The stark inequalities of social mobility of disabled young adults in England

Childhood disability has been conspicuously absent from longstanding social mobility and intergenerational inequality debates. This is partly due to the persistence of medical interpretations of disability, which disregard the negative impact of societal barriers in the lives of disabled children and young people. Instead, it wholly attributes disadvantage to individual conditions and impairments.

Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, our research project recently provided new evidence surrounding the social mobility patterns of disabled young people in England. Social mobility analyses compare the social position of an individual to that of their parents, providing an insight into how ‘open’ or ‘fair’ a society is.

School-to-work transitions indicate patterns of disadvantage that may last across a lifetime, so we examined differences in the social origins and destinations of disabled and non-disabled young people in early adulthood. Our main research findings highlight stark, overlooked inequalities between disabled and non-disabled young people. We also discuss here the importance of further research to help us better understand and address the formation of these inequalities.

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Analysing Next Steps data

Previous research has demonstrated that disabled children and young people are more likely to lag behind non-disabled peers in educational, occupational, and social outcomes. However, there is a dearth of large-scale datasets that can be used to monitor disability-related inequalities and inform evidence-based policies in England. Our research analysed Next Steps, one of the few social surveys that can be used to shed light on the adulthood trajectories of disabled young people in contemporary England. Next Steps is a nationally representative longitudinal study of young people from English secondary schools who were born in 1989-1990 and were interviewed annually from age 13/14 to age 19/20, and at age 25.

We compared the social origins and social destinations of disabled and non-disabled young people. The ‘disabled’ category included young people whose parents/guardians reported a long-standing limiting illness and/or condition, or a special educational need/learning difficulty at the age of 13/14. We recognise that this is a very diverse population and that different conditions and learning needs may be subject to different societal barriers. Unfortunately, we cannot provide more fine-grained analyses by type of disability due to data limitations.

“Social origins” refers to the social class of disabled young people’s parents/guardians at age 13/14. ‘Low’ social class refers to those parents in routine, semi-routine, and lower supervisory occupations (e.g., cleaners, mechanics). ‘Middle’ social class refers to those in intermediate occupations (e.g., school secretaries, travel agents). ‘High’ social class refers to those in higher managerial, professional, and administrative occupations (e.g., doctors, solicitors). The same categories are examined for social destinations, with the addition of a ‘not in employment category’ which refers to young people who were unemployed, in education, sick or disabled, or looking after family at age 25.

Over a third of disabled young people not in paid work at 25

The graph below demonstrates the main results of our analyses. Flow lines represent movements of individuals, from social class origins at age 13/14 to social class destinations at age 25. Percentages show the proportion of people in each respective flow – this is also depicted in the thickness of each flow line.

a flow chart showing that disabled young adults suffer social mobility inequalities

As you can see, there are stark inequalities in socio-economic attainment of disabled and non-disabled young people: Approximately 35% of disabled young people are not in paid employment at age 25, as opposed to 18% of non-disabled young people. For disabled young people, this risk varies substantially by parental social origins: 21% of those from a low social class background are not in paid employment at age 25 as opposed to only 8% and 6% among those from high and middle social class backgrounds.

Non-disabled young people are also twice as likely to experience upward social mobility compared to their disabled counterparts (22% and 13% respectively). Disabled young people, meanwhile, are more likely to experience downward mobility, and are less likely to remain in the same socio-economic position that their parents occupied when they were aged 13/14.

“Approximately 35% of disabled young people are not in paid employment at age 25, as opposed to 18% of non-disabled young people. For disabled young people, this risk varies substantially by parental social origins: 21% of those from a low social class background are not in paid employment at age 25 as opposed to only 8% and 6% among those from high and middle social class backgrounds.”

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What explains these stark inequalities?

Official figures show that disabled young people lag behind in educational attainment. To a certain extent, the patterns underlined in our study constitute the aftermath of earlier educational inequalities previously documented in several studies, including insufficient learning provisions and discrimination in the school system and classroom.

These inequalities are more prevalent among disabled young people from low social class backgrounds who are consequently more likely to fare worse in school. But this is only part of the story. More research is needed into other factors affecting disabled young people’s school-to-work transitions. Discrimination in hiring processes and lack of reasonable adjustments in the workplace are two areas of research that can provide insights onto other negative influences on the occupational attainment of disabled young people.

It is vital for better data on childhood disability to become available to researchers. Data improvements will allow us to determine whether children and young people with different types of disabilities experience similar societal barriers. This is a key question for social policies aiming to alleviate disability-related inequalities. At the same time, it is crucial for the voices of disabled young people to become more visible in research, to gain a comprehensive picture of the processes leading to occupational disadvantage and/or exclusion in early adulthood.


This blog post draws on the open access research note Childhood Disability, Social Class, and Social Mobility: A Neglected Relationship by Stella Chatzitheochari, Sanne Velthuis, and Roxanne Connelly, published at the British Journal of Sociology. A policy briefing can be downloaded here

More information on the Educational Pathways and Work Outcomes of Disabled Young People in England project can be found here

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Stella Chatzitheochari, University of Warwick
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