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Navigating the maze: ethics approval pathways for intellectual disability research
  1. Allyson Thomson1,2,
  2. Peter Roberts2,
  3. Alan Bittles2,3
  1. 1Curtin University, Centre for Research into Disability and Society, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
  2. 2Edith Cowan University, School of Medical Sciences, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
  3. 3Murdoch University, Centre for Comparative Genomics, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Allyson Thomson, Curtin University, Centre for Research into Disability and Society, Perth, Western Australia 6845, Australia; Allyson.Thomson{at}

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All researchers, regardless of their discipline, need to be aware of the importance of protecting vulnerable populations, such as people with intellectual disabilities (ID), from exploitation within the context of research.1 ,2 For this reason, institutional Human Research Ethics Committees (HREC) are regarded as an essential gateway for review of the design and procedure of research projects involving people with ID. While these protections are welcome and necessary, it has been mooted that rigorous application of guidelines of ethical conduct may have a deleterious effect on ID research in Australia.3 One of the common themes identified by a recent review of the ethical aspects of ID research was the importance of participation, notwithstanding an often reduced capacity for autonomous decision making ‘…that neither the presence of a disability nor the absence of capacity should exclude an individual from participation and that the participation of adults with ID in all research should be pursued.’4

This paper reviews practical issues arising from a study involving people with ID in Western Australia, and highlights challenges encountered in seeking approval to survey family carers of a group of people with ID. The prescribed involvement of multiple agencies, which was complicated by legislative ambiguities regarding adults who lack the capacity to provide consent for non-medical research participation, resulted in a time span of over 2 years from submission of the initial application to a University HREC to receipt of the final approval for all parts of a project with an original 3-year schedule.

The study itself aimed to assess stress levels and explore the use of coping strategies among the carers of people with Angelman syndrome (AS) or Prader–Willi syndrome (PWS). Both syndromes are genomic imprinting disorders that arise from disruptions within human chromosome 15q11-q13. Although the disease phenotypes of the disorders …

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  • Contributors The first author conducted the study as part of a doctoral programme. She was involved in the planning of the study, carried out all data collection, most of the analysis, and was the major contributor to the writing of the paper. PR was the PhD supervisor for this study. He assisted with the planning of the study and contributed to revisions of this paper. AB was a cosupervisor for the PhD study and assisted with planning the study and contributed to revisions of this paper.

  • Funding The study was supported by The Australasian Society for Intellectual Disability; who provided research funds towards the completion of the PhD study. Funds were used for conference attendance and stationery. AT was also supported by an Australian Postgraduate Scholarship.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Ethics approval The study was approved by Edith Cowan University Human Research Ethics Committee, Department of Health WA HREC, and King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women HREC.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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