From ESA – Strategies & Activities

Dirk Hofäcker
Edward Tolhurst
Christiane Schnell
Helena Hirvonen

Thesis Spotlights – Social Relationships and Social Participation of Women with Disability

Issue 42: 1968 - 50 Years On Wed 28 Nov 2018 0

Eleni Koutsogeorgou, PhD student, Italy

Email: eleni.koutsogeorgou [at]
Institution: University of Milan & University of Turin (Italy)
Time: October 2015 – September 2018
Supervisors: Prof. Mario Cardano, Prof. Monica Santoro
Funding: 3-year scholarship from Compagnia di San Paolo (Network of the Advancement of Social and Political Studies, NASP)

The aim of this thesis is to explore aspects of the social relationships and social participation of women with three different types of disability: mental (psychotic disorder), physical (inability to move lower limbs), and sensory (deafness). Th participants were women, aged 18-45, living in Milan (Italy). The methodology employed in the study was qualitative, using semi-structured interviews and thematic analysis.

Various aspects of social relationships have been explored in the present study, for example: social network characteristics and trustworthiness (constituting components of the notion of social capital); social support; employment and leisure time activities; political participation; coping mechanisms; loneliness; barriers to social participation and autonomous living, along with suggestions to overcome these barriers.

Disability has been conceptualised in the study following the biopsychosocial model of functioning and disability of the World Health Organization (WHO)’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF), according to which disability is the outcome of the interaction between underlying health conditions and contextual factors (such as the social and physical environment). Accordingly, disability is perceived not as an intrinsic characteristic or deficit of a person due to her/his health condition, but as a multifaceted deficit of the surrounding environment to facilitate the full integration of the person with a health condition in it.

The main objective of the current thesis was to discern barriers and facilitators to social inclusion for persons with disabilities through patterns of their reported experiences, which can potentially influence policy-making and improve the personal experiences of persons with disabilities in terms of their social relationships and social participation. Although the enhancement of social networks has been suggested to hold potential for intervention and, in spite of robust evidence showing the importance of social relationships and social support for physical and mental health – both for populations with or without disabilities –, the number of interventions focusing on social support and social skills is limited. Therefore, there has been need for additional research particularly for women with disabilities, who are at increased risk of social isolation, abuse, and discrimination.

That is the knowledge gap the present study aims to fill in and to hopefully contribute to the discussion around full integration of women with disability through the removal of the barriers to their social participation and autonomy, together with the strengthening of their social relationships and received support. Abuse, prejudice, stigmatisation, and discrimination against women with disability are issues which have been addressed in the current study, and which could, potentially, be diminished by employing a less biomedical and more social approach in health care, employment, public services, and all sectors, whilst acknowledging the impact that social relationships and social participation have on health. It is time to move beyond the perception of ‘fixing’ the person with disability, towards creating a more facilitatory social and physical environment that may enable the person’s full inclusion into society.