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Identify a parent's disability

“Becoming a parent is a major life transition. All parents want their children to be loved, supported, safe and well cared for. Disabled parenting experiences are shaped by the intrinsic differences between different impairments (eg cognitive, physical, sensory or psychiatric), the extent to which disabled parents have integrated impairment and disablement, and when the impairment occurred – during childhood or adulthood; before or after having children” (Families Commission, 2012).

Some of the parents you work with have a clear disability diagnosis with existing supports in place. Their disability may be visible, or invisible, but nonetheless it has been verified. Some other parents you work with, however, may have a suspected disability however this not been explored with the parent or has not been confirmed. If this is the case, always address the suspected disability with the parent for a variety of reasons. A parent’s disability may:

  • affect the way they receive or understand important information when talking with them about the safety and wellbeing of their child.
  • exacerbate other child protection concerns, for example, a physical disability could be contributing to neglect. Adequate supports for the parent’s disability could address or reduce the severity of the presenting child protection issues.
  • be mistaken for other concerns. For example, a neurological or intellectual disability may be mistaken for a parent being affected by drugs or alcohol, or a parent with physical limitations may be mistaken for not understanding their infant’s needs if they are not playing with them on the floor.
  • make them appear unwilling to engage with you or attend important meetings, when they actually may be physically unable to access particular locations or do not comprehend what is being asked of them.

If you suspect a parent has a disability, the best way to try and understand if they have ever received a diagnosis is to ask them first. Sometimes it can be helpful to use your own or other’s observations to start this conversation. Some example statements and questions include:

  • I notice that when you walk, you seem to be in a lot of pain and have trouble moving your arm. I’m wondering if you’ve ever been diagnosed with a health condition or disability?
  • Feedback from your doctor indicates that a few months ago they thought you had some early signs of multiple sclerosis. Did you ever follow up on further testing or receive a diagnosis?
  • Your records say that you went to a special school when you were younger. Have you ever been diagnosed with an intellectual disability?

If a parent has never received a disability diagnosis, explore your observations with the parent and enquire whether they feel they are struggling with any aspects of their health or wellbeing which may indicate they require further diagnosis or support. Some example statements and questions include:

  • We have discussed this topic a number of times now but I feel that you are still unclear. I’m curious to know if you understand everything that we talk about? Is there some way I can help you with this task?
  • You said you’ve never received a diagnosis for your condition but I’m worried when you tell me you are feeling “down in the dumps” that you struggle to get out of bed or cook dinner for yourself and your daughter.  I’m wondering what your other symptoms are and how we can get some support for you and your family?
  • It’s concerning that you have had a number of blackout seizures but don’t have a diagnosis or any support for this. I think your son is really worried too. Can we talk more about how this is impacting on your parenting, and how we can help you receive the support you need?

For more information on the signs of different disabilities, see Types of disabilities in the overview section.

Develop an understanding of the parent and their disability

 The International Classification of Functioning Framework gives a foundation to develop your understanding of how a parent’s disability affects their functioning.

A clear understanding of a parent’s disability and the impact it has on their functioning is critical to complete your core business. There are many ways this knowledge will assist you to effectively meet the needs of children and families you are working with such as:

  • Complete a comprehensive SDM parental strengths and needs assessment to inform the case plan, including the ways a parent’s disability may be impacting on or exacerbating other areas in their life.
  • Work effectively with a parent with disability to develop and communicate clear worry statements, goals and actions to ensure they are clear on how their disability is affecting the safety of their child and what they can do to better respond to their child’s needs.
  • Be able to tailor your communication with parents to ensure they can participate in making important decisions for their children and family.
  • Plan for meetings that are accessible for parents and responsive to their individual needs to ensure they are able to attend and fully participate.

Disability and parenting capacity

As you develop your understanding of a parent’s disability and how this impacts on their life, it is also essential to develop an understanding of how a parent’s disability may impact on their parenting capacity. Some people with disability will parent their children independently or with the support of family and friends. There may be times when a parent’s disability impacts on their capacity to meet the needs of their child or they lack an effective safety and support network to parent their child safely.


“If assumptions are made about the impact of disability on parenting capacity and there is a lack of effective support and assistance provided to parents with disabilities, the inevitable result is the unnecessary removal of children from parents with disability with serious consequences for the best interests and human rights of children, parents and society as a whole” (Carter, 2015).

To develop more of an understanding of how a parent’s disability may impact on their role as a parent, it is helpful to firstly understand if the person has had their disability since birth, or if it was acquired later in life. A person’s viewpoint on their disability and the functional impact of their disability on their life, including their parenting capacity, may be very different if they have had their disability since birth, or if they have recently or suddenly acquired a disability and are adjusting to it.

Practice prompt

When exploring a disability, always be respectful and sensitive. The following questions can help to explore a parent’s disability and the impact it has on their parenting capacity:

What does having (disability) mean for you?

What would your children say about your disability?

When (disability) is at its worst, what does life look like for you?

Does (disability) stop you from doing some of the things you’d like to do as a parent? How so?

How has life changed since (disability)?

You said that (disability) stops you from doing (activity). Are there other people in your life that do this for you or that can help you with that?

Integrate this knowledge with the information on risk assessment in the practice guide Assessing harm and risk of harm to develop your understanding of how a parent’s disability may impact on their parenting capacity.

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