Space, place and relationships: Understanding connectedness and belonging for young people with cognitive disability in regional communities

The Centre for Children and Young People, Southern Cross University, collaborated with the Social Policy Research Centre, University of New South Wales, and community partners to explore factors of belonging and connection for young people with cognitive disability who were living in regional communities. The project used social geography as a framework to explore identity and inclusion, within families and in community participation. Research methods were adapted to ensure inclusion of people with higher support needs.

In a collaborative research process, thirty young people used photography to map their physical and social environments, people and things that were important to them. These photographs were explored through interviews and workshop participation, to discover its personal meaning for the photographer and what it said about their sense of belonging to that community

The research revealed that the community connections of young people were dominated by families, friends and paid support workers. Many young people had challenges with establishing and maintaining social networks, and weak connections to others. Having an identity that was about more than just their disability was important to many participants.

The research also revealed that living in regional communities could be a barrier to accessing resources and supports necessary to build independence. Consequently, many young people identified increasing gaps, as their former peer group had achieved milestones beyond their reach, such as leaving home and getting a job. Negative attitudes and discrimination had also impeded their progress.

The study confirmed the importance to young people of having their capability recognized, to be supported to make their own choices, and to establish relationships of their choosing. The struggle between agency and dependency in relationships and in the environment was a key theme. Belonging and connection in community was damaged by violence, interpersonal harm, grief and loss. Being known and valued within a community was core for a secure sense of belonging and personal identity.

From the NSW Department of Family and Community Services website:

Related Publications  

Robinson, S. (2014) In the picture: belonging and connection in country towns. A photo research project with young people with cognitive disability. Easy read report. National Research and Development Grant, Centre for Children and Young People, Southern Cross University, Lismore Website:

Robinson, S. (2014) Space, place and relationships: Three public exhibitions of photographic research by young people with cognitive disability in regional Australian towns in NSW, Victoria and Queensland Website:

Robinson, S., Fisher, K.R., Hill, M. & Graham, A. (2017 – in press) In the picture: perspectives of young people with cognitive disability on rural and regional life. In K. Soldatic & K. Johnson (eds) Disability & Rurality: Identity, Gender and Belonging. Routledge

Robinson, S., Fisher, K.R., Hill, M. & Graham, A. (2017 – in press) Views of young people with cognitive disability about care in their relationships. In J. Horton & M. Pyer (eds) Children, Young People and Care. Routledge

Robinson, S., Hill, M., Fisher, K.R., & Graham, A. (2017 – under review) Perspectives of young people with intellectual disability on socio-spatial belonging in their small town communities: ‘I’ve got people here.’ Children’s Geographies

Robinson, S. (2015) Children, young people and the NDIS: What young people tell us about belong and connection and safety. We are worth the investment: people with intellectual disability and the NDIS, NSW Council for Intellectual Disability National Conference, July 16-17, Sydney

Robinson, S. (2015) UK seminars ‘I’ve got people here: place, space and relationships in the lives of young disabled people in regional Australia.’ Five seminars presented between 1-10 September at Southampton, Dundee, Central Lancashire & Huddersfield Universities

Robinson, S., Graham, A., & Fisher. K. (2015) Space, place and relationships: Exploring belonging and connection with young people with cognitive disability in regional communities. European Sociological Association Conference, 25-28 August, Czech Technical University, Prague

Robinson, S. (2015) Space, place and relationships: Young people having a say in research. Australasian Society for the Study of Intellectual Disability Conference, 11–13 November, Melbourne

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