Abstract: Siblings of People with Disabilities: Evidence of an Achievement Gap? (Society for Social Work and Research 22nd Annual Conference - Achieving Equal Opportunity, Equity, and Justice)

Siblings of People with Disabilities: Evidence of an Achievement Gap?

Saturday, January 13, 2018: 8:00 AM
Independence BR G (ML 4) (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Robert Dembo, MA, PhD Student, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
Eliana Rosenthal, BA, na, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
Background and Purpose

Families of children with disabilities face social and economic challenges, impacting children with disabilities, parents, and non-disabled siblings. Prior research on the consequences of having a sibling with a disability (SWD) has primarily focused on outcomes in early or mid-life. On the other hand, social research on the effects of general sibling processes in early adulthood has been primarily limited to individuals with a sibling without a disability (SWOD). The current study attempts to bridge part of this gap. We examine the effects of having a SWD on young adults, focusing on their educational attainment. Previous research has found that female family members, including siblings, are disproportionately impacted by disability in the family. Therefore, we analyze potential gender differences in the effects of having a SWD on individuals’ educational attainment.


Our sample included 1,064 young adults, and was comprised of individuals with siblings with disabilities (n=284) and those with siblings without disabilities (n=780).  We identified sibling-disability status and college attendance for a cohort of young adults by merging the Panel Study of Income Dynamics with two of its supplements, the Child Development Supplement and the Transition to Adulthood Supplement. These cohort data were collected between 1997 and 2013. Disability was defined as diagnoses of epilepsy, speech delay, difficulty seeing, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance, ortho-pedic impairment, difficulty hearing, autism, hyperactivity, or developmental delay. Logistic regression models were used to estimate differences in the predicted probabilities of college attendance by sibling-disability status while controlling for family contextual and demographic variables. 


Overall, sibling-disability status had no average effect on college attendance. However, we find significant differences for men and women in the effects of having a SWD. While women with SWODs have a significantly higher probability of attending college than men (OR: 2.4; p<0.001), this gap is effectively closed to a nonsignificant difference between men and women with SWDs (p=n.s.). The observed closure is accounted for by the significantly lower probability of attending college among women with SWDs (OR: .78) compared to women with SWODs (OR: .86; p<0.05). Brothers of SWDs, on the other hand, experience no comparable decrease in the probability of college (p=n.s.). The second difference suggests that the effects of having a SWD on education are systematically worse for sisters than for bothers (p<0.05). The findings are robust to several alternative specifications of the model.                                                                                                                

Conclusion and Implications

Over the last several decades, women have surpassed men in rates of college enrollment. We find evidence of a significant achievement gap between women with SWDs and SWODs. Further, the educational consequences of having a SWD are systematically worse for sisters than brothers. Research on adults with SWDs indicates that sisters are more likely than brothers to assume caregiving roles and provide social support. The tendency for sisters to devote more support to a SWD may begin in early adulthood and therefore contribute to their diminished educational attainment. Educational and family supports can be strengthened to ensure sisters of SWDs receive equal educational opportunities as brothers.