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The Importance of Friendships Between People With and Without
by Zana Marie Lutfiyya, Center on Human Policy
Why are friendships between people with and
without disabilities important?
Friends are important for several reasons. They
support each other emotionally, are willing to see things from the other's point
of view and provide assistance and feedback when needed. Friends choose each
other and remain close through good times and times of crisis. They provide
companionship for community and school activities and help each other enjoy
new experiences and appreciate life more fully. Friendships between people with
and without disabilities usually enrich the lives of both.
When should friendships begin?
If people with mental retardation are to form friendships
and be a part of society as adults, these relationships must develop during
childhood. Classmates and neighbors will grow into adult coworkers and friends
later in life.
Therefore, integrated classrooms and recreational
activities are important. In these settings children with and without disabilities
get to meet each other and form relationships. Unfortunately, many parents have
found that even though their children are integrated in school, they have few
What makes the development of relationships
Many individuals with disabilities interact primarily
with their family, the people who take care of or provide services to them,
and others in the programs in which they participate. These relationships can
clearly be significant and should be encouraged. However, outside of family
members, people may have no freely given and chosen relationships. Generally,
many people with disabilities face certain disadvantages in meeting and getting
to know others.
Opportunity. Many people with disabilities
have limited opportunities to take part in activities where they can meet peers.
This may be due to physical segregation or being placed in a role as "client"
or "special education student." Services may restrict people's chances
to get together, through program or funder rules, curfews, transportation restrictions,
and other limitations. Whatever the reason, people with disabilities frequently
become cut off and isolated from others.
Support. Relationships between people with
and without disabilities are not formed by simply grouping people together.
Some individuals need assistance with fitting into certain settings and activities.
Others may need someone to facilitate their involvement or to interpret for
them. Without supports, some people with and without disabilities may never
have the opportunity to know each other.
Continuity. While most people enjoy meeting
new people, they are sustained by those they have known over time. The continuity
of relationships over the years is an important source of security, comfort
and self-worth. Many people with disabilities do not have continuous relationships.
Instead, they may leave their families, be moved from one program to another
and have to adjust to staff people who come and go.
What are some of the ways to facilitate personal
relationships between people with and without disabilities?
It takes effort to help people establish connections.
Described below are some of the ways this has been tried:
who initiate, support and maintain new relationships are called bridge-builders,
as they "...build bridges and guide people into new relationships, new
places, and new opportunities in life" (Mount, et al., 1988). Bridge-builders
involve people with disabilities in existing groups or with specific individuals.
Circles of Friends or Circles of Support.
Groups of people who "meet on a regular basis to help a person with a disability
accomplish certain personal visions or goals" (Perske, 1988). Circle members
try to open doors to new opportunities, including establishing new relationships.
Citizen Advocacy. Recruited and supported
by an independent citizen advocacy office, a citizen advocate voluntarily represents
the interests of a person with a disability as if the interests were the advocate's
own. Citizen advocates may take on one or several roles (e.g., friend, ally,
mentor, protector), and some of these may last for life.
There are different ways that personal relationships
between people with and without disabilities may be encouraged. Perhaps more
important than the specific method is the supporting, connecting role of one
or more people (family members, staff members, friends, neighbors, etc.) who
can spend time and energy for this purpose.
What are some important dimensions of friendship?
Genuine friendships between people with and
without disabilities do exist. While each friendship is unique, there are
some shared ideas and expectations about what friendship means. According to
a recent study of pairs of friends (Lutfiyya, 1990), these meanings include:
Mutuality. The people defined their relationship
as a friendship and themselves as friends. Although they acknowledge differences
between themselves, they clearly found a sense of mutuality in the friendship.
Mutuality was expressed in the giving and receiving of practical assistance
and emotional support, and enjoyment of each other's company.
Rights, Responsibilities, and Obligations.
Once a friendship is established, it is assumed that friends can make certain
demands of each other and be assured of a response. Nondisabled friends talked
about the obligations that they had assumed for their friend with a disability,
such as teacher, mentor, caretaker, or protector. The friends with disabilities
assumed certain responsibilities in maintaining the relationship such as keeping
in touch or suggesting possible activities.
Feelings, from Companionship to Intimacy.
All of the friends held feelings of affection for each other, expressed through
their interactions with each other.
Freely Chosen and Given. Friends choose
each other. It is this voluntary aspect of friendship that is regarded as the
"amazing and wonderful" part of the relationship.
