Waging a living: Career development and long-term employment outcomes for young adults with disabilities

Authors: Linsay, S., & DePape, A. M.
Year Published 2011
Publication Council for Exceptional Children
Volume 77
Number 4
Pages 423-434
Publisher Exceptional Children

Employment rates for individuals with disabilities are poor and contribute to the ongoing high poverty rates for this group. Although overall employment rates have risen over the years, work outcomes for young adults with disabilities still lag behind those without disabilities. Career development takes place overtime and is influenced by multiple variables such as individual, family, school, and community factors. However, for individuals with disabilities, career development is often complex, nonlinear, and chaotic. High school and post-school services can have a positive impact on employment for youth with disabilities. Students with disabilities who participate in vocational courses and community based work experiences are more likely to obtain and maintain employment after high school. Additionally, participation in adult services like vocational rehabilitation or post secondary education or training can lead to better job opportunities. Research studying patterns of career development for successfully employed adults with disabilities may be able inform clinical practices through the identification of common themes that influence employment in living wage occupations.


This study examined the process of career development for young adults with disabilities.


The study took place in multiple interview settings.


Young adults with disabilities (5 with learning disability, 2 with orthopedic impairment, and 1 with emotional disability) were recruited from a statewide network of special education and transition specialist. Criteria for selection included: had a documented disability and received special education, participated in school to work transition program at least one year, and exited school between the years 1996 and 2001. The chosen group included 4 women and four men with disabilities who were between 25 to 29 years old. All participants were caucasian and half resided in rural areas. Seven had graduated with a standard high school diploma and one had dropped out during the last year of school. All were employed full time at the time of their postschool interview and reported earning more than $20,000 per year. This was above the federal poverty line of $9,800 per year and exceeded the living wage of $17,035 per year. Key informants were also selected to provide information on family, high school, post school experiences and opportunities. This included: one or both parents, a high school teacher or transition specialist, a rehabilitation counselor, and current employer.

Data Collection

Researchers identified a set of topics to address through a review of the relevant literature. This included:

(a) individual characteristics and personal attributes,

(b) family support and expectations,

(c) high school and postschool school services and supports,

(d) workplace experiences, and

(e) other postschool training or education.

Data was collected over four years. Initial post-school interviews took place when participants were between 3 and 6 years out of high school. The second phase of data collection occurred up to 4 years following the initial interview when participants were between 7 and 10 years out of school. In total there were 66 interviews. this included interviews with 24 young adults, 18 with family 11 with employers, 8 with school personnel and 5 with rehabilitation counselors. In addition a family background questionnaire, job history form were completed for each participant along with a file review of special education and vocational rehabilitation records.

Field notes were kept on all contacts with participants and key informants. Onsite observations, field notes and file reviews were recorded on structured forms. Case study data for each participant was completed following standard qualitative analysis procedures. Cross case data summaries and explanatory tables were used to determine which characteristics influenced outcomes similarly or uniquely across cases.


The study did not include a control or comparison condition.


A common set of themes seemed to impact employment in living wage occupations. These included: the importance of ongoing education and/or training, steady work experiences, and personal attributes. More specifically the study found that the interrelated elements of family expectations, work experience during high school, and transition services and supports led these individuals to an initial postschool placement in either employment or postsecondary training. During the ensuing span of years, participants advanced in their careers based on a combination of factors that included: (a) enrollment in higher education or job training programs, (b) patterns of workforce participation, and (c) a set of personal attributes such as self-efficacy, persistence, and coping skills. These factors were present across all participants, yet varied by sex.


The findings confirm and extend previous research documenting the critical contribution of work experience for youth with disabilities. Young adults with disabilities need transition services to secure financial stability. Initial transition services and ongoing opportunities for further education and training are needed to work in jobs that pay a living wage. Transition education needs to focus on individual knowledge and skills like self determination, self advocacy and communication. Additional studies are needed to understand and highlight the variables that influence gaining occupations with livable wages that promote financial self sufficiency. More research is needed on the role of transition supports, post secondary education or training, family factors and personal attributes.

URL http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ931146
Disabilities Orthopedic impairments | Specific learning disabilities
Populations White / Caucasian | Male & Female | Rural | Urban
Outcomes Employment acquisition
NIDILRR Funded Not Reported
Research Design Qualitative
Peer Reviewed Yes