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Protection, participation and protection through participation: young people with intellectual disabilities and decision making in the family context


Correspondence: Robyn Saaltink, Department of Sociology, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L 3N6 (e-mail:



Research suggests that persons with intellectual disabilities (ID) are expected to be more compliant than persons without disabilities and that expectations for compliance begin in childhood. No study, however, seems yet to have included a primary focus on the participatory rights, or rights to express opinions, desires and preferences and to be heard and taken seriously in decision making among young people with ID who are not yet considered legally adult. The purpose of the two current studies was to explore how the right to participation is negotiated for young people with ID in a family context and to determine family members’ recommendations for strategies to facilitate the participation of young people with ID.


In the first study, four young people with ID, their mothers and two siblings from four families took part in semi-structured interviews about decision making in the family context. In the second study, a mother and daughter from the first study discussed and developed strategies to promote participation for young people with ID.


In the first study, all participants communicated that young people with ID follow an age-typical yet restricted pattern of participation in decisions about their lives. Young people's participation was consistently framed by familial norms and values as well as their families’ desire to protect them. In the second study, both participants suggested communication about the outcomes of real or imagined decisions would help young family members rehearse decision-making strategies that would facilitate their autonomy while remaining within the bounds of familial norms, values and perceptions of safety.


Although young people with ID may make fewer independent decisions about their lives than typically developing peers, support in decision making can enable both increased protection and independence.