The Road Ahead – Literature review

4. Choices at transition

The transition to adulthood involves making active choices about the future, as well as responding to a number of changes to individual and family life. These choices fall into two main areas:

Support to make choices at transition

Young people with learning difficulties and their families need support to consider choices and to make decisions about the future. As previously mentioned, visits to colleges, day services and employment options can help (Rowland-Crosby et al, 2003b). Work experience placements are also useful as a way of testing out whether an employment choice is the right one (Ward et al, 2003a).

Young people and families also need accurate, up-to-date and easy-to-understand information to help them make choices, alongside support from well-informed professionals (Heslop et al, 2002; Mitchell and Sloper, 2000). However, research shows that there is a lack of easily accessible information for parents and young people about what future possibilities might be (Ward et al, 2003c). Families say they want more information about choices: speakers from different agencies to talk to, resource packs for the young person and their family, examples of choices made by other students, and links with other parents who had already been through the process (Ward et al, 2003a).

The notion of 'choice' of provision can be very unclear to many young people with learning difficulties (Rowland-Crosby et al, 2003b). Various tools have been developed to support the decision making process, particularly at transition. A Canadian study of individualised transition planning for students with learning difficulties piloted three different planning tools for use with young people, families and professionals together. These were MAPS (Making Action Plans), 'Preparing for the future' materials and the American Association for Mental Retardation's adaptive skills areas framework. No one instrument was found to be all-encompassing or fully able to capture adequately all the planning requirements for facilitating a student's transition. But the MAPs process provided a unique guide to thinking and discussion about 'dreams' and 'fears' for the future (Goupil, et al, 2002). An English study examined whether Talking Mats, a light-technology augmentative framework, could be used successfully to consider choices about the future with young adults with a learning and communication impairment. The authors found that the 12 young people involved in the study were able to use Talking Mats to indicate their likes and dislikes, to express views about choices, and to express opinions not previously known to their families and carers. The mats allowed differences of opinion to be explored and were used as a vehicle for further, deeper discussion (Cameron and Murphy, 2002).

Morris (2002) reminds us that young disabled people who do not have parents to argue on their behalf or whose parents are not familiar with the system are often disadvantaged in accessing information and making choices at transition. She also points out that young disabled people from Black and minority ethnic communities are particularly disadvantaged at transition. Services know very little about their needs and views and they and their families find it especially difficult to get information about options and possibilities. Low expectations can also inhibit their choices (Morris, 2002).

The reality of available options and provision at transition

The literature on this topic highlights a clear consensus that there is a serious lack of options and provision for young people with learning difficulties as they move into adulthood. Young people with learning difficulties are not able to access the same range of opportunities as their non-disabled peers (O'Sullivan, 2001). Moreover, although the young disabled people in Rowland-Crosby et al's (2002) research were able to express their choices, these could not be realised as local provision did not match up. Ward et al (2003d) found that young people with learning difficulties did what was expected, or available, rather than what they really wanted.

Ward et al (2003c) also found that there were few post-school options available to young people particularly in relation to housing and employment. This lack of choice meant that whether or not young people had received transition planning made little difference to what happened to them after school (Ward et al, 2003d). Teacher and parental (sometimes low) expectations for young people's future choices may be more a reflection of lack of local provision than a real recognition of what young people want. The experience of young people with learning difficulties in the Scottish project (Edinburgh Youth Social Inclusion Partnership, 2001) found that they were often presented with a very narrow range of options such as 'special' extension or life-skills college courses. Teacher and parental expectations reflected this and funding structures supported the segregated college course option.

As Armstrong and Davies (1995) put it, the best laid plans have little chance of realisation if opportunities are not available. Thus the experience of transition to adulthood for young people with learning difficulties will differ across the UK and is likely to be strongly related to the structure and availability of provision and mechanisms for introducing more person-centred approaches. In theory, in England, the collection and synthesis of data about young people's progression choices by local Learning and Skills Councils (gleaned from the Section 140 assessment conducted by Connexions) is supposed to support the planning and development of a range of locally available opportunities and choices for young people, but in practice this is not happening (Rowland-Crosby et al, 2003a).

Key areas of information need for young people with learning difficulties and their families

There are lots of choices that young people with learning difficulties can make. Young people and families need information about all of these. Transition is not just about leaving school and going to college.