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Ross MacMillan

U professor Ross Macmillan is working with graduate student Gina Allen on a project that is considering what adulthood means to people with physical and mental disabilities.

Growing up with disability

U student and professor focus on disability in a joint research project.

June 5, 2007

Making the transitions from adolescence to adulthood is never easy--but for young people with disabilities, it can be especially daunting. That's something Gina Allen, a University of Minnesota graduate student in sociology, observed years ago when she and her next-door neighbor and classmate--who had physical and mental disabilities--both graduated from high school.

"I realized our lives would go in different directions," recalls Allen. "I thought a lot about what becoming an adult means to a handicapped person."

When Allen met Ross Macmillan, an associate professor at the U who has studied the transition to adulthood for 15 years, it occurred to her that her personal curiosity might make for a compelling research project. Macmillan immediately took to the idea. They applied for and received a grant--and set out to learn more about this understudied group of people.

Easing into adulthood

By some estimates, nearly 10 percent of the world's population has some sort of physical or mental disability. Yet disability issues tend to fly under the radar. "It's a black box in terms of information," says Macmillan. "We don't know much about how their lives unfold."

To begin filling in the gaps, Macmillan and Allen spent the summer of 2005 sorting through existing data on the transitions to adulthood of several thousand disabled and nondisabled people, noting variations in how individuals dealt with traditional markers of adulthood such as living independently, taking on a full-time job, getting married, and having children.

They discovered that people with disabilities--whether they are physical, mental, or both--tend to move more slowly into adult roles than their nondisabled counterparts.

"Youth with disabilities tend to become increasingly different from their nondisabled peers as they age," says Allen. "In high school, everyone looks pretty much the same-they're not really working, they're not married, they don't have kids. But as they get older and leave highly structured institutions, people with disabilities start looking very different from their nondisabled peers."

Signs of improvement

Such findings may seem discouraging, especially in the wake of more than a decade of key disability legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But Macmillan believes the opposite might be true.

"[Our findings may indicate] that these laws are doing what they're supposed to do," he says. "In the teenage years and early twenties, people don't look all that different from one another, and that may be because a large number of them are still in universities and high schools, which are legally mandated to be supportive of people with disabilities. It's when you move out of those institutions that you start to see more variation."

Both Macmillan and Allen plan to pursue longer-term research on disabilities. "If we follow [individuals with disabilities] over time," says Macmillan, "we can find the points at which they tend to have trouble making transitions, and we can pinpoint what types of people are better able to make these transitions. It helps identify where to put resources."

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