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By Edward Hall, University of Dundee and Andrew Power, University of Southampton


People with learning disabilities are amongst the most marginalised and excluded groups in society. Our research has examined different aspects of the lives of people with learning disabilities, including experiences of social exclusion and inclusion, sense of belonging, roles in employment and volunteering, involvement in creative arts, and the impacts of hate crime.

Throughout this research, we have sought to work closely with people with learning disabilities, and the people and organisations that support them. Community, voluntary and third sector organisations play a central role in the lives of people with learning disabilities. With the reduction in funding to services provided by local authorities, including the closure of collective sites of care and support, these organisations have taken on an even more central role.

People with learning disabilities, as with all disabled people, have been marginalised in the research process. Central to social geographical research on learning disability has been devising approaches to involve people in research as collaborators and to give people a voice to share their views, experiences, and expectations. Working closely with community, voluntary and third sector organisations has been crucial to providing a platform for more participatory and inclusive research.

Given people with learning disabilities often occupy an excluded social position, and have been subject to previously negative experiences of research, building relationships and trust with individuals and groups is vitally important. Organisations that work directly with people with learning disabilities can be a safe and supportive environment for the building of these relationships. In the past, researchers would have likely approached these organisations to seek their help in identifying potential participants for a project. More recently, it has become more common for researchers to work directly with people with learning disabilities and their representative organisations, at an earlier point in the research process. This has involved working in a collaborative or co-productive way, as part of an advisory group or as co-researchers, to develop and design the project, its methods, and potential outcomes and impacts.

Ensuring a more equitable engagement with research, that is safe and empowering, for participants is very important. University ethics and risk codes of practice establish the expectations around process and documentation. Community and voluntary organisations (and advisory groups) can provide valuable support in both designing these procedures, and in supporting people with learning disabilities through the process of the research.

One core subject of research enquiry that has concerned people with learning disabilities and geographers alike has been the impact of funding withdrawal in state and voluntary care and support provision. These sectors have experienced significant reductions to their budgets in the years of ongoing austerity since 2010. The COVID-19 pandemic period presented a further, in some cases existential, funding and operational challenge for organisations. Many organisations are now operating on unsustainable budgets and staffing levels. In many cases there is a dependency on a small number of staff, or in the case of many smaller organisations, a single key person. This presents challenges for researchers, wary of asking for assistance and making demands on organisations’ time. In these constrained times, it is ever more vital for researchers to offer a focused and clear benefit to the organisation, its staff, and those people it supports, for involvement in a project.

Geographers can offer significant benefits to community and voluntary organisations through collaboration in research. This can include direct outcomes, such as a training resource or evidence for a funding application. More nuanced benefits can also be gained, like recognition and enhanced profile of an organisation and its work, through for example a project website or film, and the involvement and resultant capacity building of staff and people with learning disabilities participating in the research. This can include the opportunity to reflect on the work of the organisation, and connect to others in the sector. To generate such benefits, it is crucial that researchers include costs for the activities and outputs in the project budget.

The benefits to the researcher are also potentially very significant, not only in engaging with participants and collecting data, but also in understanding the key issues in greater depth, and in the opportunity to make a positive impact to a specific organisation and the wider sector.


Some suggestions for other researchers working with community organisations:

  • Always contact organisations at an early stage in the research project, to begin to develop an ongoing relationship, and to ensure that the issues and questions you have identified are relevant to their interests and to those they support.
  • Devise means for communication and guidance; this could be regular meetings with staff, establishing an advisory group, a website.
  • Discuss the best way to enable and support inclusive research, including through more creative methods, for people with learning disabilities.
  • Agree on outcomes from the research, that benefit the organisation, its members, and the researcher.
  • Ensure as far as possible that the research is funded and staffed so not to place too many demands on the organisation.


How to cite

Hall, E. and Power, A. (2023) Researching geographies of learning disability. Working with voluntary and community groups. Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Guide. Available at:


About this guide

Working with voluntary and community organisations for some is a very important way to do geography. These organisation come in various shapes and sizes and may also often be referred to as the third sector, the voluntary sector, not-for-profit organisations, community groups or the civic sector. In this guide, we share the experiences of researchers doing geography in collaboration with community and voluntary organisations. A range of topics and issues are explored from health, disability and care, through to austerity, violence, and craft, amongst others. We learn about the approaches taken by geographers in their work with community and voluntary organisations, and some of the challenges they have negotiated in the process.