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The importance of looking across the life course

In this video, Eric Emerson and Iva Strnadova explain why it's important to understand how disability works across the life course.
MAN: Future learn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. [THEME MUSIC] Why is the life course important?
ERIC EMERSON: I think one of the things which research in disability, disability studies, is increasingly focused on is trying to understand how disability plays itself out across the life course. And this is, I think, particularly important for people with very long-term disabilities. Particularly people with, say, intellectual disability, who– which essentially is an impairment which arises in childhood. And for me, one of the reasons why, certainly in our work, we’re now increasingly focusing on the– on the experiences of children with disabilities relates to the– our increasing understanding of what determines health and well-being of people.
And there’s been a vast amount of research which has been undertaken over the past century or two, but much more recently over the past decade or two, about what drives the inequalities in health and well-being that we see between different groups in society, over time, between countries, between regions around the world.
One of the key messages which has come out of that research is that the early years really, really matters in terms of laying down the foundations for future health and well-being And I think it’s probably kind of that understanding of the kind of fundamental importance of childhood experiences, including prenatal experiences, which has certainly influenced the way we had been thinking about how can we begin to address the differences in health and well-being experienced by people with disabilities. And we really need to look at what childhood experiences are like for people growing up with disability. And when you do look at that, then the picture is pretty bleak to be honest.
Disabled children are much more likely to grow up in poverty than other kids. Disabled children are much more likely to be exposed to violence than other kids. Disabled children are much more likely be discriminated against and bullied and victimised by their peers than other kids. And these are not– don’t just have an impact on their happiness, their health, and well- being at that time, but they lay the foundations for future health.
IVA STRNADOVA: When I think about people with disability, I really find it very useful to think about their lives and their experiences over their whole life span. Because that does allow us to bridge their past experiences, their current situation, but also their future aspirations. I think we all go through many different transitions in life. And these can be related sometimes to a certain life stage. So moving from school to post-school life is a very typical one. Or from working life to retirement. Another way to look at transitions is, of course, more related to the status, such as getting married or having children. These are definitely very important transitions in life of anyone.
And I wouldn’t pick up any particular transition as the most important. I truly believe that all of them are very important. And that sometimes we all need support to manage well and to transition well to the next stage of our life. Bronfenbrenner developed a very useful framework– ecological framework for human development, within which he situates in the middle of the attention the person, himself or herself. And then he talks about the nested systems that all have impact on the life of a person and their experiences. There are a number of these systems, and I won’t go through all of them. But one of these systems is also what he calls chronosystem.
And in this system, we really take into considerations all the life events that happened in the life of a particular person, and how these events shape their current position and their future aspirations or wishes for future. Another particularly useful aspect of Bronfenbrenner’s model for me is the focus on the mesosystems. So it’s really the interaction between the individual microsystems in which the person exists. So if I would take a small child in consideration, one of the microsystems would be the family. Another microsystem will be the school. And of course, we can think about other microsystems. And it’s not just these microsystems where the child exists, but it’s the interaction between these systems.
So from this perspective, it’s really important how school and family communicate, when we think about transitioning a student from primary level to secondary level, for example. Or taking it to adult’s perspective, it’s really important what is the communication between the person himself, the family members, the employer– potential employer, and how these work together to accommodate for the best outcome of the transition. One of the really important aspects that the research shows us is the importance of transition planning. So being really proactive. Not starting to support person and giving the person skills to be able to manage the transition very well just at the moment when the transition is happening. We know from research that this is far too late.
So it really needs to start on time. You need to have various stakeholders involved. And very importantly, you need to have the person involved him or herself. And that is one of the most, I would say, alarming things that is coming up from my research. It doesn’t matter if we are looking at the school age or somebody who is an adult, that it is often the person with disability who is left out from any transition planning. And yet we are planning for their future, for their future life.

In this video, Eric Emerson and Iva Strnadová explain why the life course is important, particularly for people with disabilities.

Without including the whole life span, disability studies misses out on how different times, places and relationships impact on people with different impairments. In the video, Eric stresses how experiences in childhood are critical for laying foundations for future health and well-being. Iva extends these ideas, saying that a life span approach not only bridges one’s present with one’s past, but also aids in planning for their future. In her work, she has discovered how important it is for people with disabilities to have support through their different life transitions, and to be included in the planning of these transitions.

In our interview with Gwynnyth Llewellyn, she described some examples of how disability can intersect with life course. This audio clip and transcript are provided in the downloads below.

Talking points

  • Eric connects certain circumstances in childhood — namely poverty and exposure to violence and bullying — to poorer health and wellbeing in adulthood. Can you think of any other ways in which the circumstances of people with disabilities might be influenced across different phases of the life course?
  • What does a life course approach mean when thinking about how we might enable a good live for people with disabilities?

Mark Preistley was one of the first academics to emphasise the importance of applying a life course approach to disability. He argued that disability studies needed to expand its focus out from the concerns of adults of working age and look more closely at children, adolescence and those who are ageing.

Extend your knowledge — We look more closely at Mark Preistley’s justification for a life course approach in Step 4.12: The making of an adult.

Next, we will focus in on several stages of the life course and explore — together with our life story participants — how these stages intersect with disability.

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Disability and a Good Life: Thinking through Disability

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