Abstract: Exploring Protective and Risk Factors for Social Isolation Among College Students with Physical Disabilities (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Exploring Protective and Risk Factors for Social Isolation Among College Students with Physical Disabilities

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Archives, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Kimberly Hardner, PhD, Assistant Professor, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania
Background and Purpose: Young adults with physical disabilities are at a higher risk of social isolation in college as a result of stigma, stereotypes, and a lack of universal design. This study explores the identity and experiences of college students with physical disabilities in an effort to enhance awareness, access, and inclusion in higher education. Social isolation is often studied in relation to older adults; however, more information is needed to understand the effects of social isolation, as well as protective and risk factors among vulnerable populations across the life span.

Methods: This phenomenological research study was conducted through the specific method of Photovoice, a community-based participatory action research method. Participants, who assume the role as co-researchers, took photographs that represented their identity and experiences in college. Eight participants were recruited through both purposive and criterion sampling. Each participant self-identified as having a physical disability, and more specifically with a mobility-related impairment. During the focus group, participants shared their photos and described the meaning behind their photographs in relation to their identity as college students, as well as their social and academic experiences in college. Horizonalization assisted in the developing of codes and themes from the transcription of focus groups, which were subsequently validated by each of the study’s eight co-researchers.

Results: The findings of this study demonstrate that college students with physical disabilities are at risk for social isolation. Specifically, this study revealed that the college experience itself can serve as a protective factor among young adults with physical disabilities to combat social isolation. Additionally, within the college experience, the following protective factors were identified: a positive sense of identity; independence; support from the disability community; family support; participation in campus clubs and activities; and, friendships. Risk factors identified through this study included: a poor sense of identity; lack of access and inclusion; and, invisible aspects of one’s disability.

Conclusions and Implications: Social work practitioners can utilize the findings of this study to enhance protective factors and combat risk factors of social isolation among clients with disabilities preparing for college. Photographs from this study can be used to enhance knowledge and awareness of risk and protective factors in relation to social isolation among college students with physical disabilities for all individuals involved in higher education in an effort to combat ableism, enhance inclusion, and in the development of Universal Design policies.