The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

The Impact of Disability On Young Adults' Transition to Adulthood

Friday, January 17, 2014: 11:00 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 001B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Leah Powell Cheatham, JD, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Karen A. Randolph, PhD, Associate Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL

Transition to adulthood is characterized by certain life-course milestone events, such as graduating high school, becoming productively engaged through post-secondary education or employment, and getting married. While it is well known that successful transitions vary greatly by numerous factors (e.g., race, gender) (Fussell & Furstenberg, 2005), research has only recently attended to the ways that disability-related factors may shape transitions in young-adulthood. Investigating transitions among young adults with disabilities is important as over 10% of young adults in the US reported a disability in 2005―50% of whom characterized their disability as severe (Brault, 2008). Furthermore, individuals with disabilities, in general, fall short of their non-disabled peers in achieving these transitional milestones (Stewart et al., 2013). Recognizing the diversity among individuals with disabilities, a fuller conceptualization of disability that emphasizes not only the presence of impairment, but also the type and severity of impairment, is warranted. The few existing studies are based on dated samples, questionable methodologies, or content areas that provide limited insight into population-level understanding. To move this critical work forward, we use longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (ADD Health) to examine ways in which disability status, disability type (cognitive vs. physical impairment), and disability severity (high-severity vs. low-severity) determine the successful completion of high school, the propensity to be productively engaged, or to get married.


The nationally representative sample (N=12,605) includes individuals who participated in Waves I (1994-95) and IV (2007-08) of the ADD Health. Disability is measured as either physical impairment (n=820) or cognitive impairment (n=791) at Wave I. Disability severity was constructed using both self- and parent-report of limitations at Wave I (Cheng & Udry, 2002). Dependent variables measured at Wave IV include self-reported high school graduation, productive engagement (i.e., at least part-time enrollment in post-secondary school or employment ≥ 10 hours/week), and marriage. Logistic regression methods were used to investigate three models (one for each dependent variable).


Findings revealed that individuals with disabilities, collectively, had lower odds of high school graduation (OR=0.60; p<.001) and of productive engagement (OR=0.49; p<.001) relative to non-disabled peers. Those with cognitive impairment experienced lower odds of high school graduation (OR=0.45; p=.002) and of productive engagement relative to individuals with physical impairments (OR=0.23; p<.001). Finally, individuals with high-severity impairments had lower odds of high school graduation (OR=0.44; p=.03) and of productive engagement (OR=0.15; p<.001) than those identifying low-severity impairments. The odds of marriage were not affected by disability across the models tested.


These results indicate that young adults with disabilities, particularly those with severe or cognitive impairment, face real obstacles in graduating high school and attending college or securing employment. In keeping with the intent of the IDEA (2004) and ADA (1990), school and community-based programs designed to ease these transitions require further attention to ensure equal opportunities for all young adults with disabilities. While this study highlights important social disparities among individuals with disabilities, further research is needed to understand the social and structural mechanisms through which these disadvantages are imposed.