The relationship between young people with a disability and their support workers has been the focus of a new study from a team of Australian researchers, including UNSW Canberra.

Dr Laura Davy, a research fellow at UNSW Canberra, said the study, led by Professor Sally Robinson from Flinders University, really focused on what interpersonal dynamics are at the heart of good working relationships.

“There has been lots of focus on the structural changes to disability care and support under the National Disability Insurance Scheme, but not much attention on how these changes could influence the way people with disability and support workers relate to one another,” she said.

The research found that mutual recognition is key, as it helps build the self-esteem and self-confidence of the young person with disability and the professional identity of the support worker.

“All support relationships are different, so the degree of familiarity will vary, and the kind of connection people want to have varies as well. But, for some young people with disability, their relationships with support workers are really significant ones, particularly if they have been working with them for a long period of time.

“In a time of lockdowns and widespread social isolation like we have now, the importance of authentic connection is becoming only clearer,” Dr Davy said.

The study focused on the concept of recognition, which comes from the work of moral philosopher Axel Honneth. Honneth argues that human beings need to be recognised by others in order to build a positive self-identity – it is through our relationships with others that we come to respect and value ourselves. 

Dr Davy said that the research team worked with young people with disability to translate recognition theory into concepts that make sense in the context of disability support services: respecting, caring about and valuing each other.

“The research found that these three dynamics are crucially important for supporting the rights and wellbeing of people with disability, as well as ensuring support workers are able to feel fulfilled in their work,” she said.

“We hope it highlights the importance of supporting good relationships through training and organisational policy and procedure.

“One of the other contributions of this project is helping to articulate a language for things we’re not particularly good at talking about yet. Often, we can feel if things aren’t going smoothly in a professional relationship, but we may not have the words to name what is missing.”

The full article, by Sally Robinson (Flinders University), Anne Graham (Southern Cross University), Karen Fisher (UNSW Sydney), Kate Neale (Southern Cross University), Laura Davy (UNSW Canberra), Kelley Johnson (UNSW Sydney) and Ed Hall (Dundee University) is open access and available here.