Re-imagining parenting: Upholding Article 23 of the UNCRPD for mothers and fathers with a learning disability

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Jonathan Smit - abstract artwork

What is this study about? 

Introducing new DBI research about parenting by people with learning disabilities!

Research has shown that with the right type of support parents with learning disabilities can be good parents, but they are often told that they should not be. And if they do become parents, it can be very hard to get the right support.

The DBI has been involved in research about parenting by people with learning disabilities for over 20 years. Our research has shown that children are often taken away from their parents with a learning disability but the same research has also shown us that they can be good parents and look after their children very well.

We are very excited to have the opportunity to do another research project with parents with learning disabilities. This new research has been funded by the IHC Foundation. We think it is important to learn about parenting experiences in 2020 because we now have a Disability Convention that has Article 23  in it. Article 23 is about parenting rights for disabled people. We want to see if it is making a difference in how parents are treated and supported when they have a learning disability. 


About our parenting research over the past 20 years

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability (UNCRPD) directs States Parties to provide the means to support persons with a disability to form and raise a family (Article 23, UNCRPD). An enduring concern for DBI researchers both pre- and post-UNCRPD has been the persistent presumption of incompetence experienced by parents with learning disabilities. In response to this concern, the DBI has conducted several studies that have explored parenting by this group of parents in Aotearoa New Zealand, all underpinned by a belief in the right of all people to choose to have their own family.

The prevalence of parents with learning disabilities in NZ

As issues for parents with learning disabilities came to the fore in the mid-1990s, the DBI knew it was necessary to establish the prevalence of this group of parents.  With advice from statisticians, the DBI was able to publish an estimation of 2.51 per 1000 families included one or more parent(s) with a learning disability (Mirfin-Veitch, 1999), a figure that still stands as the most reliable estimate for New Zealand. In addition to this prevalence data, in the same study, we also interviewed people who supported parents at that time (Mirfin-Veitch, Bray, Williams, Clarkson & Belton, 1999). Funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC), this study highlighted concerns that the current structure of New Zealand’s disability and family support systems was inadequate to meet the support needs of many parents with learning disabilities.

Promoting and supporting parenting

Following on from these studies, the DBI received a further grant from the HRC to undertake a three-year qualitative study that explored the experience of 19 parents who had learning disabilities. Concerns about high rates of child removal were reinforced through this study, however, it was also important in that some of the parents were negotiating the complexity of parenting with success. Their lives provided insight into how New Zealand could do better at supporting parents to remain active parents. The following five publications drew on the data from this study: Conder, Mirfin-Veitch, Sanders & Munford, 2008; Conder, Mirfin-Veitch, Sanders, & Munford, 2010; Mirfin-Veitch, 2010; Munford, Sanders, Mirfin-Veitch, & Conder, 2008; Munford, Sanders, Mirfin-Veitch, & Conder, 2008.

Parents experiences in the Family Court

Alongside the qualitative work that focused on parents’ experience, a small team at the DBI reviewed the New Zealand Family Court reports for cases relating to parents with learning disabilities (Johnston, Henaghan, & Mirfin-Veitch, 2007). The case review intended to identify the weight that having a disability was given to court decisions regarding parental adequacy. The court reports were inadequate in terms of detailed reasoning or explanation, leaving it open as to whether or not the person’s cognitive impairment was the prima facie reason justifying removal. This lack of clarity in reasoning illustrates the challenge of building a human rights case for parents with learning disabilities.

Re-imagining parenting in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2020

It is now over ten years since the DBI undertook research with parents with learning disabilities. Over that time, there have been regular reports from parents themselves, support people and advocacy groups concerned that parents with learning disabilities are denied their parenting rights in Aotearoa New Zealand. In response to these concerns, the DBI has been awarded funding from the IHC Foundation to conduct a two-year study with parents with learning disabilities. Once our project has received ethical approval we will be seeking 12 parents participants. The study will take an ecological approach, allowing us to explore the experiences of both those who are actively parenting and those who have limited or no contact with their children. We will include interviews with people that the parent nominates as having had a major role in their parenting experience.


See our publications page for outputs from our parenting research.

For further information about our new parenting research, contact or


Project Artwork by Jonathan Smit


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