Transition by Design: Improving Equity and Outcomes for Adolescents with Disabilities

reviewed by Anita Charles August 14, 2017

coverTitle: Transition by Design: Improving Equity and Outcomes for Adolescents with Disabilities
Author(s): Audrey A. Trainor
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775840X, Pages: 192, Year: 2017
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It is common in the field of disability studies to reduce research and analysis to oversimplified, so-called universal truths; in particular, collapsing identity to the single deficit-framed label of “disability,” or ignoring complex identity intersections for the sake of quantitative objectivism. The book Transition by Design: Improving Equity and Outcomes for Adolescents with Disabilities by Audrey A. Trainor not only identifies those comfortable but misleading tendencies, but courageously defies and deconstructs them. Trainor then goes a step further in suggesting improved research strategies that better reflect realities of marginalized youth in transition.


Trainor’s conceptual framework centers on critical sociocultural theory, drawing primarily on Rogoff (2003) and Cole’s (2010) work in cultural processes and practices, as well as Bourdieu’s (1974) view of capital theory, social reproduction, and agency in relation to power, including the construct of “habitus” (Trainor, 2017, p. 13) or dispositions. Additionally, she refers to Bronfenbrenner’s paradigm of ecological systems (1979). Trainor’s work brilliantly weaves together the interplay between self/agency and culture/context in complicating the myriad factors impacting developmental progression into adulthood for youths with disabilities. In particular, Trainor points out the lack of research, and the difficulty in doing such research, around the intersection of disability with race/ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomics, aspects of diversity that create further imbalances of power.


Trainor articulates and critiques key cultural models of transition planning, including the history of these models from the early 1980s to present day, the assumptions embedded in the models, and explicit goals, as youth progress from high school education to post-high school opportunities. As models of transition processes grew in response to cultural shifts to incorporate stronger focus on self-determination and the mediating influence of adulthood demands, they better captured the individual in relation to “the culture of our practice” (Trainor, 2017, p. 29). However, current models continue to lack a nuanced understanding of socially and culturally mediating factors and characteristics. As Trainor states, “Explaining disparities as individual deficits might be tempting because it takes the onus off systems, schools, teachers, and the higher education faculty who prepare them. These explanations, however, provide little leverage in changing the trajectories of adolescents from historically marginalized backgrounds” (p. 29). Unfortunately, this book makes clear that most research in this field, and consequently the practices implemented as a result of that research, fall readily into the more tempting deficit framework of disability, thereby placing the onus on the individual in need of amelioration or treatment. In fact, even the very word “planning” suggests “an individual’s or family’s control” (p. 81) over future outcomes.


Trainor juxtaposes transition planning goals against the troubling realities that exist for (a) people with certain types of disability that create poorer outcomes, such as Emotional Behavioral Disorder, and (b) people with additional factors of marginalization that intersect with disability, especially race/ethnicity, poverty, and gender.  She then analyzes the research on disability transition, including strengths and gaps in existing studies, focusing in particular on the school-to-prison pipeline, self-determination, and health care, concluding with recommendations for future research.


Trainor’s detailed deconstruction of the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) paints a fascinating if chilling picture of various pathways through which teens with disabilities, both with and without additional markers of marginalization, find themselves at the whim of entrenched institutional practices that are punitive, with consequences reaching beyond the school walls into the court systems and, ultimately, prison. The picture is not entirely bleak, however; Trainor suggests a number of strategies and areas for further research to disrupt the STPP, including better governmental funding, minimizing punishment in schools in favor of restorative practices, positive behavior supports, and mentorship programs, as well as better professional development for teachers.


In the chapter discussing health disparities in access to, and status of, health care, Trainor overlays transition processes with definitions of “optimal” adolescence (p. 96), influences of poverty, and disability-related health impairments and needs. She problematizes the concepts of self-determination and independence in adolescence as culturally defined and ethnocentric, often unexamined in their narrow Western interpretations. She suggests a more culturally responsive understanding of contexts and of paradigms of development, one that enhances opportunities for equitable outcomes for youth with disabilities and other historically marginalized groups. Again, as in other chapters, Trainor conveys the “pervasive limitation” in ignoring such intersectionality in transition research and practice, creating conclusions about outcomes that “overlook opportunity inequity” (p. 106).


Through ample statistics and evidence culled from many studies, Trainor captivates the reader from the first page, sustaining the energy throughout the text as an urgent call to do more and better research on the topic. Her arguments, and subsequent conclusions and recommendations, are compelling. She calls for “paradigm expansion” (p. 126), beyond quantitative studies of interventions, with their own hidden and explicit assumptions, to a “more inclusive view” (p. 126) of improving transition services, practices, and realities, particularly for students with additional factors of marginalization.


This text not only details current research and paradigms around transition of adolescents with disabilities, but also complicates research conclusions and outcomes by pointing out tendencies to retreat to quantitative data, universal assumptions, and normative constructs, all of which ignore the fluid intersections of disability with race/ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomics. Trainor augments current information with suggestions for a more culturally and contextually responsive approach to new research, and Transition by Design is both well written and timely.



Bourdieu, P. (1974). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In R. Brown (Ed.), Knowledge, education, and cultural change (pp. 173–184). London, UK: Tavistock Publications.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cole, M. (2010). What’s culture got to do with it? Educational research as a necessarily interdisciplinary enterprise. Educational Researcher 39, 461–470.

Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 14, 2017 ID Number: 22136, Date Accessed: 10/22/2017 6:13:52 AM

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