Disablism and Family Life

Project team

Dr Carmen Jarrett
Prof Gwynnyth Llewellyn


Families with children with impairment experience disadvantage, but this disadvantage is rarely examined from the point of view of the social model of disability. Carol Thomas (1999) describes disablism as the exclusionary practices and prejudices that limit the lives of people with impairment. She thus includes both material and non-material dimensions in her understanding of disablism. Her model also acknowledges the role of impairment in creating barriers in the lives of people with impairment.


The purpose of this study is to investigate the experience of families with children with impairment using the social model as articulated by Carol Thomas (1999).


In order to identify what impact disablism has on families, if any, in depth interviews were conducted on two occasions with twelve families with children with impairment. These interviews were informed by ecocultural theory and explored how families with children with impairment organise their everyday lives. The everyday activities of these families revealed the social structures, institutions and practices in which they are embedded.


This study found evidence of disabling material barriers in family life in constraints on mothers participating in the paid workforce, reduced family income, restrictions in family leisure opportunities, and problematic interactions with services. That is, much of the disadvantage in family life for families with children with impairment was socially created, rather than an inevitable consequence of their child’s impairment. The results of the study also demonstrated that although families’ psycho-emotional wellbeing was not undermined in the same way that Thomas described for individual women with impairment, nevertheless prejudice experienced by families prevented them from participating in social life on an equal footing with their peers.


This study concludes that disablism is not solely a phenomenon experienced by the individual with impairment; it is also part of the experience of family members of families with children with impairment. The finding that families too experience disablism argues for the need for more appropriate social policy and practices that ensure that these families are not unfairly disadvantaged.

Related Publications

Thomas, C. (1999) Female Forms: Experiencing and Understanding Disability, Buckingham: Open University Press.