Conflict in the developmental disabilities profession: Perspectives on treatment approaches, ethics, and paradigms

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Counseling and Human Services


Kenneth Reagles


Developmental disabilities, Treatment techniques

Subject Categories

Special Education and Teaching


Based on recent publications in developmental disabilities literature, there exists a conflict around the use of treatment techniques that cause pain and/or harm to consumers who have challenging behaviors. In-depth interviews were conducted with 12 of the profession's "elite" practitioners who have opposing views on the use of aversive treatment techniques, to determine their perspectives on the conflict. Using inductive analysis, the data were presented on three levels--ethics, organization conflict and change, and paradigm change.

Results of the study indicate differences in the axioms underlying world views of the two groups, in their perceptions of epistemology and order. But both groups similarly perceived the concept of causality as complex, a metamorphosis of interactive events. The latter perception runs contrary to the positivist paradigm, indicating the possibility of a shifting pattern of beliefs within the profession. Additionally, the groups espoused different ideologies and professional roles, articulated within the frameworks of cultural relativism and absolutism. They also used language differently. A deliberate challenge to conventional interpretation by one of the groups appeared to be an attempt to elicit support and legitimacy for their values.

The conclusion is that the conflict over the use of aversive techniques is rooted in an ill-defined, changing paradigm, which in turn influences other differences found between the groups. By pendulating treatment validity concerns in the research literature, professionals have exercised increasing levels of paternalistic behavior and, in doing so, perpetuated counterproductive behavior that escalated conflict.

Recommendations include the following: (a) The present positivistic paradigm must be expanded to incorporate new theory development, multiple methodological approaches, and multifaceted value systems, in short, to accommodate the changes taking place in the profession; (b) the profession's elite should recognize their leadership responsibility to others involved in the profession and discipline-at-large, and actively work with a third party mediator to accommodate changes taking place within the profession; (c) values clarification is recommended as required curriculum for all members of the profession; (d) a clear definition for terminology is warranted, as words are presently skewed by the transition taking place in the profession (for example, aversive, punishment); and (e) more research is necessary in interdisciplinary and intradisciplinary studies.


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