Research – Fathers with learning disabilities

Fathers with learning disabilities: experiences of fatherhood and of adult social care services

Daryl Dugdale and Jon Symonds, from the Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies at the University of Bristol, talked to fathers with learning disabilities about their experiences of social care services and found they were often sidelined, with more attention paid to mothers


We now know a considerable amount about what it is like to be a parent with learning disabilities, but most research focuses on mothers. Much less is known about the views and experiences of fathers with a learning disability and the challenges they experience.

This research carried out in 2016 set out to fill this gap in knowledge.


The men spoke about painful experiences in their childhoods, whether through school or difficult situations with their own families. One man told us his father felt he would not amount to anything because of his learning disability.

Becoming a father is an important event in any man’s life but, for some of the men we spoke to, this seemed to have added significance because it was a chance to prove other people wrong about what they were capable of.

Caring for young children is stressful and we heard about coping with having to get up at night, or negotiate with a partner about who would do which tasks.

Some of these challenges were compounded by the experience of learning disability. One father spoke of being a lone parent for his (now adult) children but not being able to read the letters from school. Another described feeling excluded from life at his children’s school because he was not included in the invitations to the parents’ evenings.

For four of the eight fathers, the experience of stress was so great they sought support for their mental health through formal health services. Interestingly, the support they received for this was from general health services.

When they discussed support for parenting, they were more likely to tell us that they felt left out by children’s services which focused their visits on the mother. This is in line with research on supporting families more widely, but the impact on the fathers seemed to be more pronounced in terms of their mental health.

This focus on the mother was reflected in our conversations with practitioners; it was rare for them to have worked directly with fathers in the learning disability field.

As one practitioner put it, when work was being conducted with parents who had learning disabilities, fathers seemed to be “sort of there, sort of in the background”, with them playing a secondary role in the child’s life.

There was general agreement among practitioners that parenting work was primarily focused on mothers and, when fathers were involved with services, the focus of the work was on other aspects of their lives.

The two extended pieces of work we heard about were from mental health practitioners. Their work focused on the men’s mental health in different ways, but each led to a more nuanced piece of work about men’s roles as fathers in their families.

We believe that the relationship between men’s mental health and their identities as fathers needs more investigation, particularly in light of services tending to focus on one and not the other.

The implications of this echo existing knowledge about parenting with learning disabilities more generally, which are included in Reaching Out: Think Family (Cabinet Office, 2007). As this guidance recognises, families’ needs do not always fit neatly into specialist services. Closer working between adults’ and children’s services is one way to improve this.

Although supporting parents with learning disabilities is recommended in the guidance, the findings from this study highlight the need to find systematic ways of providing support to fathers in this support as well as mothers.

Key messages

  • l Fathers with learning disabilities can be strongly motivated to care for their children.
  • They may experience stressful challenges from parenting, but receive less support than mothers.
  • Practitioners can engage fathers with their feelings about parenthood, how they cope with the tasks of parenthood, and manage their strategies for coping with stress.


It is already established that the stress of parenting is associated with poor mental health for parents with learning disabilities.

There is also substantial evidence that child welfare services tend to focus on the needs and activities of mothers and engage less effectively with fathers.

This study contributes to our understanding of how these services are experienced by fathers with learning disabilities who may experience similar stresses, but be less likely to receive preventive support.

Find information about the Working Together with Parents Network here:


Cabinet Office (2007) Reaching Out: think family. London: the Stationery Office

Fathers with learning disabilities and their experiences of adult social care services

Aims To explore the experiences of fathers with learning disabilities about being a father and of their experiences with adult social care services.

Methods We worked with a group of four fathers whom we consulted about the study. We distributed information about the research through the Working Together with Parents Network and the Elfrida Society. We interviewed eight fathers who identified as having experience of learning disability services and lived in England. We also interviewed nine practitioners from adult learning disability services that had links to the fathers in other parts of the country.

Summary In 2016, the good practice guidelines for working with parents with a learning disability were updated. The issues experienced by fathers with learning disabilities and how practitioners can respond are explored.

Read the report

Dugdale D, Symonds J (2017) Fathers with Learning Disabilities and their Experiences of Adult Social Care Services. School for Social Care Research, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol.

The research was funded by the School for Social Care Research, part of the National Institute for Health Resear