Recently, I came across a column about friendships. I thought the commentary was too narrow – it focused on deficits of kids (or adults) with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). And though the author had some good points, she questioned the value of connecting people with disabilities with those without disabilities and argued that the lack of social skills would be a barrier.
In this field where disabilities come in all shapes and sizes, we can agree on one thing – that individuals with I/DD benefit from friendships, good relationships with others. Although it takes effort, supporting kids or adults with I/DD make connections and friends in their world can only be a positive thing. Studies have shown that children and adults in typical social situations grow from relationships and there are some benefits in regard to safety too.
One of the most important ingredients in building friendships and connections is “reciprocity” – which is another way of talking about “give and take” or exchanging favors and privileges. If a relationship is one-way, it’s hard to build a friendship. Families and self-advocates need to think about fostering reciprocity. It needs to be learned as we all discovered growing up. Of course there are situations where a family member or close friend may need to set up the exchange for the self-advocate. This is something that Rod and Ann Turnbull wrote about years ago (thank you to Evelyn Hausslein for sharing that article). A journal article related to this topic can be found here – page 94 lists some of what the writers discovered in their study.
The best place to start building relationships is with our extended family and neighborhood. It’s never too late. I know of brothers and sisters who have introduced their friends to their siblings and relationships have developed over time. One other positive about relationship building is the public education that takes place. People connected to people don’t hold on to old biases. They see individuals for themselves, not as a distant group to be avoided. I invite you to join in the conversation.
P.S. I take for granted that relationships between people with disabilities are valuable– but I’ve seen those wonderful friendships throughout my life. You can learn more about this topic at Widening the Circle.
Leo Sarkissian, Executive Director