Color & Control:



Here’s an article authored by Rannveig Traustadottir. It was published some time ago, yet makes for interesting reading nonetheless. There is also some older references to other literature on this topic at the end of the article.

A review of the literature on friendships between people with and without disabilities indicates an overrepresentation of women within social networks of people with disabilities. Although gender has not been the focus of attention or inquiry in studies of friendships between people with and without disabilities, many studies have reported gender-related issues among their major findings. In this article I will examine the gendered construction of friendships in this literature. In doing so I will focus on two main issues: gender-related research findings, and gendered language and images.

The Overrepresentation of Women

Studies on friendships often report gender-related findings. These studies indicate that from childhood on, women tend to be more accepting of people with disabilities and more likely to become their friends… For example, Voeltz (1980, 1982) has studied children’s attitudes toward peers with disabilities and the effects of social contact between children with severe disabilities and their nondisabled peers. She reports, among other things, that girls are more willing to have social contact with their peers with disabilities and score higher on actual contact. Voeltz found “consistent sex difference in acceptance, with girls significantly more accepting than boys across the total sample and at each level of contact on nearly every dependent measure” (Voeltz, 1982, p. 386). Similarly, in a study of a school-based program, established to promote friendships between students with and without disabilities, Kishi (1988) reports as one of her major findings that girls are more likely than boys to become friends of students with disabilities.

Research indicates that this same gender pattern may exist among adolescents. Peck, Donaldson, and Pezzoli (1990) studied the benefits nondisabled high school students perceive for themselves from their relationships with peers with severe disabilities. The nondisabled students who participated in the study were nominated for participation primarily on the basis of their contact with students with disabilities, and also based on the availability for interviews. Of the 21 nondisabled students in this study 15 were female and 6 were male. Because the primary criterion for participation in the study was contact with students with disabilities, the overrepresentation of females in the sample indicates that adolescent females are more likely than males to have contact with their peers with disabilities.

Studies of adult friendships similarly suggest that women are overrepresented as friends of adults with disabilities. In a study of social support networks in the lives of adults with mental retardation who are living at home, Krauss, Seltzer, and Goodman found that “females predominated in the networks of both men and women” (1992, p. 438). With regard to friends specifically they report that when the adults do have friends, 40% of these friends were also included in their mother’s networks, and that 85% of these “shared friends” were female.

A recent Canadian study also indicates that women constitute the majority of those who are concerned with friendships between people with and without disabilities. This study is “designed to understand friendships from the perspective of people concerned with developing and facilitating friendships for people labelled mentally handicapped” (Hutchison, 1990, p. 95). The people selected for interview for this study all “had experience in friendships either as facilitators, researchers, friends, or relatives” (Hutchison, 1990, p. 95). Of the thirty people interviewed for the study the overwhelming majority are women. The study, however, does not explore gender as an issue in relations to friendships. Finally, in a study of pairs of disabled and nondisabled friends, Lutfiyya (1989) reports that when she was looking for informants for her study, “almost twice as many women as men were brought to my attention as possible informants” (p. 34). As noted above, reports of this nature in the research literature are not conclusive, however, they indicate that women tend to be overrepresented as friends of people with disabilities.

The same gender pattern can be found in the literature that focuses on efforts to promote and facilitate social connections between people with disabilities and other community members. For example, a review of the literature describing approaches such as “bridge building,” “circles of support,” or “community building” (Mount, Beeman, & Ducharme, 1988a, 1988b; O’Connell, 1988, 1990; Shoultz, 1991) reveals that women are the majority of people involved in these efforts.

A “Womanly” Relationship

Besides reflecting, and occasionally reporting, the overrepresentation of women among those who are concerned with friendships, the literature also reflects other more subtle gender-related issues. A close reading of the literature reveals language and images that construct friendship between people with and without disabilities as a “womanly” relationship. Typically, the major emphasis is on the emotional aspects of these friendships describing them as relationships characterized by intimacy, love, and affection (Forest, 1989), involving “mutual trust, acceptance, support and sharing of personal thoughts and feelings” (Stainback & Stainback, 1987, p. 19). Authors refer to these friendships as “affectionate bonds” (Lutfiyya, 1990), characterized by “love, satisfaction, support, acceptance, pleasure, joy, affirmation, tolerance, nurturance, and forgiveness” (Lutfiyya, 1991, p. 242). Authors also argue that friendships are important for people with disabilities, because, like other people, they need intimate friends to talk to, and share their deepest feelings and thoughts with. If people with disabilities do not have friends, “it becomes virtually impossible to achieve the depth of feeling, intimacy, love and affection we all need” Hutchison (1990, p. 7).

The literature on friendship in the general population shows that emotional closeness, intimacy, support, and acceptance are aspects that characterize women’s friendships. Men typically shy away from closeness and intimacy in their friendships. Instead, men’s friendships tend to be centered around shared activities. Thus, the way friendships between people with and without disabilities are described in the disability literature has a strong resemblance to friendships among women, even when one, or both, of the friends are men.

