniquely troubled families and thus disconnected from the wider contexts in which all families seek to survive and thrive.

The following deep-rooted assumptions are core to the child protection story:

  • The harms children and young people need protecting from are normally located within individual families and are caused by actions of omission or commission by parents and/or other adult caretakers;
  • These actions/inactions are due to factors ranging from poor attachment patterns, dysfunctional family patterns, parenting capacity, faulty learning styles to poor/dangerous lifestyle choices;
  • The assessment of risk and parenting capacity is ‘core business’ and interventions are focused on effecting change in family functioning.

In our new book Protecting Children: A Social Model we argue for a new story to support more hopeful and socially just policies and practices. This would oblige rooting the protection of children within broader understandings of what all families need to flourish and locating such understandings within the scholarship on inequality and poverty. Crucially, it means developing a range of strategies and practices to deal with the social determinants of many of the harms experienced within families such as domestic abuse, mental health difficulties and addiction issues; all pervasive features of highly unequal societies such as ours.

“Social work practice needs to be re-thought obliging the re-visiting of the old and engagement with the new.”

Social work practice needs to be re-thought obliging the re-visiting of the old and engagement with the new. When there is widespread misery and deprivation, how can the individually focused home visit continue too often to be the only game in town?   Collective strategies must be considered in a project that promotes community work, locality based approaches and peer support and is founded on seeing families as a source of expertise about system design and best practice.

Building on the ideas in the best-selling Re-imagining Child Protection: towards humane social work with families, and drawing from a wide range of social theorists and disciplines, we identify policies and practices to argue for a social model of protecting children that is animated by the need to:

  • Understand and tackle root causes;
  • Rethink the role of the state;
  • Develop relationship(s) based practice and co-production; and
  • Embed a dialogic approach to ethics and human rights in policy and practice

Re-imagining child protection [FC].jpgRe-imagining child protection by Brid Featherstone, Susan White and Kate Morris is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.19.

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‘Ain’t no such things as half-way crooks’: political discourses and structural duplicity in the troubled families agenda

Troublemakers FC

‘Troublemakers’ by Stephen Crossley came out in April

Stephen Crossley, author of Troublemakers: The construction of ‘troubled families’ as a social problemdiscusses the National evaluation of the Troubled Families Programme 2015 to 2020 interim findings, ‘dirty data’, his approach and methodology and the purpose of academic research.

Academics from different disciplines are often expected to demonstrate the impact of their research and this impact can be expected to relate to demonstrable changes in policy and/or practice. Such aims can lead to research being commissioned and published that is amenable to the interests of policy-makers and politicians. But there can be dangers in this, especially in the UK at the current time where many academics would not feel comfortable aligning themselves with some of the policies being pursued or advocated by our government or other powerful institutions.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu railed against ‘lackey intellectuals’ (Stabile and Morooka, 2010: 329) who put themselves in the service of neoliberal governments and, along with his long-time collaborator Loïc Wacquant, referred to such individuals as ‘defector[s] from the academic world entered into the service of the dominant, whose mission is to give an academic veneer to the political projects of the new state and business nobility’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 2001: 1).

“Sociology should not be a ‘disinterested calling pursued for purely intellectual and aesthetic reasons’ and instead should be ‘committed to, and involved in, solving current problems’”

In studying the implementation of the Troubled Families Programme (TFP) for my PhD and for Troublemakers, I wanted to adopt a different approach. Drawing on the work of Bourdieu and Wacquant, as well as other sociologists who have urged researchers to remember whose side they are on and to ‘study up’, I decided that ‘muckraking’ sociological approach would be appropriate. Gary T. Marx argued for a ‘muckraking sociology’ which, using the tools of social science, could help to unearth ‘dirty data’. Marx, like many others, proposed that sociology should not be a ‘disinterested calling pursued for purely intellectual and aesthetic reasons’ and instead should be ‘committed to, and involved in, solving current problems’ (1972: 4).

Writing in the 1970s, but with continuing relevance, he argued that muckraking research should help to document and publicise ‘the gap between values and actual practices and in questioning established orthodoxies’ (Marx, 1972: 2), and could be of benefit to those groups seeking change. Such research, Marx argued, could ‘give us a clearer picture of our world, stripped of protective verbiage and without the usual selective perceptions (and misperceptions)’ (1972: 4–5). In a passage particularly relevant to an examination of the TFP and its emphasis on ‘hands-on’ practical support for disadvantaged families, while marginalising structural inequalities and poverty, Marx argued that muckraking research ‘can expose the fallacies in certain common sense beliefs about social problems and show how certain ideas rationalize an unsatisfactory status quo’ (1972: 5) He goes on suggest that:

Such research uses the tools of social science to document unintended (or officially unacknowledged) consequences of social action, inequality, poverty, racism, exploitation, opportunism, neglect, denial of dignity, hypocrisy, inconsistency, manipulation, wasted resources and the displacement of an organization’s stated goals in favour of self-perpetuation. It may show how, and the extent to which, a dominant or more powerful class, race, group or stratum takes advantage of, misuses, mistreats, or ignores a subordinate group, often in the face of an ideology that claims it does exactly the opposite.

Such an approach has been particularly fruitful in studying the TFP. Research by myself and other academics have unearthed a large amount of ‘dirty data’ relating to the programme ‘whose revelation would be discrediting or costly’ to the government and that goes beyond incidental or minor inconsistencies, errors of judgement or ‘soft-core discrepancies’ (Marx, 1984: 79).

“The government claimed to have evidence that there were 120,000 ‘troubled families characterised by crime, anti-social behaviour, school exclusion and ‘worklessness’. It didn’t.”

In 2011, at the launch of the programme, the government claimed to have evidence that there were 120,000 ‘troubled families characterised by crime, anti-social behaviour, school exclusion and ‘worklessness’. It didn’t.

It had evidence that, around seven years earlier, there were around 120,000 families that were experiencing ‘multiple disadvantages’ such as poverty, material deprivation, poor housing, and poor maternal mental health. The government claimed that the programme ‘turned around’ the lives of 99% of the 120,000 ‘troubled families it originally set out to work with. It didn’t.

Families that turned themselves around with no contact with the programme were counted in the TFP figures. Families could, in some circumstances, be classed as having been ‘turned around’ by a child reaching school leaving age. The effectiveness of the ‘family intervention’ model, on which the TFP is based, had, in the words of David Gregg, been ‘sexed up’. Research was carried out without appropriate ethical procedures. Statistics and surveys that formed the basis of the need for ‘radical reform’ were invented. Local authorities were effectively threatened with naming and shaming if they didn’t ‘turn around’ 100% of their families in the first phase of the project. Local authority officers on the programme complained of staff from DCLG phoning them up to complain about slow progress. It was alleged that the government attempted to ‘suppress’ the official evaluation of the programme when it failed to provide them with the support it was expecting. Researchers who critiqued the programme had their competence and their integrity publicly called into question. A parliamentary committee accused the DCLG (now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government) of obfuscation and evasion in its lack of co-operation with an inquiry into the programme.

While I was carrying out my research, I was reminded of Mobb Deep’s assertion that there ‘aint’ no such things as half-way crooks’. In more academic terms, Bourdieu (1985: 738) argued that ‘political discourses have a sort of structural duplicity’, and the ‘troubled families’ agenda is a clear-cut example of this. It relies on deceit and duplicity at all levels, and the catalogue of inconsistencies, contradictions and falsehoods listed above cannot be put down to individual errors of judgement or mere coincidence.

Troublemakers focuses attempts to explicate and lay bare the overblown claims of the programme, the underhandedness, political chicanery and ‘structural duplicity’ that has been evident throughout the programme, and the symbolical importance of the programme at a time of wider state restructuring. It is, in short, an attempt to rake all, or as much as possible in a little over 200 pages, of the muck associated with the TFP into a single heap.

References

Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. (2001) NewLiberalSpeak: Notes on the new planetary vulgate, Radical Philosophy, 105: 2-5.

Marx, G.T. (1972) (ed.) Muckraking Sociology: Research as Social Criticism, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.

Stabile, C.A. and Morooka, J. (2010) ‘Between Two Evils, I Refuse To Choose The Lesser’, Cultural Studies, 17 (3-4): 326-348.

Troublemakers FCTroublemakers by Stephen Crossley is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.99.

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Social forms of care: Changing relationships of support

Mary Holmes

Mary Holmes

Mary Holmes, Co-Editor of Families, Relationships and Societies, discusses the new special issue of the journal which is now available on Ingenta.

It may seem obvious to most of us that we rely on other people for care and support, but how has that changed given the fragmenting tendencies of contemporary life? In the latest issue of Families, Relationships and Societies we look at some of the different ways in which people care and are cared for from Finland, to Sweden, the UK, to the Phillipines. Whether it is caring for children, grandchildren, teenagers, or the elderly, care calls upon our bonds with other human beings.

Whatever the kind of bonds or location, social forms of care include state provision and welfare services, as well as informal care arrangements. People use family, friends and other connections to get the support they need. It is not always easy and may require negotiation and involve conflict. Some informal arrangements may be ad hoc and fragile, but some may contribute to community building and be good alternatives to more institutionalised care provision.

“Childhood, sickness, frailty and old age mean receiving care at times of vulnerability, but even in these cases the cared for might offer some support to others”

A lot of care is mutual. Childhood, sickness, frailty and old age mean receiving care at times of vulnerability, but even in these cases the cared for might offer some support to others – be it financial or emotional. In everyday terms, we give and take care. A friend makes us dinner when we are busy, we look after their children when they have a meeting. A colleague offers to help with our marking and we take a class for them to return the favour. Older children may take a turn to cook, or listen to their parent’s small woes. Caring changes. Parents care for children together and then perhaps alone; help from grandparents disappears as they die; supportive friends move to another town or country. Alongside these ‘private’ forms of caring are changing public provisions and policies that impact on how people care.

The impact of the rolling back of the welfare state in many countries shifts care responsibilities back on to the private sphere.  For example, we see in one article how austerity has made lone mothers in Finland more reliant on informal support networks. In another, Swedish parents have to deal with pressures to control their teenagers’ alcohol consumption. These are changes in what care means and in ideas about who should care for whom and how.

“The articles reveal generational and cultural differences in expectations around care.”

What care means in different kinds of relationships also changes, and the articles look at parents and teenagers, children and child carers in institutions, social workers and clients, parents and parent-in-law, grandparents, children and grandchildren within multigenerational families. In one instance, we see Filipino daughters-in-law making efforts to create affinity with their mothers-in-law to help them balance a sense of autonomy with caring according to cultural norms around obligation to parents. The articles reveal generational and cultural differences in expectations around care. Women also still have to make sense of having the greater part of the burdens and satisfactions of care. Yet people work at caring for each other.

Different contexts of care affect how it is given and received. For example, one author argues that institutionalised care can give children a different sense of time to ‘private’ forms of care. Meanwhile, in social work practice, care becomes difficult if always concentrating on risk prevention, especially within child protection. The articles do not glorify informal or private care as innately superior, but point out the difficulties of caring in the current climate. The social pressures on ‘private’ forms of care can be acute as people try to look after each other around the demands of work, changing demographics and shifting social norms. Fear-oriented assessments of risk, emphasis on responsibility and self-reliance and the withdrawal of various public services have different impacts according to gender, age, disability, class and race/ethnicity. Limited availability and problems within publicly provided care forces people to find support within often already overstretched networks or communities.

