Summary: Vulnerability is an underexamined concept in social work. Scholarly activity principally concentrates on policy analysis and theoretical debate; less attention is given to lived experience of vulnerability from the perspectives of particular groups, impoverishing understanding of the phenomenon. This article presents findings from the first United Kingdom-based study of the lived experience of vulnerability from the perspectives of older deafblind adults. Adopting a qualitative design, data were collected via 18 semistructured interviews with eight participants (aged between 49 and 83), undertaken between October 2014 and July 2016. Data were analyzed using interpretative phenomenological analysis. Findings: Participants interpret vulnerability as layered, describing what they feel vulnerable about, what they feel vulnerable to, and when they feel vulnerable. The latter layer is predominant: vulnerability experiences are time-limited, and situation and setting specific. Situational and pathogenic sources of vulnerability include the responses of other people, particularly the experience of being misunderstood or perceived as incapable. The layers of vulnerability are not discrete: they can be combined and avoidance of one vulnerability can exacerbate another. Applications: Findings strengthen arguments against categorizing particular groups, including deafblind people, as permanently and immutably vulnerable. Such categorization, focused solely on impairment, provides an inadequate understanding of experience. Policymakers should consider adopting a layered approach to defining vulnerability. Assessment of these layers and how they interact may offer social workers an enhanced understanding of deafblind people's experiences and assist in determining what matters to them. Assessment should explore coping strategies, and assumptions of incapability based on impairment be rejected.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)60-84
Number of pages25
JournalJournal of Social Work
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2023


  • disability
  • older people
  • qualitative research
  • safeguarding
  • Social work


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