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13 January 2023

New study calls for social workers to adopt a nuanced understanding of vulnerability among deafblind adults

This is the first UK-based study of the lived experience of vulnerability from the perspective of older deafblind adults.

A care worker helping older woman with food

A new paper co-authored by King’s researchers discusses the experiences of vulnerability among older deafblind adults in the United Kingdom. It argues that policymakers and social workers must reject categorising deafblind people as permanently and immutably vulnerable, and instead adopt a nuanced approach.

This is the first qualitative study in the United Kingdom to explore the lived experience of vulnerability among older deafblind adults. Deafblindness is a combination of hearing and sight impairment that can affect a person’s ability to communicate, access information and get around.

This study makes an important contribution to social work practice by providing an insight into an under-researched area: the lived experience of vulnerability from the perspective of deafblind people.

Professor Anthea Tinker CBE, co-author

Professor Tinker: “It recommends that policymakers should adopt a layered approach in defining vulnerability, and social workers should adopt a nuanced understanding of it when assessing the needs of deafblind people. They should recognise their coping strategies and avoid making them feel incapable.”

Participants described that they felt more vulnerable when people perceived them as incapable because of their deafblindness and patronised them. Deafblind adults often experienced such vulnerability in interactions with social care workers, who insisted on helping in areas of the respondents’ lives where they did not need it. They expressed a desire to be recognised as “capable and competent”.

Through qualitative interviews with nine deafblind adults, the study published in the Journal of Social Work, found that they experience vulnerability as multi-layered, feeling vulnerable about and to certain things, in certain situations and at certain times.

Based on these time-limited, situation and setting-specific experiences of vulnerability, the authors argue that policymakers and social care workers must reject the assumption that deafblind adults are “permanently and immutably vulnerable”.

They recommend that deafblind people must be involved in training activities for social workers, so they have a more nuanced understanding of the experiences of deafblind people and know what matters to them.

The lead author is Peter Simcock from Birmingham City University, and the co-authors are Professor Anthea Tinker CBE, Professor of Social Gerontology at the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, and Professor Jill Manthorpe CBE, Director of the NIHR Policy Research Unit in Health and Social Care Workforce.

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Jill Manthorpe

Professor Emerita of Social Work

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