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Parent voices: Parents of four age groups of disabled children (borne from 1974-2007) reconstruct their self identities through their engagement with social capital. Professor Dóra S. Bjarnason University of Iceland School of Education Faculty of Education Studies

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Professor Dóra S. Bjarnason University of Iceland School of Education Faculty of Education Studies

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Parent voices: Parents of four age groups of disabled children (borne from 1974-2007) reconstruct their self identities through their engagement with social capital

Professor Dóra S. Bjarnason

University of Iceland

School of Education

Faculty of Education Studies


Iceland: small population, large island, high standard of living,

Nordic type welfare society. Economic vulnerability.

ECER - Gothenburg. Sept. 2008

The study 2005/2006-2008

The focus is on parents’ perspectives of informal and formal

support due to a child’s disability – over time.

Their children labelled with disabilities are born between

1974-2007. That is the time when the legal framework and

relevant service systems were put in place to

accomodate disabled people and their families.

This is also a time of great changes both in the Icelandic society

and in it’s welfare policy.

ECER - Gothenburg. Sept. 2008

The goales of the larger study are:

– Describe and explore the experience of parents of disabled children

and youth of giving birth to and bringing up a disabled child – and their

experience of different formal and informal support to the child and

the family.

– Compare the experience of parents of disabled children born over

a 35 year period; a period of significant changes in law and services

aimed at families and disabled children.

– Explore whether and in what way there is a connection between support

and decissions and choices that parents make on their disabled children’s

behalf e.g. regarding their placement in segregated or inclusive settings.

– Explore positive and negative implications of increased specialisation and

increase in formal services directed towards disabled children and their

families,for their full and active participation in society and identify in what

way specialised and generic support can empower disabled people and

their families.

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The focus is on on parents voices over time:

their perspectives and experiences of informal

support and the impact of the parents’ social

capitals for their sense of self identity and

lived every day experiences.

ECER - Gothenburg. Sept. 2008


What has changed in the parents experience of having

and caring for a disabled child in the family over time?

Is it easier or just different to have a disabled child now?

What common elements come through the stories?

What differences come through in the stories over time?

What are the lessons learnt?

ECER - Gothenburg. Sept. 2008

Theoretical Perspectives

Social constructionism

I am interested in the “meaning making” in the face

of change - including changing policy and practice.

I also evoke, symbolic interactionism (Mead) and social capital

Theories.(Bourdieu, Coleman and Putnam, Allan)

Words: Support – formal and informal


Self/self identity

Anomie, disorientation

Bonding-, bridging and linking social capitals

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What is a family?

Family is a process of interactions and activities

between persons who consider themselves as

belonging to a family


Method: Qualitative

Sample: Purposefull sampling – 65 families

Data sources: interviews with one or both parents

of disabled children and youth, interviews with

12 professionals, focus group interviews with staff

at four local bureauesthat provide disabled people

and their families with services/or coordinate

services,and document analysis.

For this paper I use interviews with

62 mothers and 43 fathers and

3 couples interviewed together.

ECER - Gothenburg. Sept. 2008

  • Findings

  • Story told by a mother of

  • a child with downs

  • syndrome

  • borne in 1965

  • Voices:

  • Father of Gylfi (2 years old ) with Downs Syndrome

  • I sensed it in advance – saw it right there at the birth when

  • they rushed him out. I thought “I have no time to be depressed

  • and scared of the future. Right now I must stand strong and –

  • well-, support my woman through this”… You understand,

  • the first hours after his birth she didn’t dare to look at him.

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Yes, she was in a shock. I had seen him… been with

him – and he was just a lovely baby boy…I got very annoyed

when mother, and my mother and sister in law came …

they were crying. I took them aside and told them to stop

this. That we had just had a child, not lost one…

… within a few hours after the birth we began to get good

news. I looked at the down’s Webb and I phoned a man I

know from fishing. He has a teenaged son with downs’…

Our families and friends rallied around us, the doctors and

Jóna, the service person, were great. …Our two sons are fantastic

…We are over the moon and getting married next week…

Everybody will be there.

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Mother of Brák (3 years old) with autism

and probably more labels.

M: She is beautiful and charming…she does not disturb anyone … until of course now when it is emerging that she is different..

It was a very difficult birth …I was worried but nobody paid any attention …My worries were simply dismissed…”THERE, THERE My DEAR, Nothing IS WRONG WITH THIS CHILD”, still echoes' in my head…But I knew better, was always trying to get people to see – both family and the health system… Even my husband was in a denial…

ECER - Gothenburg. Sept. 2008

D: Could you talk to anyone about this?

M. No, well my husband, but I am not sure if he listened…?

He pushed this away, said the baby was all right… My family

kept asking if she was NOT OK, others were simply neutral.

M: I jumped the queue when she was 18 months through

my connections…No effort, no gain…each day in waiting is


D: Who helps..?

M. Mmm, the family has been passive. Mother died last year, my

father does not really accept…he does not participate. My siblings?

Well they know, but only my little sister gives some help but

she lives far away, we have a cleaning lady and a hired help who

comes around mealtimes...My parents in law occasionally invite

our older child for Sunday drives. They are often stand by

driving and fetching….

