Iraqi and Syrian refugee family member perspectives on understandings of disability

A/Prof. Angela Dew1, A/Prof Caroline Lenette2, Dr Louisa Smith1, Professor Katherine Boydell2, Ms Helen Bibby3, Dr Julia Lappin2, Mr Mariano Coello3, Associate Professor Shanti Raman4, Ms Katina Velkou5, Dr Ruth Wells2, Ms Shakeh Momartin3, Dr Hazel Blunden2, Dr Maree Higgins2, Mr Mahmoud Murad2

1Deakin University, Australia, 2UNSW Sydney, Sydney, Australia, 3New South Wales Services for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS), Sydney, Australia, 4South West Sydney Local Health District, Sydney, Australia, 5Settlement Services International, Sydney, Australia

Since 2015, up to 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi people have resettled in Australia on humanitarian visas. The 2012 streamlining of the health waiver for humanitarian visa applicants meant approximately 1% of these were disabled. Little is known about the experiences and perspectives of family members of people with intellectual disability who settled in Australia. This paper describes one part of a larger study to explore the impact of resettlement for Iraqi and Syrian refugees with disability, their families and service providers.

In-depth interviews were conducted in Arabic with 9 family members of 11 children and adults with life-long disability described as having a range of impairments including intellectual, physical, sensory and psychosocial. In addition to service access questions, family members were asked about their perspectives on attitudes to disability both within their communities and within Australian society. Transcribed and translated data were analysed using thematic analysis.

Three themes described family members’ understandings of disability: 1. ‘Perceptions’ of disability with more stigma associated with intellectual and psychosocial than physical impairment; 2. Who is responsible for the disability with mothers often blamed and disability viewed as God’s test; 3. Comparisons between Iraqi/Syrian and Australian views, attitudes, and approaches to disability.

This study confirms that family and community beliefs and practices are underpinned by people’s social, political, and economic living conditions and are important and dynamic factors in understanding disability, with significant implications for outcomes for persons with intellectual and developmental disability from Iraqi and Syrian refugee backgrounds.


Angela Dew, PhD is a sociologist with 40 years’ experience in the Australian disability sector. Her research relates to understanding the intersections that impact on the lives of people with disability due to a range of complex support needs. Her work includes people with disability from refugee backgrounds.