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Disclosing disability - conflict for student and qualified social workers, teachers and nurses

Julie Ridley, University of Central Lancashire
Co-author(s): Ruth Hurst, Research Participant


We would like to submit a proposal for either a paper or symposium on a recent study undertaken as part of the Disability Rights Commission's Formal Investigation during 2006/07 into Fitness Standards in Nursing, Teaching and Social Work. The research explored the process and consequences of disclosing disability on professional training programmes from the perspectives of disabled students, and also from the perspective of disabled practitioners in these professions. The presentation will provide opportunities to discuss the research methodology and for participants to consider the implications for developing positive strategies for recruiting and retaining disabled professionals.

Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire and King's College, London recruited a volunteer sample of 60 social workers, nurses, teachers, and students from all three professions, with the help of Universities running professional training programmes in England, Scotland and Wales, and in response to articles in the national and professional press and on relevant websites. These described the study and asked for volunteers. Professionals and students were interviewed either face-to-face or by telephone, and key themes, similarities and differences between the three professional groups were explored.

The research explored equality issues alongside concerns about professional fitness to practice from disabled professionals' perspectives. The role of regulatory bodies, like the General Social Care Council in social care, as gatekeepers for the professions has become increasingly prominent following high profile cases concerning 'dangerous professionals' such as the doctor, Harold Shipman, and the nurse, Beverley Allitt.

Social workers are now measured against 'fitness standards' (explicit or otherwise) when they register with the relevant regulatory body and when they apply for a social work course or job. Similar systems exist for nursing and teaching, although regulatory practices do vary across these professions and across the UK. While some information is available from references and physical health checks, for those with unseen disabilities, the application of fitness standards may rest on their own disclosure. It is therefore often a key element in the process of measuring individuals against professional fitness standards and if adjustments and supports are to be tailored to meet individuals' needs.

In practice, how fitness standards are perceived often acts as a barrier to disclosure. Research identifies that feeling stigmatised by labels, and the fear of being seen as 'not coping' or as somehow 'intellectually inferior' act as major barriers to disclosure. While research has found that some disabled students view their disability positively in the context of disability rights legislation as 'opening doors for them', others are reluctant to assume 'disability identity'.

Our research captured the views and experiences of disclosure of 60 disabled students and practitioners in the professions of social work, nursing and teaching and considered what would help disabled students and professionals to disclose. This presentation could explore the main findings, including presentation of one participant's own account.

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