Disability and ability: How young people with impairments make the transitions to adulthood (2011-2013)

Project Team

Dr Nikki Wedgwood

Dr Russell Shuttleworth

Professor Gwynnyth Llewellyn

Gabrielle Hindmarsh

Louisa Smith


Nearly a quarter of a million young Australians aged 12 to 24 years have a disability. As this sector of Australian society increases, so too will the social and financial implications of their higher rates of social, physical, mental, behavioural and emotional problems, along with their lower rates of academic achievement, employment, interpersonal relationships and community participation. Conceptualising the impact of disablism as varying across the lifespan and from one personal and social context to another-rather than as static and inevitable-this study sets out to identify the ways in which young people with impairments, as active, embodied and creative human agents, shape their transitional experiences and also the extent to which these experiences are shaped by disablism.


This study will be based on the sustained and systematic analysis of the life history case studies of 100 emerging adults with impairments, based on initial life history interviews plus follow-along annual interviews over three years. Participants will be aged between 19-26 when recruited and 22-29 by the end of the study, thus all will be emerging adults for the duration of the study. Life history interviews will elicit a narrative of each participant's life history from birth to their current age, exploring the following seven broad themes: i) Background; ii) Relationships; iii) Impairment; iv) Transition to Adulthood; v) Peer Acceptance; vi) Leisure Activities; and vii) Career/Future. Transcripts will be developed into life history case studies, analysing each case study in terms of the seven themes above, using a unique and powerful combination of sociological theories (cultural and structural perspectives on youth and embodiment) within a psychosocial framework (the normative tasks of the adolescent and emerging adult developmental phases). In the final phase of the project, the case studies will be analysed as a group in order to gain an understanding of their collective social location and identify any patterns or typologies which emerge.

Anticipated outcomes:

This study will:

  • generate new knowledge which can underpin interventions designed to ensure more people with impairments meet the developmental and structural challenges of adolescence and emerging adulthood in order to become fully-functioning, well-adjusted, socially and economically included members of society;
  • provide a comprehensive picture of the transitional experiences of young people with impairments, in particular how the developmental tasks of adolescence/emerging adulthood and having an impairment impact one another;
  • bring disability theory forward by developing an in-depth understanding of the dynamic relationship between disablism and the lives of people with impairments over time;
  • establish whether some young people with impairments successfully meet the developmental tasks of adolescence/emerging adulthood and avoid the negative outcomes associated with impairment despite disablism and, if so, what facilitates their ability to do so.

Progress to date

The project has received approval by the University of Sydney Human Research Ethic Committee and is currently recruiting young people (19-26yrs) with impairments.

For further information about this research project please contact the project team: