Ground-breaking study underway on fathers’ engagement with disability services

by Rachel Cunningham
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Previous research suggests fathers of children with an intellectual disability can feel disengaged and overlooked by services

Families of children with an intellectual disability face any number of challenges and hurdles on a daily basis, with some more routine and expected than others.

Generally speaking, children who are diagnosed with an intellectual disability have a high level of need and require support from beyond the family system in the form of an external disability service.

Such services offer specialist support in the form of psychology, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy etc. and any parent will attest to the trials and tribulations associated with the inevitable advocating that they will undertake to ensure that their child receives the support and services that they require.

In many instances, this is a lifelong battle for parents. Children with an intellectual disability will often require support across the lifespan and with this in mind, the involvement and on-going engagement of both parents in this process of support giving and support seeking is a huge advantage.

Having one parent who is not so involved or who feels underappreciated is not only a disadvantage, but a lesser discussed hurdle that these families must try to overcome.

Previous research would suggest that fathers of children with an intellectual disability can feel disengaged and overlooked by services. They are often cast in a secondary role and are not seen as the primary parent. When services want to get in touch with the family, it is the mother that they call. If the mother does not pick up, then they will try her again later rather than calling the dad.

From the services perspective, research would also show that fathers are a challenging population to engage and that they are often not as willing as mothers to attend appointments and engage with the day-to-day work required when raising a child with an intellectual disability.

This is an alarming trend to consider in light of the well-supported finding that increased father involvement with their children brings many social and developmental benefits.

In Ireland, the interaction between fathers of children with an intellectual disability and disability services has not previously been explored, and this is the research gap that an exciting new study is trying to fill.

Dublin-born Ronan Cunningham, a graduate of UCD and Trinity College at primary and masters degree level, is completing a doctorate in Educational and Child Psychology at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. He is focusing his doctoral research on the perceptions and experiences of fathers of children with an intellectual disability/developmental delay on their engagement with disability services in an Irish context.

The study is looking at the wider ecology of this complex relationship – what is hindering father engagement with services in a wider, systemic sense and how can we explore this to try and improve father engagement with services.

Ultimately, the research is looking to improve services so that they live up to the family centred practice model to which they subscribe, an approach to service delivery that is considered international best practice.

Furthermore, as Progressing Disability Services rolls out nationwide, services are currently undergoing structural change. This study is therefore timely in that it will shed light on some areas where services can make a concerted effort to improve in order to create a brighter future for families who avail of such services.

Fathers of children with an intellectual disability and are interested in taking part are asked to complete a short survey at the following link:

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