Listening and learning: adults with mild learning disabilities' lived experience of individual counselling
Fitzgerald, Catherine M. (2012) Listening and learning: adults with mild learning disabilities' lived experience of individual counselling. Doctor of Psychotherapy thesis, Dublin City University.
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Learning disability services aspire to the social model of disability which acknowledges the expertise of service-users on all aspects of their lives. Counselling is now more widely accepted as a treatment approach for the emotional problems of people with learning disability, where previously pharmacological and behavioural methods prevailed. While the literature attests to the effectiveness of counselling with this population, research has mostly been quantitative. To date, minimal qualitative research exists on how people with learning disability experience counselling and none in an Irish context.
The present study aimed to hear the voices of Irish service-users on this aspect of their service. It explored the lived experience and meaning-making of adults with mild learning disability of individual counselling. The study design was qualitative, specifically interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). Participants were ten adults with mild learning disability from Irish learning disability services. Data from semi-structured interviews were analysed using IPA methodology (Smith, Flowers and Larkin, 2009).
The study found that participants valued counselling, experiencing it as relevant to their needs. Four superordinate themes emerged: overwhelming emotions, trepidation to trust, helpful aspects of counselling and the shadow of authority. Participants’ experience was linked with existing literature in learning disability and counselling through concepts such as embodiment, emotional intelligence, attachment theory, life events and power relations. Participants’ expectation that counselling would reflect prior experienced power relations of subordination/dominance is examined as is the role of staff in facilitating counselling. Participants’ experience of counselling as a safe and helpful space primarily due to the therapeutic relationship is discussed.
The implications for counselling practice are considered in terms of the need to attend to emotions, the importance of the counselling relationship, awareness of power dynamics, recognition of social context and flexibility of approach. Finally, issues for learning disability services, counsellor training, policy and social implications are discussed with reference to the findings.
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