Leaving high school and figuring out what to do next is hard for the most able of students. Weighing up options and deciding on what path will lead to the greatest outcomes can be stressful and many options are explored and rejected before a student is able to find a path they are happy with.

Sarah Hart

For students with significant disabilities, this transition is even harder. Sarah Hart, a 2017 PhD graduate of the University of Auckland, Faculty of Education and Social Work completed her doctoral research into this transition for students in Aotearoa New Zealand.

After exploring the literature in this area, Sarah came away with two central concerns. Firstly, students with significant disability experience far worse outcomes than mainstream student outcomes, and secondly, many students with disabilities are excluded from their own transition planning. From this, she became interested in what transitioning with “dignity: might look like.

Dignity in the context of transition means that every person understands and makes use of their personal capabilities in order to live a life that is thriving rather than mere surviving (a concept developed by theorist Nussbaum).

“Much is known about the ‘outcomes’ of transition, namely, that such individuals have significantly lower rates of employment, post-secondary education opportunities, and are less likely to live outside the family home. Rather than focus on the problems associated with transition, my research examines the opportunity for dignity,” says Sarah.

Sarah’s research titled, “Transition with Dignity: From Special School to Community Life Understood in Partnership with Individuals with Significant Disabilities”, addresses how students with significant disability perceive their transition into community life. This includes looking into the role they get to play in deciding what path to take after leaving school.

“I explored the concept of transition and wanted to spin the notion of doing research through a teacher’s perspective on its head and conduct it from the students’ perspective,” says Sarah.

In order to authentically capture the students’ perspectives and experiences on their transition from school to the community, Sarah opted for an ethnographic methodology. For six months, Sarah followed three young men leaving their segregated special schools and looking to find their places as adults in New Zealand society.

Through this methodology, Sarah worked in partnership with the men and their informants (parents, teachers, and transition providers) in order to make sense of the transition process. Most important in Sarah’s data gathering was that the young men’s voices were privileged above all others.

“This may sound like a simple idea but it was actually very challenging because all the young men were on the autism spectrum and to varying degrees impacted by cognitive impairments.

“Between them they had non-verbal and repetitive communication styles, vision impairment, illiteracy, and severe behaviours. Yet in keeping flexible to communication preferences each young man demonstrated significant capabilities.”

After Sarah finished her six-month observations and collated the data, a few things became clear. While the three men’s transition experiences varied, she found that many post-school options were not suggested or trialled with some of the students due to preconceived ideas from their parents or transition coordinators about whether it would be right for the young men or not. Many decisions were made for the students without their consultation or limited options were given to them.

For example, one young man was only shown the one disability-specific, pre-employment tertiary training programme he enrolled in. There was a concern expressed by his transition provider that further exploration might eventuate in him taking the place of someone more likely to need another option. Therefore the decision was made for him not based on what he desired but on logistics.

The most common alternative option was services provided through adult-care centres, which was the option the other two young men were shown. In all cases, selection from disability-specific and often limited post-school options could only be considered dignified if other socially integrated post-school options were equally viable and explored; however, they were not and the men were given limited choice or no choice at all.

Sarah hopes that her research will shine light on student perceptions of transition and the need to include the students’ opinions more in the decision-making process.

“While individual transition experiences varied, insufficient trialling of post-school options hindered the young men’s sense of belonging in post-school life. This issue was exacerbated by the lack of collaboration between those who planned transition to the extent that teachers and the students themselves were excluded,” Sarah quotes from her research.

“Overall, transition should be understood as more than a school-based procedure, but as a matter of social justice, by amplifying the voice of a historically marginalized group in their pursuit to become engaged members of society,” says Sarah.

Sarah Hart is an Assistant Professor at University of Hartford, Connecticut USA. In 2017 she graduated with a PhD from the University of Auckland, Faculty of Education and Social Work. Recently her paper, “Possibilities for a Transition with Dignity: Silos and Trialling in Aotearoa New Zealand,” was selected through a blind-review process to receive the 2018 Council for Exceptional Children, Division for Research, Student Research Award in the area of Qualitative Design. She is the first PhD student outside the USA to receive this award.


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