Private and Exclusive Nature. Within the
boundaries of each friendship is a private relationship that is inaccessible
to others. The friends have a history and an understanding of their connection
to each other that separates this from all of their other relationships.
What can families and service providers do to
enhance opportunities for friendships?
People can establish friendships with each other,
but it is not possible to force friendships upon others. It is possible to create
opportunities for people with and without disabilities to meet and share time
with each other in ways that encourage friendships to take root and flourish.
Families and service providers can do different things to make such opportunities
Work for the total inclusion of their son or daughter
into the regular school system. In addition to being physically present, students
with disabilities need adequate supports to enable them to fully participate
in classroom and school activities. Parents can also ensure that their child
with a disability takes part in a variety of integrated recreation and leisure
activities after school hours. A consistent physical presence in each others'
lives helps lead to friendships between children with and without disabilities.
Ensure social participation. How people with disabilities
are supported within integrated settings is important. Students need to be enabled
to participate as much as possible, and to do so in ways acceptable to other
people. People without disabilities need the opportunity to meet their counterparts
with disabilities as peers, not as objects of tutoring or volunteer service.
Involve and trust others. All parents feel protective
toward their children. While there may be differences in how independent people
can become, parents can come to believe that there are people in the community
who would, if given the opportunity, enjoy and welcome a friendship with their
son or daughter.
Service providers can:
Reduce barriers to friendship. The way in which
support services are provided to people with disabilities and their families
can enhance or reduce the opportunities for friendships to develop. Segregated
programs dramatically lessen the chances for contact between people with and
Even in integrated settings, students with disabilities
may not be able to take part in extracurricular activities (e.g., choir, clubs,
sports) because of lack of transportation from school. When efforts are made
to bring people with and without disabilities together, the people without disabilities
are often treated as volunteers responsible to the teacher or program coordinator
rather than as peers.
Encourage people who seem to like one another to
pursue friendships. Service providers can review practices, such as curfews,
lack of privacy and so on, which limit opportunities for people to meet and
form friendships with each other.
With an awareness of and commitment to facilitating
friendships between people with and without disabilities, all people can have
the opportunity to form relationships which allow them to live life more fully.
Sources for more information
Amado, A.N. (Ed.) (1993). Friendships and community
connections between people with and without developmental disabilities. Baltimore:
Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
Heyne, L.A., Schleien, S.J. & McAvoy, L.H.
(n.d.). Making friends: Using recreation activities to promote friendship between
children with and without disabilities. Minneapolis: College of Education, University
Human Services Research and Development Center
(1989-90). Friends: A manual for connecting persons with disabilities and community
members. Minneapolis: Human Services Research and Development Center and the
Governor's Planning Council on Developmental Disabilities.
Lutfiyya, Z.M. (1990). Affectionate bonds: What
we can learn by listening to friends. Syracuse, NY: Center on Human Policy.
Lutfiyya, Z.M. (1991). Personal relationships and
social networks: Facilitating the participation of individuals with disabilities
in community life. Syracuse, NY: Center on Human Policy.
Mount, B., Beeman, P., and Ducharme, G. (1988).
What are we learning about circles of support? Manchester, CT: Communitas, Inc.
Mount, B., Beeman, P., and Ducharme, G. (1988).
What are we learning about bridge-building? Manchester, CT: Communitas, Inc.
O'Brien, J., & Lyle O'Brien, C. (1993). Unlikely
alliances: Friendships and people with developmental disabilities. In A.N. Amado
(Ed.). Friendships and community connections between people with and without
disabilities (pp. 9-40). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
O'Connell, M. (1988). The gift of hospitality:
Opening the doors of community life to people with disabilities. Evanston, IL:
Community Life Project.
Perske, R. (1988). Circles of friends. Nashville,
TN: Abingdon Press.
Wolfensberger, W. (1975). Citizen advocacy for
the impaired. In D. A. Primrose (Ed.), Proceedings of the Third Congress of
the International Association for the Scientific Study of Mental Deficiency
(pp. 14-19). Lorbert, Scotland: IASSMD, Royal Scottish National Hospital.
This Q&A was prepared by the Research and
Training Center on Community Integration, Center on Human Policy, Division of
Special Education and Rehabilitation, School of Education, Syracuse University,
with support from the U. S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education
and Rehabilitative Services, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation
Research, through Cooperative Agreement H133800003-90. No endorsement by the
U. S. Department of Education of the opinions expressed herein should be inferred.
101-29 Revised Sept. 1997
Reprinted with permission from ARC at www.thearc.org
All rights reserved.