The construction of friendships between people with and without disabilities as a womanly relationship is further strengthened by the language used to describe the qualities of those who become friends of people with disabilities. Much of the literature portrays nondisabled friends as kind, caring, and nurturing people who provide a considerable amount of social, practical, and emotional support to their friends with disabilities (Mount & Zwernik, 1988; Perske, 1988; Hutchison, 1990). For example, Mount, Beeman, and Ducharme (1988b, p. 13) provide a list of things members of a support circle can do on behalf of the focus person with a disability. Most items on the list start with words such as “helping” or “sharing.”

Women have traditionally filled the role of helpers and nurturers and this language strengthens the image of friendships between people with and without disabilities as a feminine relationship. To further reinforce the image of friendships between people with and without disabilities as close and intimate womanly relationships, books and monographs on friendships tend to be decorated with hearts, people holding hands, hugging, and so on (Amado, Conklin, & Wells, 1990; O’Connell, 1988, 1990; Perske, 1988). While the gendered construction of friendships between people with and without disabilities is probably unconscious, this sends a powerful message indicating that these are friendships that are more appropriate for women than for men.

Although the literature on friendship between disabled and nondisabled people does not directly address gender as an issue, this literature portrays a highly gendered picture of these friendships. The literature is often written as inspirational texts to encourage nondisabled people to establish friendships with people with disabilities. The womanly construction of these friendships makes it much more likely that this literature will inspire women as opposed to men, who typically shy away from emotional closeness and intimacy in their friendships. Moreover, the majority of people who work in the field of developmental disabilities are women, and women constitute the majority of students in special education and other disability related training programs. The gendered construction of friendships in this literature makes it easy for women to identify with these friendships. By the same token, the feminine images are unlikely to inspire men to establish such friendships. Because the textual source from which people learn about friendships constructs these as womanly relationships, these texts are more likely to recruit women than men, as friends of people with disabilities.

The author of this article has written a more extended analysis of the gendered context of friendship between people with and without disabilities which will appear as a chapter in Friendships and Community Connections Between Persons With and Without Disabilities, edited by Angela N. Amado, published by Paul H. Brookes (Traustadottir, in press).
Amado, A.N., Conklin, F., & Wells, J. (1990). Friends: A manual for connecting persons with disabilities and community members. St. Paul, MN: Human Services Research and Development Center.

Forest, M. (1989). It’s about relationships. Toronto: Frontier College Press.

Hutchinson, P. (1990). Making friends: Developing relationships between people with a disability and other members of the community. Ontario: G. Allan Roeher Institute.

Kishi, G. S. (1988). Long term effects of different amounts of social contact between peers with and without severe disabilities: Outcomes of school integration efforts in Hawaii. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation. Syracuse University.

Krauss, M.W., Seltzer, M. M., & Goodman, S. (1992). Social support networks of adults with mental retardation who live at home. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 96(4), 432-441.

Lutfiyya, Z. (1989). The phenomenology of relationships between typical and disabled people. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. Syracuse University.

Lutfiyya, Z. (1990). Affectionate bonds: What can we learn from listening to friends. Syracuse, NY: Center on Human Policy, Syracuse University.

Lutfiyya, Z. M. (1991). “A feeling of being connected”: Friendships between people with and without learning difficulties. Disability, Handicap & Society, 6(3), 233-45.

Mount, B., Beeman, P., Durcharme, G. (1988a). What are we learning about bridge-building? Manchester, CT: Communitas.

Mount, B., Beeman, P., Durcharme, G. (1988b). What are we learning about circles of support? Manchester, CT: Communitas.

Mount, B. & Zwernik, K. (1988). It’s Never too early, It’s never too late: A booklet about personal futures planning. St. Paul, MN: Metropolitan Council.

O’Connell, M. (1988). The gift of hospitality: Opening the doors of community life to people with disabilities. Evanston, IL: Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, Northwest University and Department of Rehabilitation Services.

O’Connell, M. (1990). Community building in Logan Square: How acommunity grew stronger with the contributions of people with disabilities. Evansotn, IL: Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research, Northwest University and Department of Rehabilitation Services.

Peck, C.A., Donaldsson, J., & Pezzoli, M. (1990). Some benefits nonhandicapped adolescents perceive for themselves from their social relationships with peers who have severe handicaps. The Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 15(4), 241-249.

Perske, T. (1988). Circles of friends. Nashville, TN: AbingdonPress.

Shoultz, B. (1991). Regenerating a community. In S. J. Taylor, R. Bogdan, & J.A. Racino (Eds.), Life in the community: Case studies of organizations supporting people with disabilities (195-213). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Stainback, W, & Stainback, S. (1987). Facilitating friendships. Education and Training in Mental Retardation, 22(March), 18- 25.

Traustadottir, R. (in press). The gendered context of friendship.In A. N. Amado (Ed.), Friendships and community connections between persons with and without disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Voeltz, L. M. (1980). Children’s attitudes toward handicapped peers. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 84(5), 455-464.

Voeltz, L. M. (1982). Effects of structtured interactions with severely handicapped peers on children’s attitudes. American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 86(4) 380-390.


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