Deborah  Lutz

Deborah Lutz

Postgraduate Research Student

Current role: Professor of Inclusive Education at Catholic University of Applied Sciences Freiburg

Tell us about your PhD research area….

Disability studies was the more specific area of my research. Disability Studies is a fairly new sociological discipline. 

I was interested in exploring the relationships between people with intellectual disabilities using a personal budget and their support workers in Germany and Australia. 

Many countries, including Germany and Australia, have introduced personal budgets for people with intellectual disabilities. A personal budget is a sum of money that allows people with intellectual disabilities to purchase their own support work. Support workers are people who assist budget holders with intellectual disabilities in organising and doing support work activities, such as household tasks or activities in the local community. 

My PhD research investigated two questions: 
How are people with intellectual disabilities in receipt of a personal budget and their support workers experiencing their relationships with each other? 
How have the lived experiences of people with intellectual disabilities and their support workers in their relationship with each other been influenced by personal budget policies organising support work?

Through the methodology of Institutional Ethnography, which states that people’s everyday experiences are influenced by the ‘ruling relations’ - policy processes and people’s practices that organise social settings, in which people work together - I explored both questions in Germany and Australia. The empirical findings of my study are captured in my thesis.

What are you planning to do now you’ve been awarded your PhD?
I will continue doing disability studies research in Germany at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. For the next two years, I will coordinate a big research project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. My team and I will investigate the qualifications of pedagogical/ educational staff for inclusive learning processes with people with disabilities across a range of German research projects. 

What does your typical day look like as a PhD candidate?
It generally consisted of many working. I needed regular breaks and treats! For example, I made sure that I sometimes had a glass of red wine, chocolate or yoga in the evening. I also met up with friends for a nice meal and socialised. 
When I was not engaged in field research (e.g. interviewing research participants, conducting participant observations), I usually worked in the office at my desk. I was based in a room with other PhD students who shared similar experiences with me. The peer support in the office was very encouraging. We gave each other pep talks when we needed to, but we also respected each other’s work and the silence we needed to be focused and get things done. 

What do you love most about research?
The act of ‘finding out’ and ‘understanding’ the connections between theoretical sociological concepts and their meanings in real human life. 

How do you stay focused and inspired in what you do? 
Through good family supports, yoga, a great circle of friends, inspiring supervisors and fellow researchers and most importantly by understanding that disability studies research can make a difference in the lives of people with disabilities. 

Do you want to stay in research? What does the future hold for you?
I don’t know what the future will hold, but as long as I enjoy researching in the disability field, I will continue to do so. 

Why did you decide to do a PhD at UNSW?
I was awarded generous scholarships by UNSW Australia and was able to realise an idea about my PhD topic that my supervisors approved. They saw the importance of investigating the topic more deeply and supported me in doing so. Without these scholarships, I would have not been able to start and complete my PhD studies, let alone to undertake a research project in two countries. I spent a fair amount of time in Germany, my home country, where I collected data. I was able to use the funding for these trips and am very grateful for it. 

What is your best memory of your PhD degree?
Doing the actual field research with my research participants, the people with intellectual disabilities and their support workers. I researched with 5 people with intellectual disabilities and their support workers in each country and spent about 4 weeks with each pair. 
It was fun to get to know each other better. My research participants opened up to me in such generous ways and trusted me. It was often very difficult to part from them after we finished the fieldwork as we had formed a close rapport. 

How did studying your PhD help shape who you are today?
It has changed the way I think about everything. I am a much more critical thinker now and my supervisors helped me to become this thinker. This change has affected how I approach challenges and other things in life. 
I also believe that the PhD has made me more resilient. It has given me confidence in my capabilities because I experienced that I can manage a difficult and time-consuming research project in two countries on my own. 

What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at UNSW?
I met very humorous scholars who had the most fascinating thoughts. Being in contact with these people and discussing abstract concepts with them inspired me so much. It was a real privilege to be part of a place where I could so easily pick their brains and to develop my thoughts. These encounters and discussions contributed to my PhD work. 

Where has your career taken you since graduating from UNSW?
I have published on topics in relation to my PhD research and outside the topic area. My work has been published in German and English. I now work as a Professor of Inclusive Education at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in Freiburg.

These are some of my publications:

  • Fisher, K.R., Purcal, C., Jones, A., Lutz, D., Robinson, S., Kayess, R. (2019). What place is there for shared housing with individualized disability support? Disability and Rehabilitation, available at:
  • Lutz, D. L. (2015). Friend or worker? Understanding relationships between people with intellectual disabilities and their support workers through Institutional Ethnography, Human Welfare, 4, 27-33, available at: (PDF)
  • Lutz, D., Fisher, K.R. & Robinson, S. (2015). Sharing the focus: engaging with support workers to include people with communication needs in research. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, vol. accepted 13 January. DOI:10.1111/bld.12126
  • Fisher, K.R., Lutz, D., Gadow, F., Robinson, S. & Gendera, S. (2015). A transformative framework for deinstitutionalisation. Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Research and Practice in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. DOI:10.1080/23297018.2015.1028089

What have been your biggest career / academic highlights since graduating from UNSW?
A big highlight was certainly the receipt of my examiners reports (a professor from Germany and a professor from Australia) which were so insightful and generously written. 

What advice would you give to someone trying to decide if they should sign up for a PhD?
It’s certainly not for everyone. However, if you consider your PhD as a learning journey during which you will need to continue questioning what you are discovering and that you need to accept support from others, it can be a very rewarding and challenging experience. 
Seeing and understanding it as a journey makes it extremely valuable.