Self-reliance is a fantasy, albeit a powerful one, and it is imperative to know how families, friends and public bodies navigate around it to provide support. Here we see them using a range of ways to maintain relationships of support at a time when vulnerability and care are often degraded. Care remains a social achievement.

FRS_OFC_Feb2016_72.THINBORDER

 

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The Troubled Families Programme: changing everything, yet changing nothing

Troublemakers FC

‘Troublemakers’ is out now

Stephen Crossley, author of Troublemakers: The construction of ‘troubled families’ as a social problem – out today – examines the most recent Troubled Families Programme Outcomes report, which published last week.

The Evolution of the Trouble Families Programme

The Troubled Families Programme (TFP), originally tasked with ‘turning around’ the lives of 120,000 ‘troubled families’ in a single term of parliament has evolved into a different type of programme since its inception, albeit one with many enduring features. The expanded criteria for the second phase of the TFP shifted from allegedly criminal, anti-social and ‘workless’ families, to include those experiencing troubles such as domestic violence and health issues.

The ‘next phase’ of the programme, announced in April 2017, sought to bring sharper focus to the work of the TFP by emphasising the need to support ‘workless’ families into employment. The criteria for identifying and prioritising families for the programme changed, the outcomes expected by the programme also shifted, but some core, sometimes unintentional, features of the programme remain, including the labelling of disadvantaged families as ‘troubled’.

Disproving the ‘underclass’ theory

The most recent findings, published on 27th March, highlight some continuities with previous ‘troubled families’ publications.

“Fewer than 10% of ‘troubled families’ were involved with one or more anti-social behaviour incidents in the twelve months prior to entering the programme”

By way of example, we learn from the latest Outcomes report that:

  • Fewer than 10% of ‘troubled families’ were involved with one or more anti-social behaviour incidents in the twelve months prior to entering the programme (p24);
  • Only one in three ‘troubled families’ are classed as ‘workless’ (p20);
  • Fewer than 2% of ‘troubled families’ had ever been evicted (p21);
  • and just 2.8% of children in ‘troubled families’ had a caution in the 12 months prior to entering the programme.

The findings thus mirror two sets of evaluation data from the first phase of the programme (Final report on the family monitoring data and An interim report showing family monitoring data), and demonstrate that the stigmatising feckless, workshy, ‘neighbours from hell’ imagery associated with ‘troubled families’ courtesy of powerful individuals such as David Cameron, Eric Pickles and Louise Casey, is entirely inappropriate. Essentially, the official evaluation of the TFP is the latest in a long line of research that helps to disprove the longstanding theory of an ‘underclass’.

Changing nothing

The impact of the programme also continues to look problematic, considering this was a flagship social policy that was originally intended to ‘turn around’ the lives of ‘troubled families’ and change the way that the government intervened in their lives.

The impact study of the first phase of the programme was ‘unable to find consistent evidence’ that the programme ‘had any significant or systematic impact’ (p20). Since the renewed focus on tackling ‘worklessness’ was announced in April 2017, 104,809 families were worked with on the programme. Of these, just 4,807 families entered ‘continuous employment’ in the last year. In just under three years, not a single ‘troubled family’ in Newham (out of 2858 on the programme) has met the ‘continuous employment’ criteria according to the latest figures. And yet, over a slightly longer period, over 1000 families met this criteria in Liverpool. The difference between such figures (and there are plenty of other inconsistencies) is not explained.

The main finding in the Outcomes report is that a significantly smaller proportion of children were classed as children in need (a 3.9 percentage point difference, a statistically significant difference) after 6-12 months of work under the TFP, than similar families in a matched comparison groups who were not on the programme over a similar period. This improvement is to be welcomed, but given the resources allegedly attached to the TFP, the intensive, transformative approach, and the allegedly failing approach of other services, it hardly represents conclusive evidence that the family intervention model is worth the effort.

