Skip to 0 minutes and 2 secondsMAN: FutureLearn [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia.

Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsIntroduction to Week 4.

Skip to 0 minutes and 12 secondsLOUISA SMITH: So obviously, all of us go through different stages and phases of life. And we've divided those stages into childhood, adolescence, midlife, and ageing. We could have chosen very different divisions

Skip to 0 minutes and 27 secondsKELLEY JOHNSON: Yeah, so although the stages we've chosen have also been identified by theorists in Western society as the stages of a life course, it is also true that they only fit some particular countries and societies at particular times. So in some countries, childhood is very short, and you move straight into adulthood. In fact in Western societies even, adolescence-- which is now so important to us-- was not really known until the mid-20th century, not identified as a separate stage. It's also true that in some societies, getting older might also be a very short stage of your life.

Skip to 1 minute and 11 secondsLOUISA SMITH: So why is it important to look at these different stages and phases when we're talking about disability, and how can it be useful? Well, I think one thing is that it allows us not to define disability as this monolithic experience that we have, that's the same, no matter when we experience it or how. And so what looking at disability across the life course does is it shows us that disability and impairment are not static experiences.

Skip to 1 minute and 40 secondsKELLEY JOHNSON: They change over time, and they're influenced a lot across phases. So let me give you an example from my own research. I was working with people with intellectual disability around sexuality. And one of the women I talked to over a considerable period of time was Claire, who's a very feisty woman in her 40s. And she sat there one day and said to me, when I was a little kid, I was watching my mum iron. And I said to her, Mum, what I really want when I grow up is to get married and have kids. And Mum looked at me, and she said, over my dead body.

Skip to 2 minutes and 22 secondsNow for Claire, in that one statement, was both a rejection of who she was as a child and a sort of prediction of what she was going to be as an adult. And in fact, as an adult, her mother insisted that she be sterilised, and Claire had a life where she did manage sexual expression but had not achieved that kind of goal that she was still holding to in her 40s.

Skip to 2 minutes and 53 secondsLOUISA SMITH: So from that story, I think we see the significance of how important it is to understand somebody's life course, no matter where they are in their lives. But also how different life phases and different transitions into different life phases can have really significant impact on the next phase and the next part of our lives.

Welcome to Week 4

In recent times, a life course perspective has become an important way of understanding social life.

Glen Elder began his influential work on the life course perspective in the 1960s, when he examined information collected over a twenty-year period about a group of people who were children during the Great Depression. It perhaps comes as no surprise that Elder found the Great Depression had a huge and ongoing impact on the lives of these children as they grew into adulthood. Elder noted that these people’s life stories showed how many of them overcame disadvantage, despite the adversity they experienced growing up.

Elder argued that psychological theories of development needed to pay greater attention to the historical and social forces at play in an individual’s life and family. He has continued to develop his theories of the life course perspective, stressing the importance of understanding people across their life span. His work suggests that an individual’s life course is shaped by:

  • Historical time and place. For example, a person with a disability born in rural Australia in the 1950s will have very different experiences from a baby born with an impairment in Sydney in 2016 — in terms of access to early childhood education, the opportunity to remain living with his or her family, employment, experiences of discrimination, etc.
  • Major changes and transitions in a person’s life. For example, a woman with a disability growing up in the 1950s was very likely to have been sterilised so she was unable to have a child, as the prevailing attitude at that time was that a person with a disability could not bring up a child. Sterilisation, often against the person’s wishes, denied the woman the opportunity that many would see as an adult rite of passage: having a child of her own.
  • Significant relationships. For example, the relationships that we all have in our lives influence who we are and the experiences we have. Opportunities to interact with a broad range of family and friends enriches our lives. Some relationships, however, may negatively impact on our view of ourselves or the opportunities we have. So too for people with disability who, particularly in later life after parents have passed away, may predominately have relationships with people who are paid to be in their lives.
  • Choice and control. For example, people who have experienced similar histories and social circumstances make different choices within the opportunities and constraints of their past and present circumstances.

Talking points

  • Do Elder’s theories about the life course make sense to you?

  • Can you imagine how some of the concepts which Elder explores in his life course perspective might be important to understanding disabling experiences and/or impairment?

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This video is from the free online course:

Disability and a Good Life: Thinking through Disability

UNSW Sydney

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