Transitions to Adulthood for Youth with Disabilities: Emerging Themes for Practice and Research

By Stewart, Debra; Gorter, Jan Willem et al. | The Prevention Researcher, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Transitions to Adulthood for Youth with Disabilities: Emerging Themes for Practice and Research


Stewart, Debra, Gorter, Jan Willem, Freeman, Matt, The Prevention Researcher


Experiences in different activities during the high school years, in particular those of a social nature, can be important for future adult outcomes for youth with disabilities.

Advances in medicine and community care have allowed an increasing number of young persons with congenital conditions and special health care needs' to remain healthy through adolescence and to become adults living in the community (Wood et al., 2010). Statistical data from the United States reports that 2,328,100 (5.1%) youth between the ages of 5-15 and 1,205,500 (5.4%) between the ages of 16-20 are living with a disability (Erickson, Lee, & von Schrader, 2012). In Canada, 174,810 (4.6%) youth between the ages of 5-14 and 96,060 (4.6%) between the ages of 15-19 are living with a disability. Significantly, of those youth with a disability between the ages of 15-19,69.4% reported the presence of more than one type of disability (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, 2006).

Over 500,000 adolescents with disabilities are currently transitioning from pediatric-oriented services into adult service systems in the United States alone (Bloom et al., 2012). Given these high numbers, it is not surprising that research about transitions to adulthood for youth with disabilities has increased in the past few decades. In the 1980s, research began with small descriptive studies that first identified negative trajectories and poor adult outcomes of youth with different types of disabilities. Over the past 30 years, research has progressed to identify personal and environmental factors that influence the transition process in the domains of socialization, education, employment, and independent living (Stewart et al., 2008). In the past decade large national studies have been conducted in several different countries (e.g., United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom), along with evaluations of new services to address the transition needs of youth with disabilities. In general, much of the research being conducted is still "silo'd," meaning that only one specific population of youth or one service system is studied (Gorter et al., 2011; Stewart et al., 2008). There is, however, a growing call for more "non-categorical" collaborative research that examines youth/adult transitions across multiple populations and systems.

Since 2001, several comprehensive reviews of the literature about transitions to adulthood for youth with disabilities have provided some synthesis of the published and unpublished literature (Gorter et al., in press; Stewart, 2013; Stewart et al., 2008). From these reviews, several themes have emerged about the common issues facing all youth with chronic, lifelong disabilities, irrespective of their type of condition or the services available to them. Three themes are described below, with personal scenarios provided to illustrate the main points within each theme.

THEME 1: A PERSON'S CONDITION IS ONLY ONE FACTOR THAT MAY INFLUENCE ANY DEVELOPMENTAL TRANSITION

A growing body of evidence is revealing that a person's condition is only one factor that influences the developmental transitions of youth with disabilities. This fits with current views of development and disability, which are two key concepts related to this topic. Whereas older theories and models viewed these concepts as focused on just the person, current views recognize that important interactions between a person and their environment are involved, For example, current theories of development focus on understanding individuals within their personal, social, cultural, and generational environments (Lerner, 2002). The interaction between a person and his or her environment during developmental processes is dynamic in nature, meaning that there are constant and ever-changing interactions (Elder, Johnson, & Crosnoe, 2003).

Changes in our understanding of the concept of disability are also contributing to an increased awareness about the interactions between a person and the environments in which he or she lives. …

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