Making connections: Supporting disabled young people to live their lives

Making connections is co-produced research exploring the resources and relationships that support disabled young people to live the lives they choose.

We wanted to get a better understanding of:

  • how disabled young people experience their lives
  • how different parts of their lives interact
  • what is most important to them

This will help us decide what we do next to support disabled young people. We also wanted to develop something that helps us and others to co-produce services with disabled young people.

The Connections Model

The research team co-produced a model of disabled young people’s lives. The model was developed from conversations with disabled young people taking part in the study.

This model allows us to explore the resources and relationships that young disabled people need to live the lives they want.

How the Connections Model works

The model has 2 elements, component and expressive. These elements and their parts move, connect and change over time.

Component elements

These are disabled young people’s important resources and relationships:

  • finances
  • technology
  • environment
  • digital
  • human
  • animal

Expressive elements

These are disabled young people’s desires, expectations and aspirations:

  • emotions and identities
  • mental health
  • belonging and mobility
  • educational expectations
  • work aspirations

Disabled young people can experience the same elements and parts differently. 

One disabled young person connected the environment to mental health.

Mental health is a big thing I think, this whole COVID-19 situation has affected it a lot. I’ve not been able to go into work and see people, I was quite into my job at the hospital and that’s not happening now.


Another disabled young person connected environment to their sense of belonging and mobility (a different expressive element):

I have been bullied, I have had hate crime done to me and I do know what it means not to be accepted for who I am now. If it hadn’t been for [self-advocacy group] I wouldn’t be where I am now


Priorities of disabled young people

Too often, disabled young people told us that the different parts of their lives are seen as disconnected from one another. They told us that it was important for other people to understand and support those connections for them to live the lives they choose.

Through the accounts of disabled young people, we have identified a number of priorities.

Promoting inclusive environments

Inclusive spaces help give disabled young people a sense of belonging, enhance their mental health and wellbeing, and raise aspirations around employment and education.
But many places, spaces and communities remain out of reach for disabled young people. The pandemic has made this situation worse. 

I worked in an environment where my autism was denied


I prefer less crowded, quieter peaceful sort of places, I prefer smaller rooms, if I’m struggling, but it’s funny people saying [the pandemic] must be paradise right now, but it is a bit different when you are forced to


And while the effect of the pandemic has been devastating for many disabled people, one disabled young person described how a changing environment had increased her sense of belonging:

I felt that I was missing out on things, but with COVID happening, now I can join in [online] and be more social... it has made me feel a lot more accepted by society


Our recommendations

We need to remove barriers to inclusive environments. We must design environments that are always accessible to disabled young people. 

We must challenge what people think, too. We must create inclusive environments by working with disabled young people to anticipate and meet their needs.

Improving digital lives

Many disabled young people remain digitally excluded and still find it hard to access digital content and communities.

An accessible digital world can have a big effect on disabled young people's lives.

The move to online learning is an opportunity for inclusion.


I always felt different like an outsider, but since COVID I’ve felt more included and I’m not judged as much. I walk with crutches and a stick sometimes, and that is the first thing people see but now they just see me and that has broken down the barriers a bit


Our recommendations

There is an urgent need for digital content and platform providers to work closely with disabled young people to ensure not only inclusion but also accessibility.

Providers must recognise that disabled young people are digital users too and reach out to them.

A digital campaign could raise awareness of the concerns of disabled young people as digital users and designers. 

Developing inclusive technology

Technology is crucial to disabled young people and ranges from low to high technology. Technology includes a wide range of items. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) and voice-operated systems (in smart homes) through to wheelchairs, prosthetic devices and adapted cars.

Disabled young people associate technology with the promotion of freedom, independence and mobility.

Having the right tech is very important. It allows you to do the things you want to do without any help. That has a big impact on my mental health


I’ve been able to drive all around the country thanks to my adapted car. If it wasn’t for the motability scheme I wouldn’t have the independence I have


Our recommendations

There is an urgent need to encourage inclusive design of technology. Putting disabled young people at the centre of research, design and innovation.

Full report

If you would like the full report please contact

Download the Making Connections report.

Next steps

We will use the research findings to help us decide what we’ll do next, and share our experience of co-production to help us and others work with disabled young people.

We want to know what you think about the research and the potential of the model to inform service development.

If you are a disabled young person that would like to take part in future research, or an organisation interested in discussing the research, please contact

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