Models for forming and supporting circles of support for people with intellectual disability

Dr Tal Araten-Bergman1, Professor Christine Bigby1

1Living with Disability Research Centre School of Allied Health, Human Services & Sport, La Trobe University, Australia

Circles of support involve a group of people coming together voluntarily with varying levels of formality, to support a person through relationships of trust and intimacy. These innovative strategies have recently assumed particular importance in the field of intellectual disability as they are perceived to be effective in harnessing social capital and promoting social inclusion. However, there is much ambiguity over the form, processes and effectiveness of circles of support. The study aimed to analyse the organisational operation and perceived outcomes of circles of support programs.

Three Australian programs were analysed. Data analysis was conducted in two phases:

1. Qualitative analysis of data from each organisation, used categories of program logic as a conceptual framework,
2. A cross-case analysis identified commonalities and differences in program`s aim processes and outcomes.

The analysis revealed the variability in circles programs. While all programs had a similar overarching intent about sustaining informal support, there was no one standard of operation. The comparison illustrates that the program logic, time and cost required to form and sustain a circle are primarily dependant on the nature of the person’s pre-existing informal network.

Findings may be used as a benchmarking framework for the operational implementation of circles of support, findings may also drive the development of a set of practice guides on how to develop and sustain circles of support for differing sub-groups of people with intellectual disabilities, according to the strengths of their existing informal networks.


Dr Araten-Bergman is a lecturer in the School of Allied Health, Human Services and Sport, La Trobe University and a Research fellow in the Living with Disability Research Centre at La Trobe University. Dr Tal AratenBergman`s research is focussed upon key determinants of social, civic and economic participation of people with disabilities and their wellbeing over the life course. She has been awarded national and international grants and published her work in major international peer-reviewed journals, as well as book chapters and government reports in the area of social work, disability, stigma and ageing studies.

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