Transition to work for young people with disability: Working or not?

Written by Louisa Smith1

There is a lot of emphasis on transition experiences of people with disabilities, particularly people with intellectual disabilities transitioning to work.

But despite adjustments to policy and legislation on transition programmes and the development of resources, our research suggests there are still significant opportunities for improving the transition experience from school to post school options for young people with intellectual disabilities.

In the last few years, researchers at the University of Sydney have been talking to young people aged 19-26 with disabilities about their life stories. The aim of this research is to listen to the voices of young people with disability about their life histories and experiences of transition.



Of the 55 interviews conducted across NSW and Victoria, fifteen of the participants had intellectual disabilities. The young people spoke about how, in the main, their experiences of work and employment rarely engaged with their interests, skills or potential.

Work is highly valued and often positioned as a way of proving capability and achievement. For most of the young people we interviewed with intellectual disabilities, the type of work they did and the way they were treated at work, meant that work was not the thing that gave them a sense of independence, capability and citizenship.

In some cases, young people were put on work trajectories when they were at school through vocational TAFE courses and work experience. Most commonly in our study, these trajectories involved studying hospitality.

In one case, even though cooking was Sam’s* least favourite subject at school, he was directed into hospitality. At the time of the first interview, Sam was 19, had finished school and was working at a fast food chain where he had done work experience while at school.

Unlike Sam, 26 year old Alan did like cooking. While he was at school, Alan worked in a kitchen but said: ‘I didn’t really like it. They weren’t that good people…I only did one job, doing the tomatoes.’ At his current job, ‘they give you more’ but Alan said, ‘I’d like to follow recipes.’

He also found that he was not treated appropriately by his co-workers and that proper adaptations hadn’t been made: ‘people being quite rude sometimes… my manager… he telling me to work more harder… he doesn’t like the way I do things… I have very short arms… I can’t reach things.’

In fact, when asked if Alan feels that he has a disability, he says that he has short arms as opposed to an intellectual disability. The work environment highlights his sense of inability rather than capability.

For another participant, Jack, working one day a week at a local company was alright because he did it with his best friend, ‘I like it there [supported employment]. I get paid really good money…’ But Jack goes on to say, ‘I’d like to get a real job in this town.’

At different times throughout the interview Jack said that he was ‘the Mayor of this town’ and friends with the police. Clearly, while Jack saw real work contributing to community, he did not feel that his current work did this. Instead, he found his true satisfaction in music he produced in a successful local group.

Click here for information about the study.

Or contact Louisa Smith at


*names have been changed


1. Louisa Smith is a Research Associate with the Australian Family & Disability Studies Research Collaboration at the University of Sydney.


  1. I am Head of a Special Education Unit in Queensland. I think it is difficult for people with disabilities to transition to employment. It needs much structure and support for both the student and the employer. After school there is a huge vacuum for people with a disability in support and community. We are trialing a partnership with an organisation that aims to support the student:

    “The program aims to support young people with a disability in their post school outcomes of meaningful life and developing a supportive community beyond the education environment is highly relevant. It is well published and evidence based that students with disabilities have higher rates of unemployment, mental and physical health issues and problems with developing strong and enduring community relationships.

    This program seeks to develop over time a community connection with another organization which together can offer a diversity of programs and experiences that can support the young person and their family to continue with a meaningful and productive life after school.”

    What can happen is that people with disabilities do not have a community beyond school. We aim to create a link that hopefully wiill develop a community support network. If the student finds themseves unemployed or having difficulties with employmet/ friendships etc., they have a support system. We are looking forward to positive outcomes and intend to keep data on this.

    Comment by Emma Hampton — February 7, 2014 @ 2:05 pm

  2. Very interesting.

    Our experience is that it is very hard for people with intellectual disabilities transitioning into employment.

    We established a workers cooperative/social enterprise for this very reason. Most of our members we’re long-term unemployed, did not want to work in ADE’s and even with repeated assistance of job service providers had failed to find or were regularly dismissed form work that they did find. Also the courses which provided certification of learning did not translate into work.

    What creates and sustains employment in our view are the ongoing relationships of understanding and support between the employer and the person and also the network of support around the person. Adapting the job to suit the gifts and capacities of the worker is also important. Energies placed here reap benefits which job placement and skills training alone are unable to provide.

    Thanks for this link we will follow the study with interest

    Richard Warner (Nundah Communtiy Enterprises Cooperative)

    Comment by Richard Warner — February 10, 2014 @ 1:02 pm

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