Working with vulnerable adults

All of us are vulnerable at different times in our life. Bereavement, illness, social or work pressures may render us vulnerable. It is important, whilst conducting research, to proceed with respectful awareness and care in dealings with participants. To run a robust, ethically principled research project the researcher will need to remain vigilant and will need to monitor participants' welfare, seeking relevant guidance and assistance when in need of support.

The regulations contained within the Police Act (UK 1997) give a three-part definition of a vulnerable adult (see A – C below).   For the purposes of conducting research under the auspices of the University of Wolverhampton, a fourth category has been added (D below).   A vulnerable adult will be over the age of eighteen years and will fall into one or more categories.

A – Services:

  • accommodation and nursing or personal care in a care home;
  • personal care or support to live independently in their own home;
  • any services provided by an independent hospital, clinic, medical agency or NHS body;
    social care services;
  • any services provided in an establishment catering for a person with learning difficulties.

B – Conditions:

  • a learning or physical disability;
  • a physical or mental illness, chronic or otherwise, including an addiction to alcohol or drugs,
  • a reduction in physical or mental capacity.

C – Disabilities:

  • a dependency on others to assist with or perform basic physical functions;
  • severe impairment in the ability to communicate with others;
  • impairment in a person’s ability to protect themselves from assault, abuse or neglect.

D – Experiences

  • bereavement, illness, social or work-related stress;
  • post-traumatic stress relating to war or other catastrophic events;
  • physical or psychological abuse, bullying, victimisation or sustained harassment;
  • experiences based on caste, religion, ethnicity, gender or other socially, culturally or politically structural situations, which may place some groups in chronically disadvantaged or vulnerable contexts.

This list may guide thinking about vulnerability but makes no claim to being exhaustive; neither does it assume that everyone who has these experiences is vulnerable at all times. It suggests that vigilant researchers should try to understand and empathise with people's circumstances and conduct their research activities with appropriate regard and respect for participants' actual or potential vulnerability.

In addition it should be recognised that:

  1. research activities may awaken latent vulnerability in others;
  2. a researcher's own vulnerability may, as a consequence, increase; and
  3. strategies for managing research activities need to be designed and supported, in some cases with the guidance and assistance of colleagues or others with relevant experience and local knowledge