‘Disabilities’ refers to a broad range of circumstances in which someone has any limitation, restriction or impairment, which has lasted, or is likely to last, for at least six months and restricts everyday activities. The occurrence of disabilities in young people is high with almost 10% of young people experiencing a disability.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states ‘that a mentally or physically disabled child should enjoy a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child’s active participation in the community.’[1] Disability can create serious financial hardship, exclude people from activities and can impact on the overall wellbeing of young people and their families. The overall disability rate among young people aged 15 – 24 years is about nine percent.[2]

Working with young people with a disability is sometimes seen as separate to youth work. While it’s true disability work can require specialised skills and abilities, it is everyone’s responsibility to work to eliminate the social and structural barriers that prevent young people with disabilities from reaching their full potential and accessing the same life opportunities as their peers.

Young people with disabilities face significant barriers to accessing services, programs and opportunities available for other young people without disabilities. This can occur for a range of reasons that may include inadequate or inappropriate buildings and infrastructure, financial cost, discrimination or a general lack of support and belief in young people with disabilities.

[1] United Nations Children’s Fund (Nov 2007) Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 23.

[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics. 1998 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers.

Some Tips For Working With Young People With A Disability

The following tips and principles provide some first steps to assist making practice and service more accessible and friendly to young people with a disability.

  • Young people with disabilities want to be treated the same way everyone else is treated. Remember, a person is a person first. The disability comes second.
  • Don’t be patronising. Show the young person the same respect that you expect to receive from others.
  • Remember young people with a disability have the same needs as other young people.
  • If you feel a young person with a disability needs assistance, ask them. Don’t automatically give help unless the person has asked for it or clearly needs it.
  • If a young person with a disability wants assistance, ask them what they want you to do. Be considerate and patient if the young person requires more time to communicate, to walk, or to do various tasks.
  • There is no such thing as the typical young person with a disability. Though two young people may have the same disability, they may not do their day-to-day activities in the same way or require the same equipment or assistance.
  • Communicate with the young person. Remember some young people with disabilities may have a companion with them. It’s important to always look and speak to the young person with a disability directly rather than to their companion.
  • Speak clearly and in a natural manner. Don’t assume the young person has additional disabilities (e.g. don’t shout) and don’t assume they cannot comprehend because of any outward physical appearance. If you do not understand what the young person is saying, bring it to their attention and ask how the two of you can communicate better. Consider writing as an alternative means of communication. If you and the person cannot find a successful way to communicate, consider asking if there is someone who can help interpret what he/she is saying.
  • Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself to know and to do everything “right.” Be patient with yourself in learning the specific needs of each young person. Do not be embarrassed if you find yourself doing or saying the wrong thing. Remember, the young person with a disability is usually aware of, and sensitive to, your discomfort and good intentions.
  • Respect the young person’s privacy. Don’t ask questions that would be inappropriate or unreasonable to ask any person (eg. their medical condition or private life).
  • If it is a stressful situation, try to stay calm. If you are in a public place with many distractions, consider moving to a quieter location.
  • Be flexible – adapt procedures to the young person, not the young person to the procedures.
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