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The education and employment of disabled young people

An analysis of the extent to which disabled young people achieve their aspirations for work and education.

Written by:
Tania Burchardt
Date published:

Improving education attainment and raising employment rates among disadvantaged groups are key targets for the current government. This report shows that for one important group – disabled young people – these goals are far from being achieved.

The study provides new evidence that today’s disabled young people share the aspirations of their non-disabled peers for education, work and independent living. But many are frustrated in achieving their ambitions.

Analysing nationally representative data, the report shows that:

  • parental background is more important than disability status in shaping young people's aspirations;
  • despite high aspiration, educational and employment outcomes are significantly worse for disabled young people;
  • the gap between disabled and non-disabled young people's experiences widens as they get older.


Developing positive aspirations is a key factor in securing good educational and occupational outcomes, and an important component of autonomy. This study, by Tania Burchardt of the London School of Economics, compared the aspirations of young disabled and non-disabled people, and examined the extent to which those aspirations were achieved. It found that:

  • The scope and level of aspirations among disabled 16-year-olds were similar to those of their non-disabled counterparts. Three-fifths of each group wanted to stay on in education; between one-quarter and one-third were aiming for a professional qualification.
  • Disabled and non-disabled 16-year-olds expected the same level of earnings from a full-time job.
  • Despite these similar aspirations, the experience of disabled and non-disabled young people diverged sharply in early adulthood. Three-fifths of non-disabled young people reported that they got the education or training place or job they wanted after finishing compulsory education, whereas just over half of disabled youngsters said the same.
  • At the age of 18/19, the highest qualification of 48 per cent of disabled young people was at the equivalent of NVQ level 1 or below (GCSE grades D-G or below), including those with no qualifications, compared with 28 per cent of non-disabled young people.
  • At age 26, disabled people were nearly four times as likely to be unemployed or involuntarily out of work than non-disabled people. Among those who were in employment, earnings were 11 per cent lower than for their non-disabled counterparts with the same level of educational qualifications.
  • At age 26, the occupational outcomes of 39 per cent of disabled people were below the level to which they had aspired ten years previously, compared with 28 per cent of non-disabled people.
  • The impact of young disabled people's frustrated ambition was apparent in the widening gap between disabled and non-disabled young people as they moved into their twenties, in terms of confidence, subjective well-being and belief in their ability to shape their own future.


Disabled young people have not always been encouraged to see themselves as having a valuable role in adult society. Previous research on a sample of young people born in 1958 reported that the proportion of disabled youngsters aspiring to semi-skilled and unskilled jobs was six times that of non-disabled youngsters with those aspirations (A Walker, 1982, Unqualified and underemployed: handicapped young people and the labour market, Macmillan).

This study asked whether the gap between disabled and non-disabled young people's aspirations, and the even larger gap in their subsequent attainment, has persisted for those born more recently. The research analysed data from cohort studies of children born in 1970 and in the early 1980s.


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