Transition with dignity: connecting individuals with significant disabilities with their exit from school in aotearoa new zealand

Hart, Sarah Mertz (2019). 'Transition with Dignity: Connecting individuals with significant disabilities with their exit from school in Aotearoa New Zealand' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


While many young adults look forward to leaving school with a sense of both excitement and apprehension, individuals with significant disabilities approach this critical life stage far more passively. Within this process commonly referred to as transition, students receiving special education services typically age out of school rather than exit through completion of achievement milestones (Osgood, Foster, Flanagan, & Ruth, 2005). Student priorities are often dominated by those who support transition planning and processes (e.g., teachers, parents, community support agencies). In sum, students with significant disabilities have been positioned as “eternal children,” (Björnsdóttir, & Traustadóttir, 2010, p. 52), eventuating in disconnection from their own transitions as well as research on the topic (Hetherington, Durant-Jones, Johnson, Nolan, Smith, Taylor-Brown, & Tuttle, 2010).  

In Aotearoa New Zealand (indigenous Maori terms used), where this study took place, disability is understood from a social positioning. “Disability is not something individuals have. What individuals have, are impairments. They may be physical, sensory, neurological, psychiatric, intellectual or other impairments… Disability is the process which happens when one group of people creates barriers by designing a world only for their way of living, taking no account of the impairments other people have” (New Zealand Disability Strategy, 2001, p. 3). By this definition, all voices must be heard to counter separation and difference towards a transition that promotes a productive life, fully engaged in an integrated society.

This study leveraged the transition experiences of 3 young men to connect research, policy, and practice (core area 6 of the HDCA call for proposals). Transition is examined through the theoretical lens of the capability approach (Nussbaum, 2006). The young men’s quotidian transitions and personal insights were foregrounded.


A 6-month ethnography was conducted tracking the liminal progression from in-school to post-school through the experiences of 3 young men. The initial research setting was urban special schools, schools that operate as contentious outliers within an otherwise entirely inclusive education system. Since Aotearoa New Zealand does not require a disability label to receive services, special schools ensured access to the target population of individuals with significant disabilities.

Thirteen interviews using 7 adapted formats were a cornerstone feature of the study expressed through photographs, artwork, and exchange of idiosyncratic artifacts symbolic of the transition process. Further context was provided through: (a) 1-3 hours per week of participant observation totaling 03 hours between in-school (e.g., classroom, graduation, and work experience) and post-school (e.g., community day programs, post-secondary education) settings; (b) corresponding field notes (46 in total) recorded immediately following participant observation; (c) Semi-structured interviews (n=17) with informants classified by the researcher as having high influence upon transition decisions; artifacts (n=226), including photographs, video, and documents collected in-school (e.g., school reports, behavior management plans) and in post-school (e.g., funding applications, transition portfolios).

The priority in analysis was to maintain the naturalistic whole of the young men’s realities. Thematic analysis guided the process of pinpointing, examining, and recording patterns or themes (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Inductive analysis was open, searching for emergent themes. Deductive analysis was framed by capability. Reflexively the researcher noticed, recorded, and named each young man’s capabilities (Brantlinger, 1997). Each capability was then reviewed for the way it did or did not impact personal transition, and for potential contributions to academic and activist communities. All data collection measures were recorded in an audit trail, documenting the chronology and the amount of time spent at each stage of fieldwork.


 In this paper, personal priorities of Haku, Faine, and Cobain (pseudonyms) are described through a metaphor (Lakoff, Johnson, 1980) assigned by the researcher to ground transition in theoretical notions of capability. In transition, Haku learned how to use public transportation to access his post-school polytechnic program for students with disabilities to learn pre-employment skills. Taxis, which he used in-school, similarly enabled his access to a destination. A metaphor of a transportation map demonstrated Haku’s expanded opportunities when he used public transportation for leisure upon his own initiative.

Faine’s large whanau, Maori term for an extended family with close-knit ties, felt Faine should be sheltered from, rather than engaged in, community. A “dynamo” artwork created by Faine metaphorically represented his burgeoning social nature and the interpersonal connections he made to peers in special school. In transition, his social priorities (affiliation capability) were exchanged for his safety (bodily integrity capability) when his whanau opted for a day-service post-school program where many who attended were older than Faine with limited communication abilities.

In special school, the doors that led outside were locked. Yet, in post-school community spaces, doors were unlocked. Cobain physically demonstrated his understanding of this subtle distinction and embodied his metaphor of (un)locked doors. Within the individualized, community-based, post-school activities his transition team established, their adapted preferences were to return Cobain to security behind locked doors.

In each case, the young men’s personal abilities and preferences were clear, but the willingness to hear or action those preferences varied. Seen through a lens of capability, individual post-school outcomes overshadowed preceding opportunities for the young men to plan and contribute to activities of his personal interest and priority. These experiences demonstrate that while transition is a literal exit from school, a transition with dignity prioritizes active engagement and participation throughout the process.

Significance & Impact

This study accesses valuable yet often marginalized viewpoints to contribute to Aotearoa New Zealand’s enhancement of diverse society through transition. Thriving in post-school life means the opportunity for practical reason to “engage in critical reflection about the planning of one’s life” (Nussbaum, 2000, p.78). On a personal level, a transition with dignity is having personal priorities heard and amplified. More broadly, including and valuing these diverse perspectives extends conceptions of civil society for all.

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