We can make better evidence for social policy by seeing participation differently

Sally Robinson, kylie valentine and Jan Idle

This blog post is part of a series linked to the Evidence & Policy Special Issue (Volume 17, Issue 2): The many faces of disability in evidence for policy and practice. Guest Edited by Carol Rivas, Ikuko Tomomatsu and David Gough. This post is based on the Special Issue article, ‘Disability and family violence prevention: a case study on participation in evidence making‘.

Early intervention and prevention are ideas so sound in theory that no one would ever disagree with promoting them. Of course it is better to prevent a problem than wait until it occurs before doing something about it! Equally, better protection for women and children who are especially vulnerable to domestic and family violence is also unanimously supported. So why is violence prevention for women and children with disability so hard to achieve? Why, when it has been known for years that the risks of violence for this group are even higher than the (already high) risks for all women and children, and resources have been allocated in multiple strategies and programmes, are they still so likely to experience these harms?

One key explanation is that current ways to gather evidence for policy are too narrow and formal to capture the everyday practices, relationships and decisions that make policy and programmes work. If so, what is the alternative? Our Evidence & Policy article describes a violence prevention project that investigates the strengths and challenges of current efforts, using a case study approach and focusing on the perspectives and priorities of disabled adults and children, and of service providers.

The Family Referral Service (FRS) model has much in common with other initiatives in Australia and elsewhere. The aim of the programme is to work with people who need help, by identifying with them what help they need, and supporting them to get it. As people’s circumstances are always complicated and individual, and their needs to address these circumstances individual, the provision of a single service will often not help. Instead, people may need help to move to a new house, negotiate police and court processes, advocate for their children’s place in school, get access to healthcare, or get assistance to help them with their mental health and alcohol and other drug problems. Rather than providing any one of these services, the FRS is designed to facilitate access to whichever of these is needed, and with the most suitable sequencing. Other services and programmes have similar aims, and the outcomes are not always promising. What makes this difficult to do, and when it works, why does it?

There are barriers to providing high quality support that have been well established, and we found many of them here. Resources are constrained, staff are often not provided with the training or environments that are needed, there are sometimes good reasons to do things with ambivalent or uncertain effects (such as pursue a diagnosis), and the involvement of child protection services in families’ lives is a consistent fear. We also found new things, or at least new angles on existing things. Of these, one of the most important is the ongoing reliance on categories, and the roadblocks this reliance places on a better system for families.

The first reason this happens is that there is a stigma associated with disability, and a stigma associated with family violence. The stigma in both cases is felt by support workers, but also perpetuated by them. If people do not speak up about being disabled, and about their exposure to violence, they may not get the support they need, because workers do not feel comfortable in asking questions or encouraging disclosure. Although it is not necessary to have a formal diagnosis or a court order to receive support, the ways that services operate often still rely on people articulating that they fit within a particular category: someone with a disability, someone at risk of violence. People’s lives are not so tidy, and support workers know that they are not so tidy, but they work in a system which still relies on tidiness.

The second reason this happens is that our models of participation and contribution to policymaking still rely on formal mechanisms like advisory committees and user-led support groups. We propose instead a model of participation that does away with categories such as ‘participatory forum’ and looks instead to the everyday practices, relationships and decisions that make policy and programmes work. The participation of disabled people in policy need not rely on them doing more ‘participation work’, but could be refigured through recognising their existing acts as participation.


kylie valentine conducts research on how human services are delivered and how they make up populations. Her research interests include the application of methods and concepts from the sociology of knowledge to new areas and concerns, with a specific focus on social disadvantage and exclusion. She is Deputy Director of the Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia.

Sally Robinson does co-production with people with disability about safety and abuse, belonging, loneliness and exclusion, and funding and organisation of community services. She is Professor of Disability and Community Inclusion at Flinders University, Australia.

Jan Idle conducts social policy research with a focus on listening to children, young people and people with disability, and methods for ensuring their voices are heard in research practice and their views communicated into policy. She is Research Fellow of Disability and Community Inclusion at Flinders University, Australia.


You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Robinson, S. valentine, k. and Idle, J. (2021). Disability and family violence prevention: a case study on participation in evidence making. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426421X16143457505305.


Image credit: Photo by Sebastian Staines on Unsplash


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Drawing hidden figures of disability: youth and adults with disabilities in Canada

Ignoring evidence, producing inequities: public policies, disability and the case of Kaiowá and Guarani Indigenous children with disabilities in Brazil

The many faces of disability in evidence for policy and practice: embracing complexity

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