Loneliness and social isolation feature in national evaluations of wellbeing in the UK and are gaining increased policy attention. Researchers and policy makers are keen to understand the factors that make people more at risk of social isolation, and how these are, or are not, changing over time.
While disability has been linked to greater risks of social isolation, when looking at them contemporaneously, it is not easy to disentangle cause and effect. That is, disability may limit people’s social lives, but there is also plentiful evidence, particularly for older adults, that those without social contact face greater physical and mental health risks. In addition, those who are disabled tend to be more socio-economically disadvantaged – and socio-economic disadvantage is also linked to greater risks of social isolation.
We therefore investigated the adult social outcomes of those whose special educational needs and disability had been identified in childhood. This meant it was clear that those adult outcomes could not be causing the disability. We also controlled for family background and educational attainment, since these affect socioeconomic outcomes and differ between disabled and non-disabled children. We did this for three different age cohorts:
- Those born in 1958, looking at their social worlds when they were 50 (the NCDS)
- Those born in 1989-90, looking at their social relationships and activities at age 25 (Next Steps)
- Those born in 2000/2002, for whom we have information on their social relationships when they are still teenagers – age 14 (The Millennium Cohort Study – MCS)
We looked at four broad areas of social life that have implications for wellbeing. What we investigated was dependent on what was collected in the data and what measures were relevant to people’s lives at the different ages:
- family and relationships (NCDS and Next Steps);
- friendships and trust in others (all three cohorts);
- activities and going out (NCDS and Next Steps);
- bullying and victimisation (Next Steps and MCS).
The NCDS has a slightly different measure of childhood special needs, so we distinguished between severe disability (all cohorts) and a broader measure of disability in Next Steps and MCS, comparing with those who had no childhood special needs / disability.
As Figures 1–3 show, people with childhood special needs / disability were substantially and significantly more likely to encounter negative social experiences than their non-disabled peers. This was particularly marked for the 50-year-olds (Figure 1), but was also clear for the 25-year-olds (Figure 2) and the 14-year-olds (Figure 3). All three figures draw attention to the relative lack of supportive friendships. Figures 1 and 2 also show how what many assume are typical parts of growing up such as leaving home and having intimate relationships are deferred, potentially indefinitely for those disabled in childhood. Figure 3 highlights the heightened risks of self-harm, at a time when youth self-harm is increasing.
Figure 1: Family, friendships & social life at age 50
Figure 2: Friends and relationships at age 25
Figure 3: Friends, trust and bullying
Successive governments have agreed that those with disabilities and additional needs are a constituency deserving of a better, fairer deal out of life. Most research has so far been concentrated on their economic – work and employment outcomes. Our research shows how crucial aspects of fully lived lives are more limited or missing for those with disabilities. And while evidence about progress towards better work and employment in outcomes of disabled people is somewhat mixed, we show that these negative social outcomes are not confined to older generations. Our study indicates that greater attention needs to be paid to understanding the pathways through which these negative social consequences of childhood disability arise in order to find ways to address them. This is necessary if those with a disability have an equal chance to fulfil their potential and experience the levels of wellbeing that many of us take for granted.
The full paper on which this blog is based can be found here.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.