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M: Most people do not understand. I have lost a few friends. That is

probably inevitable...I no longer have the energy to work on the

friendships – I have not herd from some friends for over a year…

I found that strange…I am a member of a sewing club, but…

I met a woman on the (town-) square the other day, we are no friends,

but we talk allot when we meet. She has an autistic daughter…

F: You do not discuss this with others… I only talked to my wife.

I did not belief… but when the diagnosis started to come in, she

took this on like a doctoral thesis…I was maybe not ready

to take that road but.. I felt I was caught in a tornado, trying to do

my best on all fronts...Sometimes I have wanted to…But there is

no simple solution. You do not run away. You cannot run away from

yourself…We deal with this, things are OK. I am not complaining

ECER - Gothenburg. Sept. 2008

Parents of Birna (aged 13) with spinal muscular athropi

M: we suspected for over three years…the process

is slow, but of course many people were beginning to realise…

We did not talk about this with anyone and obviously no one

talked about their suspicions with us.

F: Yes, we got the bad news in small doses. That may have

saved us.

M: Yea. There are tree other families… we meet and talk…

and learn from each other…dealing with the system is very


D: Who has supported you?

M: We have a good family, and good children.

They have always been ready to help.

F: And we have good friends, my old boy scout group and…

ECER - Gothenburg. Sept. 2008

M: … for a while I found that we isolated ourselves somewhat.

F: Yes, I am not saying that friends leave, but they do disappear

because you close the door yourself . I think we still do that a bit…

It happens over time. You do not have time, you do not make the

effort, you have tasks to do and you do not fully trust others –

you do it yourself. There were times when we were extremely

Isolated from these friends – but then things opened up and we

have strong friendship bonds now.

M. Well it was not just this. At that time in life people are very

busy building their homes and rearing their own families…and

my mother helps and his sister…

ECER - Gothenburg. Sept. 2008

Mother of John (19 years old) with CP

M: A series of bad mistakes at the birth caused his disability

[she explained that in details]. It emerged gradually over the first

year, that something was very wrong. We experienced some

tough and ugly times in dealing with the hospital system…There

you learnt that a life is worthless when it is seen threaten

professional esteem and professionals…We took it all the way

and won… but it hurt. This was a long time ago, now I think things

have improved…

M: We were very alone in all this for years…nobody helped me

or supported me. …. I am prepared to pay for what we need, and

I do not give in, go to the top when I have too. I play it by ear.

That way we have managed to get the services we needed…

But my life has evolved around this…

ECER - Gothenburg. Sept. 2008

project…Helpers came into our home. Many were great, but

we even had to learn to quarrel in whispers [laughs]… this affects

home life.

D. What about your families?

M. We have no families here. They are far away in the country.

But I have girlfriends here whom I regard as my family. This

is of course difficult, and we have of course lost

friends when we asked for help, but they would or could not…

That was real painful. It is also difficult that not everyone can

tolerate having someone closely related to them who is so

limited [referring to herself and her needs for help].

One is limited, one gets very tired, One needs some kindness

and consideration…My three best friends have been great…

ECER - Gothenburg. Sept. 2008

  • Lessons:

  • Anomie – many parents experience the disintegration of their

  • self-identity at the birth or diagnosis of a child with disability, and

  • at critical junctures such as transition periods.

  • This affects peoples engagement with social capital, and most

  • importantly bonding social capital. The parents are vulnerable

  • and family members and friends uncertain/ clumsy or embracing.

  • The parents of the children borne in 1970’s and early 1980’s were

  • some what less likely to lose bonding capital than other parents.

  • Parents who lost access to much of their close network or if that

  • access became superficial (loss of trust) were more likely to

  • seek specialised/professional solutions for their child.

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  • Fathers have much less access to bonding capital than mothers,

  • but more access to bridging and linking capital.

  • How parents work through the difficulties is related to:

    • If the child is expected to live or dye

    • Access to social capital especially bonding capital

    • Whether or not they have previous knowledge of disability –

    • or access such knowledge from other families.

    • Parents education and personal resources

    • Flow of information and short waiting lists / time

    • Access to necessary, sufficient and flexible services as time goes

    • by and the child’s and the family’s needs change.

    • Grandparents reaction is important for the maintenance or erosion

    • of bonding capital

    • Empowering engagement with social capitals, especially with

    • Bonding capital reduces the parents periods of stress and sorrow.

    • Access to bridging and linking capitals opens and maintains

    • access to appropriate services.

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  • Not all parents go through an acute period or periods of stress

    • and sorrow.

    • Family life is centred around rhythms and routines of all the

    • family members, joint and separate activities, habits, beliefs and values.

    • Sunny stories and family memories and myths are part of the glue that

    • keeps families together.

    • Peoples expectations, quality of life and access to services have

    • changed in the 35 years under study, but the importance of bonding

    • capital has not changed.

    • Parents access to bridging and linking capitals has changed, become

    • more complex and more dependent upon education and social

    • status/class than 35 years ago.

    • Capitals can be built – trust, recognition, mutuality and flexibility

    • are the building blocks as families move and change.

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Is it easier or just different to have a

disabled child now?


ECER - Gothenburg. Sept. 2008

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