Shaping clients' answers : departures from neutrality in care staff interviews with people with a learning disability

What can happen when care staff interview clients with a learning disability? We examine tape-recordings of five questionnaire-based interviews designed to yield information on the clients’ perceptions of the quality of the service provided to them. Of interest was the way in which the care staff, who were not formally trained in interview skills, delivered the 42-item questionnaire that formed the basis for the interview. It was discovered that interviewers replicated a number of non-neutral practices previously identified in a set of similar interviews administered by formally-trained professionals. They also introduced further deviations from neutral interviewing. The effect of these practices on the information recorded as the respondents’ answers is discussed. We note that any interviewer is faced with a dilemma of choosing between literal (but potentially robotic and insensitive) and tailored (but potentially unstandardised and invalid) administration of a questionnaire. We argue that the deviations we see here show the interviewers falling on the side of ‘liberal’ administration. The net effect was arguably to prompt ‘better’ answers. When what is being recorded is an ‘audit’ of services provided to respondents, there is a real-life danger that their perceptions are being improved by what is ostensibly a neutral interview.