Are people with learning disabilities really being empowered?
: An ethnography exploring experiences of empowerment policies in UK social care support.

  • Carys Banks

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisPhD


This thesis explores how government policy impacts everyday support settings in UK-based learning disability social care. The empirical research took the form of an ethnography conducted within two learning disability social care provider organisations based in the South West of England. I spent time with people with learning disabilities and staff members in a range of settings, including home and day services. I also spent time with independent community organisations, including an advocacy service and a café supporting people with volunteering opportunities. Contemporary social care policy aims to reduce the exclusion and inequalities that people with learning disabilities experience by empowering them, as much as possible, with independence and equal access to community life. Within this, a range of social, political and economic philosophies have come to shape policy objectives, constructing different identities for people with learning disabilities. Yet, despite this, across the decades, services have continued to be plagued by cases uncovering fundamental failings, which at worse, have led to terrible abuses of people with learning disabilities. To unpick further the complexities of empowering people with learning disabilities, I used ethnography to understand the ways that policy objectives were experienced in everyday practice. The key findings from my research challenge current empowerment approaches which aim to improve the lives of people with learning disabilities. The expectation is that aspirations of independence and community living are possible to achieve if the necessary resources are made available. However, for people with learning disabilities, their intellectual – and for some physical – impairments meant that they tended to experience difficulty in meaningfully assuming the rights and responsibilities that accompany these aspirations. Yet, the focus within policy that these are aspects of a ‘normal’ life is such that, in everyday settings, people were compelled to partake in a performance, which sustained the notion that these are realistic expectations. Ultimately, these factors undermined relationships between people with learning disabilities and the people supporting them, alienating them from each other.
Date of Award20 Jun 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SponsorsEconomic and Social Research Council
SupervisorDr David Wainwright (Supervisor) & Rachael Gooberman-Hill (Supervisor)


  • Anthropology
  • Learning disabilities
  • political philosophy
  • Sociology
  • Government Policy

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