Understanding mental capacity
Understanding mental capacity

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2.1 Decisions that require consent

People with learning disabilities are likely to have an impaired capacity to make independent decisions about themselves or others. When engaging with organisations in the community, a person with a learning disability may come up against barriers to their acceptance and their freedom to make a decision themselves.

This lack of freedom can occur in matters ranging from buying a bottle of beer in a supermarket to employment, accommodation, travel, money and relationships. It can also apply to decisions on health, such as dental and medical procedures, contraceptives and abortion. There is a whole raft of matters that involve some liability or risk and for which informed consent is needed. 

The balancing of the rights of people with learning disabilities with the responsibilities of supporting agencies is particularly complex when people with learning disabilities have children of their own.

Stewart and McIntyre (2017, p. 3) argue that parents with learning disabilities can and do become ‘good enough’ parents when appropriate supports are in place, but that they often have complex needs as a result of issues such as poverty, discrimination, depression and poor self-esteem. ‘Good enough’ parenting skills include:

  • the ability to provide a safe home environment, adequate nutrition and positive and nurturing interactions
  • being able to recognise and treat medical emergencies
  • having a basic understanding of child development.

Activity 4 Parents with a learning disability

Timing: Allow about 2 minutes

Think about why a careful assessment of capacity is especially important for parents with a learning disability.

In the text box below, note down some of your ideas.

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If you are responsible for supporting the children of a person with learning disabilities, you need to be aware of their needs and ensure that clear representations for support are made with them and on their behalf. Child protection risks are undoubtedly greater in such situations and support for the family must take into account the parents’ strengths and weaknesses, their limitations, if any, and the potential for their mental capacity to fluctuate.

All parents engage with teachers, nursery staff, their GP and other formal and informal agencies at some point during their children’s upbringing, and information on the development of children of people with learning disabilities should be safely and appropriately shared on a regular basis, if necessary.

In order to minimise the risks of children being harmed and of stigmatisation of both the adults with learning disabilities and their children, a network of support should be built and sustained. This also ensures that protection agencies neither over-react or under-react to concerns. 

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