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Understanding the Relationship between People with Physical Disabilities and Their Companion animals




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Disability among humans is an important concern in both developed and developing countries. Although efforts have been made to protect the rights of people with disabilities, and public attitudes towards people with disabilities (PWDs) have become increasingly supportive over the past decade, people with disabilities still experience a wide range of social exclusion. Social exclusion not only limits the social participation of people with disabilities but also impacts their well-being. Improving the inclusion and well-being of people with disabilities requires multiple strategies. At the social level, it calls for legislation and policies based on the social model of disability. At the individual level, social support helps people cope with pressures and challenges leading to enhanced well-being. The human-animal bond is understood as a mutually beneficial relationship, with companion animals providing emotional and social support in unique ways. This research adopts human needs theory, social exclusion theory, social support theory, and attachment theory to explore the lived experiences of people with physical disabilities and their experiences of living with a companion animal in China. The research questions of this study are four-fold: (1) What are the experiences of being disabled in urban China?; (2) What are the experiences of participants living with companion animals with whom they have a bond?; (3) What are the perceived benefits and drawbacks of living with companion animals?; and (4) What is the relationship between participants with physical disabilities and their companion animals? Drawing on a phenomenological approach, in-depth interviews with six participants with physical disabilities showed that participants experienced multiple forms of social exclusion, including limited opportunities for education and employment, inadequately accessible facilities, and negative public attitudes toward people with disabilities, which led to smaller social networks and a strong sense of loneliness. The unfulfilled social needs influence participants’ well-being negatively. Social support from others helped participants cope with disability-related stressors. In addition to such human support, the support offered by companion animals was significant, providing physical, emotional, and social benefits that positively influenced the lives of people with physical disabilities. Although participants identified challenges caused by the financial, practical, and emotional burdens and by the loss of a pet, the benefits of living with a companion animal outweighed the drawbacks. Participants viewed companion animals as a family member and developed a deep bond with their companion animals, which was understood as love, care, support, and trust. This dissertation is explanatory in nature and contributes to the sociological study of the human-animal bond. As the first study investigating experiences of PWDs living with companion animals in China, this dissertation contributes to a better understanding of the nature of the human-animal relationship. Expanding upon previous research findings, I argue that companion animals play a supportive role in the lives of PWDs and compensate for a lack of human support. Therefore, living with companion animals may be a meaningful way to improve the lives of people with smaller social networks or limited human support. Valorizing the important role of companion animals also helps promote animal welfare and recognize animals as valuable social members.



people with physical disabilities, social exclusion, companion animals, human-animal bond, support, well-being.



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)






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