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Engage with a parent with disability

A parent is within a family context

A New Zealand study exploring strengths and resilience of families where a parent had a disability found five important principles that practitioners should keep at the forefront of their mind when engaging with families where a parent has a disability. These principles align with the framework for practice, embodying strengths and solutions, family and community connection, and listening to family views.

  1. Families are unique. Understand the individual family you are working with and appreciate the different structures, cultures, roles and experiences of disability within that family.
  2. Disabilities co-exist with abilities and strengths. You will often engage with families due to a perceived problem, however, start from a strengths based perspective while understanding the limitations a person’s disability has on them and their family. This will better enable you to support a family in developing their resilience and to help overcome the challenges they are currently experiencing.
  3. Support family time and fun. Too often, professional appointments and clinical settings can hinder a family’s ability to enjoy one another. To further develop family resilience and wellbeing, families need to spend time together, doing activities they enjoy and have fun with one another.
  4. Families function as a unit. Although a parent may have a disability, this disability usually belongs to and impacts the whole family. Support and intervention that focuses on an individual parent alone misses the opportunity for the family to function as unit and draw on their strengths.
  5. Poverty and social isolation are challenges in themselves. People with disability typically face higher costs and earn less money than non-disabled people. When a parent with disability is facing challenges, poverty or isolation could be causing or exacerbating these challenges rather than the disability itself.

(Adapted from Raffensperger et al, 2012).

Engage with a parent

In the section Working with a child with disability, we identified practical considerations for engaging with a child with disability. These principles are the same for engaging with a parent with disability. Use your understanding of a parent’s disability and the impact it has on their functioning to prepare for your engagement with the parent. This may include:

  • Prepare to meet at a specific time or location chosen by the parent or arranged with the parent’s companion that suits the parent’s needs.
  • Take or arrange for communications tools or visual aids to be present to support communication between yourself and the parent.
  • Arrange for the parent to have a companion, communication partner or support person with them if required.
  • Adapt written material to be visual or simplified, depending on the parent’s needs.
  • Prepare complex information by breaking it down into simple, easy to understand concepts.
  • Ensure you have enough time to engage meaningfully with the parent in a way that goes at the parent’s pace.

Adapt communication

Depending on a parent’s disability, they may require or would prefer visual prompts when discussing parenting and the needs of their child. Parenting in pictures is a section on the Raising Children Network Australia website which provides visual resources for engaging and discussing essential parenting topics and techniques.

The resource Complex Communication Needs developed by the State of Queensland (2018) provides information on complex communication needs and great strategies for supporting effective communication with someone who has complex communication needs.

For parents with disability, using the Framework for Practice tools can be a great way to engage and effectively work with parents to understand their views and ensure their involvement in casework and decision making. Visual tools such as Circles of Safety and Support Tool, The Future House and The Family Roadmap can be completed with parents. These tools can be tailored to a parent’s needs and done with pictures or simple words.


If there are times when a parent does not understand or they are finding it difficult to comprehend what you are saying, it is your responsibility to change your communication style. Shared understanding and increased communication will strengthen your relationship with the parent and result in better outcomes for the child.

Speakout advocacy Tasmania, in conjunction with Inclusion Australia as part of the Mainstream and Me project designed and developed a communication booklet in partnership with parents with an intellectual disability. The booklet, “Communication It’s not a spectator sport” contains practical tips for supporting improved communication and engagement.

For further information on communication, visit the Communication section of Engaging with a child who has a disability.

Practice Reflections – Intellectual disability

Consider the reflective questions below when working or preparing to work with a parent with intellectual disability. These questions can be considered across the child protection continuum.


  • Have you sought to understand how the parent’s intellectual disability impacts on their communication and understanding?
  • Have you tailored your communication and used a variety of strategies to support communication with the parent?
  • Do you have any particular assumptions or beliefs about a person with disability? Is this impacting on the support you provide to the family?


  • Does the parent have an understanding of why Child Safety is involved? Do they understand the worries and the changes they are required to make? Do they understanding the case plan? If not, what support is being implemented to promote the parent’s understanding?
  • What strengths does the parent have that will assist in their parenting abilities and promoting their child’s wellbeing?
  • Does the parent have the capacity to identify a dangerous situation and respond to the child’s needs so they are not harmed?
  • Is the parent able to correctly recognise a child’s cues and respond appropriately to the child?
  • Does the parent have the capacity to acquire new parenting skills if they are provided support?
  • Does the parent experience short or long term memory loss that may significantly impact on their ability to care for their child?
  • Has the parent’s decision-making or problem-solving capacity impacted on the risk of harm or neglect to the child? Can they learn new skills to increase their ability in these areas?


  • Who is in the parent’s safety and support network that can support them in caring for their child?
  • What change needs to occur for the child to remain, or return to live, safely in the home?
  • Can the parent access practical support to develop their parenting skills?
  • Does the child attend a routine activity outside of the home? If not, how can this be implemented?
  • Are the services supporting the parent tailoring their communication to the parent’s needs and understanding?
  • Are the services supporting the parent using the same language and approach as one another to support the parent’s understanding and ability to meet case plan goals?
  • If the child is being reunified, does the parent have a well-established safety and support network who can continue supporting the child and family once Child Safety ceases working with the family?
  • Can the parent's NDIS plan include supports to assist them to parent safely?
  • Has the parent demonstrated new skills and abilities to safely care for their child?
  • Does the parent understand the child’s changing developmental milestones? If not, can the safety and support network or another long term service be implemented to assist the parent on an ongoing basis?
  • What systemic disadvantage could the parent be experiencing that is contributing to the worries and impacting on their ability to care for their child? How can these be addressed?


For further information and considerations on safety planning and risk assessment for a child or parent with disability, refer to the safety assessment and planning and risk assessment sections of the disability practice kit.

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