Disability-based disparities in adolescent subjective well-being
Authors: Amber M. Savage
Hedonic subjective well-being (SWB) is now widely regarded as an important indicator of social progress and a goal of public policy. Research on SWB or ‘the science of happiness’ in high-income countries has proliferated, including studies examining the correlates, effects, and determinants of adolescent SWB. However, there is a paucity of data on the SWB of adolescents with disability. The available data suggest that adolescents with disability face a heightened risk of poor SWB or more specifically, low levels of happiness or satisfaction with life relative to non-disabled peers. Few studies have investigated potential causes of disability-based differences in adolescent SWB. This absence of research may be due, in part, to what Amundson (2005) terms the ‘standard view’: the widely held but now contested assumption that disability is inherently negative and thus a direct cause of poor SWB. However, recent research refutes this view. Children and adolescents with disability in high-income countries are disproportionately exposed to adverse life conditions that are associated with poor SWB among adolescents in general including low socioeconomic status, impoverished peer relationships, and peer victimisation. This differential exposure may then explain disability-based differences in adolescent SWB. Building on previous research, the purpose of this study was to investigate the life conditions and SWB of Canadian adolescents with disability, using a large population-based data set. One objective was to develop a cross-sectional profile of the life conditions and well-being of Canadian adolescents with disability relative to their non-disabled peers. Another objective, and the primary focus of the investigation, was to examine the potential mediating role of life conditions, specifically socioeconomic status and social relationships, measured in early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence, in explaining the relationship between disability identified at age 4-5 and adolescent SWB. Method: The methodology of this investigation was secondary data analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY). Study 1 was an exploratory, descriptive and correlational study designed to create a profile of adolescent Canadians with and without disability. Multivariate regression was used to investigate the ‘effect’ of disability on components of SWB as well as indicators of socioeconomic status and social relationships. Study 2 primarily employed longitudinal structural equation modelling to investigate hypothesized pathways linking disability, socioeconomic status, and social relationships across childhood to adolescent SWB. Results: Significant associations were found between disability and individual components of SWB, as well as the overarching latent construct. Children with disability identified at age 4-5 were found to be living at a lower socioeconomic status relative to comparison peers across childhood. Adolescents and preadolescents with disability also reported greater exposure to victimisation and impoverished peer relationships. The greatest parity was found on indicators of social participation. Structural equation modelling analysis permitted investigation of how life conditions across childhood may impact later SWB. Findings suggest that the relationship between early childhood identified disability and adolescent SWB is fully mediated by household socioeconomic status, peer friendships and acceptance, and exposure to peer victimisation in middle childhood and adolescence. Conclusion: There is mounting evidence of disability-based inequality in adolescent SWB. This dissertation provides further evidence that parity in SWB and life conditions has not yet been achieved for Canadian adolescents with disability. Further, results suggest that the relatively poorer SWB of adolescents with disability may be explained by exposure to low socioeconomic status, impoverished peer relationships and peer victimisation. Such findings indicate that disability-based differences in adolescent SWB are, at least in part, a result of differential exposure to adverse life conditions rather than a direct consequence of disability, and might therefore be more aptly described as disability-based disparities. Findings may offer some insight into how disability-based disparities in adolescent SWB may be redressed. It appears increasing the participation of youth with disability in social leisure activities may not be the solution to closing the SWB gap. Findings from the longitudinal sample do however suggest that greater exposure to peer victimisation and impoverished peer relationships may explain disability-based disparities in youth SWB. Facilitating opportunities for children and adolescents with disability to form supportive peer networks, and developing ways to challenge stigma and deter victimisation, appear to be practical courses of action that could make a positive difference in the lives of adolescents with disability.
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