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Why Friendship Is Essential but Challenging for Many People With Disabilities

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For the second season of my podcast, Born Fabulous, I did in-depth interviews with four well-known self-advocates who have significant disabilities and their best friends. Their best friends do not have disabilities.

Right away many parents are going to say to themselves, “I wish my child had good friends. But that is a dream world. So why watch or listen?”

I get it. I have a daughter who is 19 and has Down syndrome. She is painfully shy.  If it were not for her shyness, she would have multitudes of friends, I am sure of it. She is fully included in her school, and kids have been wonderfully accepting. To a point.

What is that point? They are great with her in school, but then the interactions basically stop. I believe there are many reasons for this.

1) Youth today are tied to their phones, much more than in-person interactions.

2) This phone addiction has led to less “movie, bowling, dinner” get-togethers than previous generations had with their friends. I also have a 31-year-old, and the difference between her interactions with her friends while growing up and what I see with today’s youth is night and day. Not necessarily in a good way.

3) When one is shy, like my daughter, they are much less likely to initiate interactions. When you add a speech delay to the mix, it is much better for her if someone with or without a disability makes the first move. And is consistent. Because of number 1, that is hard.

So why did I even care to spend months interviewing and editing people for this season if the whole “friendship thing” is hopeless for so many?

Because it is not hopeless. And friendship is so important. It is the glue that holds humanity together with love.

Just like everything else in life, we can all learn from those who are doing well in certain areas. The people I spoke to are not just successful in life, they are successful in the friendship zone of life. We can learn from them.

I want to encourage those who are struggling in this area to see what they can do to make the situation better. Can they practice learning how to initiate interactions more? Can they be taught how to properly use social media without being addicted to it?

To our allies and friends in society, I want to encourage you to take those extra steps that may be necessary to get to know individuals who are different than you. The friends I interviewed all talk about and encourage that.

And there is that fine line we walk as self-advocates, parents and families — the line between the world with and without disabilities. Our kids and young adults need friends in both worlds. I see so many youth with disabilities who only have friends with disabilities. Then I see youth like my daughter, who are in school only with students who do not have disabilities, because it is so hard in 2020 to be fully included in most schools across the U.S. if you have a significant disability.

When friendships start to cross those invisible but all-too-clear boundaries, I believe love will spread at an infinite pace. Society will become kinder and gentler, and bullying will decrease dramatically.

This is why I believe it’s important to hear from friends with and without disabilities, sharing their lives with you. They want people to see what they have, their love for each other. This is why I believe in changing the world one friendship at a time.  What will you do today to encourage youth who need more friends to take steps toward that goal?

Originally published: March 10, 2020
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