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