Career Development Theory for People with Disabilities: Self-Concept Theory and the Theory of Circumscription and Compromise

In order to guide people with disabilities into a successful career, counselors must be familiar with various theories of career development. Specifically, this is observed in two theories, Super’s Self Concept Theory and Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription and Compromise. While they have similarities, they are uniquely different. They both provide theories that may be applied to this special population, as they recognize how identity and barriers can affect career choice. Understanding how individuals choose a career path, can help counselors apply the best practices to help people with disabilities.


Like most people, those living with disabilities seek employment and career opportunities. It is important for society to address the occupational needs of those with disabilities. This not only encourages an inclusive environment, but provides an improved quality of life for others through income, esteem, and socialization (Beveridge et al., 2002, pg. 2). However, those with disabilities face occupational barriers such as interest and access (Punch, Creed, & Hyde, 2005, pg.227). Others, on the other hand, may lack the experience or career awareness (Chubon, 1985, pg. 47). Through identification and application of career development theories recognized by socialist, professionals can improve occupational success for people living with disabilities. This includes Super’s Self-Concept Theory and Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription and Compromise.

Career Development Theory Overview

Throughout 1960’s and 70’s, Donald Super developed the Self-Concept Theory of career development. Super suggests that self-concept plays an intricate role in career options and opportunities (Kelechi & Ihuoma, 2011, pg. 53). Self-concept is the central theme. It addresses individual career ideals within one’s lifetime, altering and maturing as the individual goes through life stages (Ministry of Education, 2012, pg.1). The change that occurs throughout life is explained in Super’s 5 life and career development stages. The stages include: growth (adolescents), exploration (young adult), establishment (middle age), maintenance (older adult), and decline (seniors). The individual moves through each stage of self-concept as they grow cognitively through knowledge and experience (Kelechi &Ihuoma, 2011, pg. 53). In this way, Super visualizes self-concept as the developmental process of vocational and career objectives, (Murugami & Nel, 2012, pg. 363).

A decade after Super developed the self-concept theory Linda Gottfredson found the Theory of Circumscription and Compromise, (Gottfredson, 1996, pg. 179). Gottfredson theorized that people develop career concepts based on their socio-demographics, lifestyle, or stereotypes. It can be seen when individuals are confronted with gender awareness and level of socio-economic status, (Brott, 1993, pg. 0). The theory explains how career options arise as a result of one’s social status, which can reflects social stratification and inequality (Gottfredson, 1996, pg. 180). When affected by issues such as poverty, lack of income can alter individual career goals such as the ability to pay for higher education. This may compromise one’s outlook as they face the obstacles that occur as a result, (Gottfredson, 1996, pg. 181). Circumscription defines the process of career elimination and maintaining realistic or personal career goals through the “Zone of Acceptable Alternatives”, (Brott, 1993, pg. 3). Compromise occurs when an individual rejects their ideal career for a more compatible or accessible one, (Gottfredson, 1996, pg. 187). This occurs through what Gottfredson calls, “cognitive growth”, which occurs within the early stages and development and self-creation that occurs later in life, (Gottfredson, 2004, pg. 7).

Compare and Contrast of Career Development Theories

Both Super and Gottfredson created theories that address career development across the lifetime. This is observed in the Self-Concept Theory and the stages of growth. Gottfredson’s theory of Circumscription and Compromise also reflects individual developmental stages. For instance, the Zone of Acceptable Alternatives, occur in 4 stages. The orientation to size and power to age 5, orientation to sex roles to age 8, orientation to social valuation to age 13, and finally the orientation to the internal unique self beginning at age 14, (Brott, 1996, pg. 3). Both Gottfredson and Super’s theory also address issues of social differences such as race and disability, (Patton &McMahon, 2006, pg. 12). While Super recognizes this through one’s self-concept and identity, Gottfredson addresses this through circumscription and compromise as it results in one’s social status. Gottfredson disclosed this similarity and others in her theory as she included ideas found within Super’s theory (1996, pg. 187). As a result, Gottfredson included the developmental processes and career choice as it reflects one’s personal ideals, (1996, pg.189).

Despite the relevant similarities there are also major differences in Super’s Self Concept Theory and Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription and Compromise. The theory of Circumscription and Compromise focuses specifically on one’s access to life experiences and opportunity (Chubon, 1985, pg. 47). This includes individual self-awareness and their environment as it influences career choice. Through a process of elimination and accessibility, individuals observe career opportunities reflected within the boundaries of the self. These include community, culture, gender, religion, and even genetics, (Leung, 2008, pg. 124). Super’s theory of self- concept on the other hand, is based on individual characteristics, (Murugami & Nel, 2012, pg. 363). Although self-concept includes one’s community and culture, it also reflects ones values, individuality, and personality, (Murugami, 2010, pg. 12). Ultimately, it addresses the interaction and relationship that physical, mental, and personal growth towards career options through needs, interests, abilities, and more (Kier, 1999, pg. 12).