Deflection

The continuing focus on ‘families’ – either ‘troubled’ or ‘workless’ – and on the family intervention approach continues to deflect attention away from the quantity and quality of jobs on offer, and their suitability or otherwise for carers of young children and/or disabled or vulnerable adults. The potential consequences of poor, or insecure, or sporadic work on disadvantaged families’ lives remained undiscussed. Poor quality, poorly paid, irregular work, often at unsociable hours in the early morning or late at night, accompanied by potential or changes to benefits entitlements, does not always lead to less parental conflict, more support for ‘children in need’, or a greater, more sustainable income. The pejorative term ‘workless’ ignores the amount of domestic and caring work that takes place within ‘troubled families’, many of whom have young children and/or family members with health issues or disabilities.

“The transformation of local services that the government claims is taking place under the TFP appears to be driven more by ideology than evidence.”

Ideology not evidence

Despite the evidence that suggests a lack of impact in many areas, there also remains claims of the allegedly transformative aims of the TFP. As each phase of the programme has been announced, and as its profile and importance has dropped, there has been an increase in the extent to which the programme claims to be transforming and re-shaping local services. The most recent annual report claims that the programme ‘drives service reform’, ‘drives reduction in social care demand’ and ‘promotes social justice’. Problematic and/or slow progress of many families on the programme suggests that the family intervention approach might not be worth ‘rolling out’ and ‘mainstreaming’. The transformation of local services that the government claims is taking place under the TFP appears to be driven more by ideology than evidence.

Troublemakers FCTroublemakers by Stephen Crossley is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.99.

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Siblings with and without disabilities think differently to each other about the comparison of their young adult experiences – and why it matters

This blog piece is based on the following article: Meltzer, A. (2017) Comparative life experiences: Young adult siblings with and without disabilities’ different understandings of their respective life experiences during young adulthood. Families, Relationships and Societies, early view.

Originally published by Sibling Leadership Network on 1st December 2017. 

 

It’s a familiar feeling. You are a sibling of a person with a disability in your late teens or early 20s. You are busy constructing your life around you – doing new things, making new relationships, learning to drive, moving out of home, finishing school, starting work. Your world is expanding. And yet there is something uncomfortable lingering in your mind. Maybe it is a feeling of guilt, maybe it is a feeling of inequity, maybe it is a feeling of being awkwardly advantaged. Whatever it is, it is a feeling that is there when you look over at the experience of your brother or sister with a disability and see that these life changes that you are making come with more hurdles when your brother or sister tries to do the same things – or perhaps they are things that you believe your brother or sister may never do at all. You value your own life and experiences, but that feeling is always there somewhere. It’s hard to think about and even harder to talk about, especially with your brother or sister themselves – because it feels unkind to point out the discrepancy between you to them – so you bury the feeling and forge ahead, valuing your own experiences, but carrying that sense of disquiet always with you too.

… But what if it did not have to be this way?

What if your brother or sister thought about the situation differently to you?

What if, by never asking them about it, you missed your opportunity to discover that perhaps they do not perceive the differences in the same way as you?

How might that new knowledge help you?

 

What does research say about how each sibling thinks about the comparison?

I conducted research about the relationships between young adult siblings with and without disabilities. I spoke to 25 young people with a disability and 21 of their brothers and sisters about what their sibling relationships are like and how they navigate their lives together during young adulthood. As a researcher, I had the opportunity to ask questions that might usually be too hard to ask directly within families… I had the opportunity to ask what each thought about their respective life experiences during young adulthood, especially the comparison between them.

 

What did siblings of people with disabilities say?

The story that siblings of people with disabilities told me was usually consistent with the scenario at the beginning of this post. Most siblings of people with disabilities generally perceived themselves as advantaged during young adulthood compared to their brothers and sisters. They perceived they had easier and more numerous opportunities – and that in the future they would be able to learn, work and live where and with whom they wanted, but they were unsure if their brother or sister would get to experience the same things as them. Often they appeared to feel that this was an awkward and inequitable difference between then. Often they felt bad about it, and sometimes they felt guilty about it.

