Recasting ‘harm’ in support: Misrecognition between people with intellectual disability and paid workers

Prof. Sally Robinson1, Prof. Karen Fisher1, Dr Heikki Ikaheimo1, Prof. Anne Graham1

1Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia

Policy efforts addressing abuse of people with disability tend to focus on more extreme forms of violence, sometimes at the expense of attending to everyday indignities and insults experienced when receiving support. Recognition theory provides a lens for identifying actions and attitudes of misrecognition. Misrecognition can be in actions and behaviour that can cause hurt, humiliation or degradation, leaving people feeling devalued, disrespected or neglected (Honneth, 1996). This can have a negative effect on the formation of their identity.

In our project, we used Honneth’s concept of misrecognition (above) to analyse qualitative data from 42 pairs of young people with intellectual disability and support workers in six different disability services. Data was gathered using repeat individual and joint interviews and photo-research methods.

Misrecognition was seen in the everyday harm that occurred in the lives of young people with intellectual disability in disability services – hurt feelings and insults, omissions and silences, disrespect and diminution – experiences often not named or even understood as harm, but which were very much felt as such. Many of the casual interactions that signalled misrecognition highlighted the routine nature of the harm that people receiving support are exposed to, along with their often under-supervised workers.

Systems must respond to the high likelihood of these risks of misrecognition. Supervision, training, reflective practice and support activities can expose the problems and demonstrate practices more likely to positively impact identity formation and wellbeing for both people with disability and support workers.


Sally Robinson is Professor of Disability and Community Inclusion at Flinders University. Her work is focused on opportunities and barriers to flourishing lives for people with disability. Most of Sally’s research is co-produced with people with disability.