The struggles and triumphs of the invisible subject: the experiences of mature women students caring for those with learning disabilities whilst studying in Higher Education
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The caring role entails substantial social, physical, emotional and financial costs, especially for women with caring responsibilities, which presents challenges and restrictions for them when participating in activities outside the care-giving domain, such as engagement in education. Against these odds and despite the considerable demand caring places upon carers, a limited number of mature women caring for those with learning disabilities are navigating access to and participation in Higher Education. Considering the effort that this group of women expend attempting to combine multiple identities, and compared to the considerable research in Higher Education about the experiences of other groups of students such as: student parents, students with disabilities, and students who are ‘non-traditional’; little is known about the experiences of mature women students caring for those with learning disabilities and the impact on their studies in Higher Education. Furthermore, their experiences remain largely invisible to their universities. This study aims to address this gap in research and seeks to understand how mature women students caring for those with learning disabilities negotiate their roles and identities as carers and students; it particularly focuses on how their caregiving experiences within their homeplace impact upon their personal experiences of finding time and space to study for a Higher Education degree. The research is valuable because this group of students faces a unique set of challenges in terms of the considerable time spent caregiving, the high-level and long-lasting nature of caregiving, the lack of respite services, managing the unpredictable nature of learning disabilities, and limited opportunities to engage with social, academic, work and leisure activities due to the intensive level of caring. The study utilises Gouthro’s (1998) theoretical construct of the ‘homeplace’ as an important aspect of the ‘lifeworld’ and as a site of living and learning where women’s identity, labour and relationships are shaped and have an impact upon their educational experiences. This study is underpinned by constructionist ontology and interpretive epistemology utilising semi-structured interviews as a research method to collect qualitative data from four research participants. The study findings indicate that mature women students caring for those with learning disabilities viewed their caregiving in their homeplace as being both pressured and precious experiences. The pressured aspect of their caregiving experiences was due to constructing caregiving as an intensive emotional labour and their identities as being constrained. The precious aspect of their caregiving experiences was due to constructing caregiving as negotiation of relationships with families and friends. Both the pressured and precious aspects of their experiences, impacted upon how they negotiated their roles and identities as carers in the homeplace and as students in Higher Education.
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