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Narrative ethics in nursing for persons with intellectual disabilities

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Both in the Netherlands and in Britain, practices of ‘life story work’ have emerged in nursing for persons with intellectual disabilities. The narrative approach to care and support may at the same time be considered as an attempt to compensate for the ‘disabled authorship’ of many persons with intellectual disabilities and as a sign of controversy with standard practices of diagnosis and treatment that tend to neglect the personal identities of both clients and care givers, their particular historical and relational contexts and their spiritual needs. This paper argues that narrative ethics not only offers an appropriate moral framework for practices of life story work, but that these practices are a narrative ethics in action. Starting with an account of the concept of ‘life story work’ as it has been introduced in nursing practices in the field of intellectual disability, the paper explains its relationship with key characteristics of narrative ethics. The teleological dimension in narrative ethics and in practices of life story work sparks off a dialectic process of understanding of the client and self-understanding of the care giver. It also invites a respect for life in its openness toward the future and presupposes an openness toward other possible versions of the life narrative. The phenomenological and hermeneutic-interpretative methodologies in narrative ethics aim at a ‘sudden moment of intimacy’ in relationships of nurses and clients. The ‘epiphany’ of this essential moment of recognition, insight and engagement cannot, however, be brought about by methodology.
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Keywords: hermeneutics; life story; methodology; moral theory; narrative ethics; nursing

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 April 2005

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