Application to People with Disabilities

While both theories address the needs of individuals in general, it is important to reflect the application of career development theories among disabled populations. For instance, Gottfredson’s theory specifically recognizes the manner in which individuals achieve career goals through accessibility seen through the process of elimination and compromise. This can specifically influence individuals with disabilities as it reflects many physical and personal challenges they face.  Due to the restrictions faced by disabled populations, Gottfredon’s career theory allows individuals to find occupational alternatives that met individual interest and ability, (Leung, 2008, pg. 123). It can also apply to reflect one’s limitations and barriers regardless if it occurs due to disability, education, or family support, (Punch, Creed, & Hyde, 2005, pg. 227). Therefore, it proves an appropriate theory to apply to all people across demographics. Patton and McMohon calls these “at-risk factors”, in which Gottfredson’s theory can be applied to various factors ranging from sexual orientation and nationality, (2006, pg. 12).

Career Development for people with disabilities may also be applied to Super’s Self-Concept Theory. While the Theory of Circumscription and Compromise reflect issues regarding people with disabilities, Super’s Self Concept theory is the only theory that acknowledges that those with disabilities may face problem within vocational development, (Chubon, 1985, pg. 47). Super recognizes that individuals with disabilities are restricted through social experiences including occupational factors. This may cause individuals to feel categorized or stereotyped into specific educational fields and limited career options, (Chubon, 1985, pg. 47). By applying this theory to people with disabilities it can improve occupational outcomes and vocational development. It provides individuals the ability to find self-acceptance, positive affirmation, and independence through improved attitudes, (Murugami, 2010, pg. 12).

Practice and Evaluation

The Self-Concept Theory of Career Development and Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription and Compromise have the ability to inform and improve vocational evaluation practice for people with disabilities.  Through the application of these frameworks, counselors can apply concepts to develop a model for standard practice to explain career development in individuals on a local level, (Leung, 2008, pg. 115). With the help of Super’s Self-Concept theory, individuals can receive guidance towards career objectives. It can positively influence individual self-concept and self-efficacy as society continues to include all people within the workforce, (Murugami & Nel, 2012, pg. 363).  It can further encourage counselors to make individuals with disabilities aware of the various skills and abilities required to achieve career success. This can improve the esteem and career outcomes allowing individuals to build on self-concept to increase the likelihood of success within this population.

Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription and Compromise further provides information for vocational practice. It allows counselors to provide guidance to individuals that involve career choice, abilities, social status, and behavior genetics, (Gottfredson, 2004, pg. 22). When applied and put to practice, this theory can provide positive change through narrowed categories, characteristics, and attributes rather than applied to a large demographic or population, (Gottfredson, 2004, pg. 23). By emphasizing the negative effects of career development, it encourages counselors to reconsider rejected career options, (Yeou, 1994, pg. 31). With the guidance and support of a vocational counselor, individuals with disabilities can determine the appropriateness of career decisions. This encourages individuals to push past negative or perceived limitations based on disability, interest, personality, and other characteristics, (Yeou, 1994, pg. 32).


Not only must counselors understand various theories within the field of career development, they must also learn to apply them within special populations. However, for some this may prove to be an obstacle. There is no specific theory which addresses the vocational needs for individuals with disabilities, (Chubon, 1985, pg. 47). Including the large range and demographics of this population, it limits the opportunities relating to career development and decisions making for these individuals, (Beveridge et al., 2002, pg. 1). Thus, it is important to address the need by fully analyzing, understanding, and applying theories of career development within this framework. Examining the theories presented by Donald Super and Linda Gottfredson proves substantial when applying vocational development to individuals with disabilities.





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About Russia Robinson

I use my writing talents, and skills I’ve learned through academics and experience, to benefit the greater good of society. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I give informative information on a variety of topics and issues that affect society. I also write creative works like children’s books, short stories, poems, and a novel in progress. I earned a BA in English creative writing and American literature from San Francisco State and graduate studies in Technical Writing at Kennesaw State University. Through my career in education and mental health I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher, working in education, social services, and mental health. Interested in my writing services? Feel free to contact me via email.
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One Response to Career Development Theory for People with Disabilities: Self-Concept Theory and the Theory of Circumscription and Compromise

  1. Samar says:

    Great post, thank you.

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