 

What did young people with disabilities say?

However, when I spoke to young people with disabilities, they told me a different story – or actually, a range of different stories. Young people with disabilities had a variety of different views about the comparison between them and their brothers and sisters, of which feeling disadvantaged was only one possible option. Across my research, young people with disabilities told me other ways they felt:

  • The difference isn’t about disability.

Some young people with disabilities did not view the comparison between themselves and their brothers and sisters as about disability at all. Instead, they explained the differences between them to be because of other factors that affect all siblings – age differences, making different choices, having different preferences or enjoying different personalities. One sister with a disability said, for example, that she did not mind that all her younger sisters were married when she as the older sister was not, because she preferred the control that comes with being single. When the comparison between siblings’ experiences was not seen as about disability, the differences between them felt far less awkward.

  • I want that too, I just don’t focus on feeling bad about it.

Other young people with disabilities did see the differences between themselves and their brothers and sisters as about disability – and they did indeed want to share their siblings’ experiences – but they did not to focus on feeling too negatively about it. One brother, for example, just stated the differences in a matter of fact way and then moved on to talking about other things he cared about more. Another person noted that she did feel jealous and frustrated about her siblings doing things she could not do easily – such as travelling or moving out of home – but said she also felt genuinely happy for her siblings’ experiences and did not resent them taking up those opportunities, in fact, she wanted them to. Others spoke about advocating or fighting for their right to be able to take up those experiences themselves, but did not blame their siblings for gaining the experiences with greater ease.

  • Actually, there are benefits to the differences between us.

Finally, some young people with disabilities noted benefits to themselves of the differences between them and their brothers and sisters. Some felt that their own experience was better, such as two young women who felt that their disability made their academic achievements appear all the better compared to their siblings. Another person felt that her sister’s experiences acted as a reminder to her family of the level of choice and autonomy that she herself should also be recognised as having, and therefore that her sister’s different experiences actually helped to safeguard her own quality of life.

This range of views highlights that young people with disabilities commonly think differently to their brothers and sisters without disabilities about the comparison between their life experiences during young adulthood. It does not discount the possibility that some young people with disabilities may feel disadvantaged and may resent the inequality they experience compared to their siblings – but it highlights that this is one of a range of possible views. The research also does not suggest that young people with disabilities do not want to share their siblings’ experiences or that they are completely satisfied with their opportunities – many would indeed like more opportunities, the research just highlights that often they are able to see this in a broader perspective of the whole of their lives and relationships. Finally, the research does not represent all young people with disabilities – although people with a range of disabilities were included, including intellectual disability, there is still more to find out about what, for example, people with a high level of support and communication needs think. The research does however show a range of possible views.

 

Why does this matter? What can be gained from listening to what young people with disabilities say?

The findings of this research matter because they highlight that young people with disabilities have different views to their brothers and sisters, and that sometimes they may see their own experiences during young adulthood as more normalised, more empowered or in a different perspective than their siblings without disabilities do. Understanding young people with disabilities’ own views about their lives is important, not only for hearing what they have to say, but also because appreciating their perspectives may help sibling relationships.

Understanding young people with disabilities’ broad range of possible views means that the awkward sense of inequity that some young adult siblings of people with disabilities feel may not always reflect what their brother or sister is actually experiencing – it may reflect a more difficult or troubled view of what disability means in their brother or sister’s life than what that brother or sister actually feels themselves. Understanding the broad range of possible views should not stop siblings of people with disabilities acknowledging and challenging the inequities of their comparative opportunities – however, it does suggest that sibling relationships might improve, and feel less awkward, if young adult siblings of people with disabilities knew more about their brother or sister’s perspective. With this knowledge, young adult siblings with and without disabilities can perhaps together have relationships where they see their comparative experiences in a new light, building on each other’s understandings.

 

Ariella Meltzer is an adult sibling and a researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

The full article is available for free in the month of December 2017. You can download it here.


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