The Importance of Friendships Between People With and Without Mental Retardation

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 nondisabled friends.

What makes the development of relationships difficult?

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:

"Bridge-Building." Facilitators who initiate, support and maintain new relationships are called bridge-builders, as they " 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 available.

Families can:

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 without disabilities.

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 of Minnesota.

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