The lives of people with disabilities have changed a lot in the last 30 years. There are now many services and well-trained care workers. People with disabilities have rights that are ensured in many countries around the world. What is missing, all too often, is friendship.
Friendship grows out of the impulse to care for one another, something all humans share. In our society, for the first time in history, most of the work of caring is done by professionals. More and more, people are starting to see the simple truth that in order to be rewarding, our lives must include the old-fashioned kind of caring and conversation, the kind that comes from the heart, no pay cheque attached. Without it, our lives are poorer, more stressful, no matter how many services we receive.
As Canadian activist Catherine Frazee says, relationships matter as much as rights.
Aaron knows this. He is a young man with autism who lives in Alberta and attends a regular school where he enjoys close relationships with other students. Aaron says that if he didn’t have friends, “I would be at home all the time and would be lonely and sad and angry.”
Some people are fortunate in having good friends within their family. Brothers and sisters are a chance to learn about friendship at home, and can be life-long allies against loneliness. Studies show1 that loneliness can effect our physical health, even our financial well being. Without friends, we are all more vulnerable to life’s misfortunes.
One response to this simple truth has been to encourage people with disabilities to grow “circles of friends.” For people who have spent their lives on the edge of society, surrounded by paid workers, creating friendships may not be easy. To make friends we must be open to others, but the pain of past rejections can make it hard to trust.
To start friendships, people who have been isolated may need a push. And people in the community may need to be prodded to reach out and enrich their own lives. The awkward moments soon pass and stories about the friendships that result tell of lives made better by the give and take of heart-felt caring. Organizations like PLAN with their Network of Friends program have developed proven approaches to helping people on the margins create relationships with others.
What people have found is that friends do four things:
1. They make us feel safe.
2. They help us discover who we are and explore the choices in our lives.
3. They help us believe that we matter and develop a sense of self worth.
4. They help end isolation and improve our health.
Friendship gives us a place where we belong… In this place we can do things as big as exploring our dreams, things as small as figuring out which shoes to buy, and things as important as working through our emotions.
There may be times when friends don’t get along, when angry words are said, and we need to take a break from one another before getting together again and working things out. It’s how we learn about difference and disagreement.
Jean Vanier, the Canadian philosopher who founded the L’Arche Communities for people with intellectual disabilities, has thought a lot about friendship and the sense of belonging that comes with it. He says that belonging does for human beings what soil does for plants – it nurtures us, and enables us to grow and to blossom.
1A. Mind Body Health: The Effects of Attitudes, Emotions and Relationship, by Brent Hafen, Keith Karren, Kathryn Frandsen and Lee Smith, Massachusetts: Allyn & Bacon, 1996
B. Doctors have known for sometime that lonely people do not live as long and have more medical problems than non-lonely people, but the reasons for this connection have not been clear. The new research demonstrates that lonely people may have more health problems because they perceive the world to be threatening and their orientation to others reduces positive feedback and emotional support. These perspectives can ultimately lead to higher blood pressure and sleep disruptions. These factors, in turn, have been shown to have an impact on the body’s resilience in dealing with disease.
“The strength of social isolation as a risk factor is comparable to obesity, sedentary lifestyles, and possibly even smoking,” said John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago and director of an interdisciplinary team of investigators.