Empowering to disempower: a dilemma when working with adults with learning difficulties
AbstractIs the use of participatory techniques effective in empowering and engaging adults with learning difficulties within their "communities"? Despite the progress that has been made to introduce structures for consultation, it is not clear to what extent people are participating. Participation appears to be driven by a Government agenda that is more about achieving consultation forums and less about listening to what is being said or making efforts towards inclusive practice. Who ultimately benefits from empowering practices? This paper discusses the complex ethical considerations of adopting participatory processes with adults with learning difficulties. The potential for individuals to contribute in participatory processes often rests on their ability to communicate verbally within consultative structures and ultimately depends on a degree of interpretation. The challenge for the researcher is to create a meaningful participatory dialogue with research participants whilst facing the difficulties associated with claiming that messages have been clearly understood. This paper draws parallels between the ways in which power relations are analysed in both contemporary learning difficulty discourse and participatory practice and discourse in development work. I also reflect on the use of labelling in the context of learning difficulty and the ways in which labels can be used as a form of control. Participatory techniques can, without significant adjustment and adaptation, result in reinforcing a lack of power. The language of empowerment disguises institutional forms of discrimination that continue to exclude people with learning difficulties from participating as equal citizens.