Young disabled Scots face ‘cliff edge’ leaving school

By Katie McEvinney
BBC Scotland news

Published
Media caption, 'I was told to face a future in day centres'

When Claire D'All was leaving high school she was advised against going to university. It was not because she wasn't capable or didn't have the grades but because the support systems were not in place to help her get there.

"A lot of people said I wouldn't manage university and that was kind of it. It wasn't looked into any more," says Claire.

The 26-year-old, from Dundee, has congenital muscular dystrophy and has been a wheelchair-user since she was three years old.

"They kept saying to me, 'Oh you'll have to go to day centres during the day because there's no-one to help you with what you need'."

Despite this, Claire did go to Dundee University and graduated with a degree in Applied Computing.

She now works as a blogger, YouTuber and for the accessibility website Euan's Guide.

Image caption, Claire graduated from Dundee University with a degree in Applied Computing

But, along with many other young disabled people, she felt like the support, and ambition, when transitioning from high school was not enough.

BBC Scotland's Disclosure programme has been investigating what happens to the thousands of pupils with additional support needs (ASN) and disabilities who leave school each year as they make the move into adulthood.

'On a cliff edge'

Leaving high school can be an uncertain time for everyone but for those with a disability or an ASN, it can be fraught with stress and worry.

Sally Cavers, from Children in Scotland, says a third of calls last year to its Enquire helpline, for children with ASN and their families, were about these transitions and she says numbers keeps going up.

According to Ms Cavers, common concerns were young people not feeling listened to and the right planning not happening early enough or at all.

She says young people reported feeling like they were "on a cliff edge" as they left school.

The Additional Support for Learning Act places a legal duty on schools to provide a transition planning process for young people with additional support needs.

But how that duty is met varies between local authorities - our research shows a confused, patchwork approach.

The Scottish Transitions Forum has designed a set of best practice guidelines, The Principles of Good Transition, and these are currently being piloted in 10 local authorities.

Scott Read, who wrote the guidelines, said the consequences of not planning, engaging and investing in young people at this critical time in their lives can be costly down the line.

"Literally, we hear stories of young people sitting in their rooms for three years," he says.

"If we get transitions right at an early age and people are able to engage in things that they want and dream about to achieve their goals, they will not be represented in a system of health and social care at crisis further down the line."

'I was told I'd need to be in bed at 7pm'

Image caption, Pam said she had to wait more than two years to get a package of care in place for university

Pam Duncan-Glancy made headlines and history when she was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2021 as its first permanent wheelchair-using MSP.

Like Claire, she struggled to get the support she needed to move from school to university and had to postpone her place for two years until a social care package was organised.

"I was told I'd need to go to bed at 7pm and wouldn't be able to enjoy a light lemonade in the student union," the Labour MSP says.

"For a full year, my mum and dad, sister and I argued with the local authority to get a decent package of support. That year passed, and I still didn't get it.

"I was 17 or 18, I wanted to leave home, go to university, get a degree, start my life, but instead it was delayed. It was a real hard lesson in the discrimination that I was about to experience and it still goes on, it's exactly the same experience that people have now."

According to Ms Duncan-Glancy, having a point of contact to guide and support young people as they leave school, right through that transition period and up until into their 20s should be guaranteed.

A bill to strengthen transition support for young disabled people was proposed by Labour MSP Johann Lamont but it fell when the last parliamentary term ended.

Ms Duncan-Glancy has now lodged a new bill. She said she believed that these young people deserved dedicated support.

"It's critically important that we have someone to support families and that it doesn't just fall off when they leave school, that it carries with them until they're at least 26 years old," she says.

Unemployment rate

Obviously not everyone wants to go to university when they leave school.

Many hope to find work but employment statistics show that disabled people are significantly less likely to do so.

Rob Watt, an economist at the University of Strathclyde's Fraser of Allander Institute, has been researching what support and opportunities are available for young people with learning disabilities.

He said somewhere between 4% and 8% of young people with a learning disability had the opportunity to work.

"Clearly, there is a significant gap in opportunities," Mr Watt says.

"You could have the best transition support in the world, but if there's nothing to transition to, then clearly, we need more opportunities for young people with additional support needs."

'I feel great about myself'

Image caption, Aidan says he has learned lots of new skills since getting a place on Project Search

Project Search is one scheme working with young people with learning disabilities and autism to help them secure permanent roles.

It says it offers continued support through buddies and mentors in the workplace and it has 60% of its interns in full-time employment.

Aidan McNally, one of its latest graduates, has secured a job as a porter with Serco at Wishaw General Hospital where the project has been running for more than 10 years.

"I feel great about myself, because I'm not sitting about the house, I'm getting up every day, going to work," Aidan says.

"It's excellent, because it's my own money, and like I've went out and earned that, so I can spend it whenever I want.

"My family, they're over the moon with it all. They think it's a job for life."

Previous Disclosure investigations include: