Our Social Networks: Exploring the benefits of storytelling in building agency, identity and wellbeing with people with learning disabilities

  • Caroline Andrews

    Student thesis: Master's Thesis


    To meet the aims of this research, nine personal stories which were audio recorded with people with learning disabilities as part of the Our Social Networks oral history project were explored (Mencap Cymru, 2018). Story analysis has been underpinned by Narrative Inquiry, which has been used to foreground the perspectives and experiences of the storytellers (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). A key theme which arose from the literature and information search and from the oral histories of people with learning disabilities explored during this research was that having positive experiences and having the opportunity to share these experiences with others through storytelling built the identity and agency of storytellers, enabling them to be seen and to see themselves as people with knowledge, or as “knowers” (Gubrium, Hill, & Flicker, 2014, p.1611). Within this research, the agency of all storytellers was built through the process of engaging co-operatively and creatively in co-constructing their stories with the interviewers through the “narrative work” of storytelling (Gubrium & Holstein, 2009, p.17). According to Scior (2016) people with learning disabilities may be ascribed an identity by society as persons of few capabilities. However, resisting and rejecting an ascribed identity can be achieved by building a preferred definition of self (Weir, 2009). Storytellers within this research achieved a self-defined identity through personal storytelling. Moreover, personal storytelling with trusted and empathic professional interviewers (story co-constructors) not only built the preferred identities of the storytellers, it further offered some storytellers the opportunity to interpret their lives in a different way, and to imagine other possibilities for their future (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Meininger, 2006). Storytelling which included friends and partners offered storytellers the opportunity of co-building their preferred identities with friends and peers (Meininger, 2010). In contrast, the lack of a dialogical, storytelling relationship appeared to be at the heart of some of the emotional challenges faced by storytellers, and these included experiencing feelings of isolation, separateness, and loneliness. The researched stories also suggested that there are times when families and professionals may have little empathy with or understanding of the experience of being a person with a learning disability. This was manifested as an apparent lack of appreciating the emotions, life journeys, relationships, and preferred identities of people with learning disabilities, and this can be termed a lack of “thinking with stories” (Clandinin et al., 2015, p,29). The research found significant barriers to storytelling with this group which included limited opportunities to socialize and share personal stories, which is essential in building identity, agency, and relationships with people with learning disabilities (Grove, 2015; Meininger, 2010). Barriers also included a lack of nourishing narrative environments within social care settings (Blix, Berendonk, & Caine, 2019; Grove, 2015). To build agency and identity through storytelling with people with learning disabilities, services should offer experiences which are meaningful, and the opportunity for people to share their stories, not only with friends and peers, but also with empathic professionals, as this could enable “thinking with stories”, positive identities and the provision of appropriate, co-produced narrative care and support with those who use services (Clandinin et al., 2015, p.29).
    Date of Award2024
    Original languageEnglish
    SponsorsKESSII & Mencap Cymru
    SupervisorEmily Underwood-Lee (Supervisor), Ruth Northway (Supervisor) & Steven Walden (Supervisor)

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