Students diagnosed with AD/HD and their first year at university: a theory of developing empowerment

Michele Eva Toner

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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The past decade has witnessed students with disabilities attending university in everincreasing numbers. In particular, many countries, including Australia, now report that students with so-called 'invisible disabilities' comprise the vast majority of those seeking support from Student Disability Services at university. Despite this increase, relatively few researchers have investigated the processes involved in the university education of students with disabilities, particularly during their crucial first year, when the highest rate of student attrition occurs across the board. The substantial body of research which has investigated the 'first year experience' for university students in Australia and the United States of America has ignored the issues unique to students with disabilities during this critical period. At the same time, some researchers, predominantly in the United States of America and the United Kingdom, have studied the tertiary education of students with disabilities. However, the subject has received less attention in Australia. Also, certain categories of university students with disabilities have been overlooked. In particular, university students diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) appear to be one of the groups that have attracted little attention worldwide, despite the vast body of research that exists on children and, increasingly, on adults with the diagnosis. These students constituted the focus of the study reported in this thesis. The aim of this study was to develop substantive theory about how university students who are diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) deal with their first year. The study is conceptualised within the social theory of symbolic interactionism. A central research question and a series of related guiding questions were used as the starting point for data collection. Data collection was conducted largely through in-depth, individual, face-to-face semistructured interviews, and participant observation consistent with the interpretivist qualitative research tradition. In addition, informal interviews, telephone interviews and documents provided supplementary data for the study. Data analysis, which occurred concurrently with data collection, employed the open coding method consistent with the grounded theory model and the development and testing of propositions. The central proposition of the substantive theory generated from this study is that students diagnosed with AD/HD experience a sense of developing empowerment as they progress through three stages in their first year at university. The first stage in the theory of developing empowerment is entitled the development of empowerment through realising a dream. The second stage is entitled the development of empowerment through becoming proactive. The final stage is entitled the development of empowerment through the feeling of belonging. The theory of developing empowerment provides a new perspective on how university students with a diagnosis of AD/HD deal with their first year of study. A number of implications for further theory development, policy and practice are drawn from it. There are also several recommendations for further research.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2009


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