Research Article: A literature review on work transitioning of youth with disabilities into competitive employment

Date Published: August 29, 2017

Publisher: AOSIS

Author(s): Madri Engelbrecht, Lynn Shaw, Lana van Niekerk.


The marginalisation of youth with disabilities from employment opportunities is evident from literature in as far as they form part of the larger groups ‘people with disabilities’ and ‘youth’. A focused view of programmes that assist youth with disabilities into employment has not been presented, despite the worldwide crisis of youth unemployment.

This review aimed to identify evidence on work transition programmes that are effective in assisting people with disabilities into open labour market (competitive) employment, as well as to highlight gaps in knowledge to inform future research on this topic.

Literature and policy on programmes that support such transitions were considered, firstly from a global perspective and then with a view from developing countries. The SALSA (Search, Appraisal, Synthesis and Analysis) framework was used to source and analyse information from a diverse set of documents. Various online databases were searched for research papers published between 1990 and 2016, and websites were searched for reports pertaining to this topic.

Ninety-nine documents were selected to inform the review, out of an identified 259 scientific journal articles, policy documents, acts, organisational reports and book chapters.

A synthesis of findings was presented in a narrative that reflects the themes of youth with disabilities and employment in the world, work transition endeavours in the developing world and a specific focus on this group in South Africa. The review revealed a gap in knowledge and evidence pertaining to youth with disabilities and employment, highlighting these as research foci, and emphasising the need for youth-focused research that generates knowledge about disability and transitions into the labour force.

Partial Text

Across the world, youth have been identified as a vulnerable group who experiences low levels of employment. In 2014, 75 million out of the 200 million unemployed people worldwide were youth (International Labour Organisation [ILO] 2014). Youth development has also become a critical priority for South Africa. Here, youth is defined as people between the ages of 14 and 35, with the upper age limit so high because of historical imbalances that were created by the apartheid regime (National Youth Development Agency 2015). This age group comprises a disturbing 71% of the unemployed population (Statistics South Africa 2012) and is among the worst affected by the 2008/2009 recession (Department of Labour 2012).

The first author of this paper conducted a review of programmes that support the transition of youth with disabilities into competitive employment. Her objective was to identify evidence about programmes that are effective and knowledge gaps about youth with disabilities in relation to employment, which could inform future research directions in this field. A further aim was to develop an understanding about local and international disability discourses that might inform increased labour participation opportunities for youth with disabilities. The primary research question that led the review was ‘What knowledge and evidence contribute to the successful transition of youth with disabilities into employment from international and local (South African) perspectives or literature?’ Given the need to first focus broadly and then to examine literature and evidence from a local perspective, a systematic approach to an integrative review process was followed (Whittemore & Knafl 2005), by applying the SALSA (Search, Appraisal, Synthesis and Analysis) framework (Grant & Booth 2009). This framework supports flexibility and unique processes rather than adopting a specific literature review type. It was used to conduct an organised review by sourcing and analysing information on the complex and challenging social issue of youth with disabilities and transitions into competitive employment.

Youth with disabilities’ marginal position in terms of employment has been recognised and described by researchers (Groce 2004; Lindsay, Hartman & Fellin 2015). Youth with disabilities are often unemployed, under-employed or earn less than their non-disabled counterparts (Groce 2004). They are often the last to be hired and the first to be retrenched or fired, or hired for jobs that require little training and have few opportunities for development. Even when they are well educated, youth with disabilities take longer to find a position, have less job security and less prospect of advancement than their non-disabled peers with similar levels of education (Groce 2004). These disadvantages are compounded, with fewer youth with disabilities working or looking for work than non-disabled youth (Lindsay, Hartman & Fellin 2015).

Several studies describe the characteristics of programmes that are needed to transition people with disabilities into employment. Robinson (2000) and Smits (2004) identified collaboration and communication between agencies, having employment for people with disabilities as a shared priority, and service providers, public awareness and involved employers as central factors in employment inclusion. Smits, who researched best practice in disability employment in the USA, further found that positive employment outcomes were facilitated at service sites when services were integrated and coordinated with common, customer-driven objectives, and traditional bureaucratic barriers were avoided. At community level, the co-location of staff at employment service centres, and cross-training staff about each other’s roles, builds trust among providers and promotes collaboration. Accessibility and state-of-the-art assistive technology further maximises the value of services provided. Smits further emphasised the availability of multi-agency expertise to consumers, with shared accountability reinforcing the provision of high quality shared services (2004). Another study focused on assisting people with mental illness into employment, found that liaison positions and collaborative teams, staff training on mental health and workforce issues, and multi-level involvement of people with disabilities enhance successful work transitions (Boeltzig, Timmons & Marrone 2008).

Research from the Global South has commented on the very limited success of micro-financing as an employment strategy for people with disabilities. Lewis (2004) researched self-employment of women with disabilities in Zambia and Zimbabwe, when they made use of micro-financing. She concluded that key strategies still need to be put in place to include women with disabilities in finance, in order for micro-financing to be a viable transition strategy. De Klerk (2008) also found that this strategy is restricted for people with disabilities in other African countries, India and the Middle East, because of stigmatisation and self-exclusion. People with disabilities also do not have prior business experience, and micro-financers are often absent in rural areas (De Klerk 2008). Nuwagaba and Rule (2016) highlighted that people with disabilities in Uganda cannot access learning about micro-finance.

Programmes in the public domain in South Africa continue to come up short on positive employment outcomes for youth with disabilities, confirming that there is a lack of policy implementation. South Africa signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities in 2007, pledging to protect the right of people with disabilities to work on an equal basis with others, including the opportunity to gain a living by work that is freely chosen or accepted in a labour market that is open, inclusive and accessible (United Nations 2016). The National Planning Commission also specifically recognises the need for better reflection of people with disabilities in all levels of employment by 2030 (National Planning Commission 2012). Despite having this policy environment that is supportive of youth, South African youth with disabilities navigate poor health and social attitudes in their quest to become employed in addition to lack of skills and availability of jobs (Cramm et al. 2013).

Although a number of initiatives exist under the Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003, and the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act of 2000, the scope of this review excludes self-employment and industry ownership initiatives facilitated by these Acts. A separate and growing body of knowledge exists about entrepreneurship as a strategy for people with disabilities to become economically active.

Because of the lack of enforcement of disability supportive laws and failure to implement related policies, youth with disabilities remain marginalised and excluded from a job market that is saturated with an over-supply of unskilled workers. Although South Africa’s policy environment supports the right of youth with disabilities to work and highlights access to employment for this group as a priority, youth with disabilities continue to lose out on employment against other designated groups defined by the law.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.