“Define the Relationship”: People with Disabilities and their “Friends”

Hello, readers,

It’s still Back to School month, and for most kids, back to school means, back to seeing old friends again. Most kids also want to make new friends; it’s one of the first things you hear when you ask about hopes for the school year, especially if your kid is transitioning from elementary to middle or middle to high school, or if you’ve moved to a new place altogether. The idea of friends inspired this post, and the question: What kinds of “friends” are we encouraging kids with disabilities–really, anybody with disabilities–to make and keep? How do perceptions of disabilities influence friendship? And what can we do to make the answers to these questions better than the ones we currently have?

Now, we’ve talked a little bit about this before, such as in posts that mention the idea of people with disabilities “paying for” or “earning” friends through certain college programs. That kind of thing is insidious and unnecessary, as we know. But there are other forms of “friendship” that can also hurt kids with disabilities, and we need to be aware of those.

“Friendship” Stlye 1: I am Your Friend Because I am Your Mother

This is what happens when a friend without a disability erroneously believes it’s his or her job to be a perpetual helper, mother, coach, or therapist. It’s where we get people with disabilities who mistake caregivers for friends (“My aide is my friend because she takes care of me.”)

Sometimes, this construct happens quite innocently. Maybe it occurs between two elementary kids, one with a disability and one without, because the teacher said something to the class about being “extra nice” or “extra helpful” to little Lily in the wheelchair. (And in that case, the teacher needs to rethink his or her script, but that’s another issue). In the spirit of “helping,” the friend without the disability may overdo, assuming, perhaps, that their new friend can’t read (“The language arts book is your GREEN book”) or needs help with the simplest tasks. Or, in the spirit of being a good school citizen, the friend may lash out at other kids or tattle to the teacher if it even looks like the kid with the disability is being teased or ignored. The fix here, of course, involves the teacher explaining what is really meant by “helping,” and–for goodness’ sake–making the student (s) with disabilities seem as competent as possible–because they are.

But sometimes, this construct is not so innocent, or it started out that way, but became a real pain. I’m talking about kids who approach classmates with disabilities as “projects,” or as people to encourage in a way that, frankly, is not encouraging. I know, because it happened to me a lot. What does it look like? Time for an example.

Lily has a physical disability. Brenda has noticed this, and she has noticed certain things about Lily, such as the things she needs help with, or the things that upset her (such as, maybe, being told to work with manipulative objects in math even though her hands don’t work the way she wants them to). So Brenda, for whatever reason–maybe she truly wants to be friendly, but maybe she just finds Lily annoying–starts saying things like,

“Lily, you have to try.” “Lily, you have to do this right.” “Lily, if you cry like this in middle school, nobody will let you hear the end of it.”

Can you hear the problem? This is not a friend talking; this is a junior therapist. And at times, she sounds like she thinks she’s better than Lily, doesn’t she? Now, I’m not saying friends can’t call each other on it when they’re doing something that might be embarrassing, like crying in class, but as you can hopefully tell, this is the wrong way to do it. Lily probably goes to therapy constantly, and gets “tips” about doing things “right” from family members. I don’t think she needs it from a peer, do you?

“Friendship” Style #2: Being your Friend Makes me Look Good

Emily has a disability. Veronique is a classmate of Emily’s who, up to now, hasn’t really been in Em’s friendship circle. But all of a sudden, Veronique becomes interested in Emily. Maybe it’s because Emily’s blind and just got permission to bring a guide dog to school, or has another type of service pet. Maybe Emily’s mom or dad bought her some cool outfit, toy, or gadget that Veronique wants to see up close (middle- and high-schoolers are not above these toxic friendship styles, by the way). Or maybe Veronique has a little bit of a reputation as a tough gal or a bully, and she either wants to change it or is being pressured to, thanks to parents and teachers. So what does she do? She does what girls the world over tend to do–cozies up to the person she wants to get in the good graces of, who happens to have a disability. The twist is, she uses Emily’s disability to make herself look good, either overtly or covertly (look at me, hanging out with the sweet, pathetic disabled kid like a real friend!) But what happens when Veronique gets bored, or the other kids start saying negative stuff? Right–Emily gets dropped. Or, she walks away from the friendship herself because she knew she was being used, which also hurts.

“Friendship” Style #3: My Own Personal Mascot

Peter has a disability. In this case, the disability is likely intellectual or noticeably physical (i.e., wheelchair use/problems with posture, problems with speech), but it could really be any disability. Anyway… The guys in his class or on any given sports team don’t consider Peter worthy to “hang out with.” They buy into the idea of, “What can you do for fun with a guy like that?” (The answer, by the way, is “plenty, if you use your God-given imagination.”) But, they also know Peter might have trouble making friends, or they want to make it look like he’s one of the guys, either for their own purposes (see #2) or because they’d like to be friends, but don’t know how. So Peter gets “adopted” as a “mascot” of sorts. He doesn’t go with the other guys to games or movies or what have you, but he hangs around them in big public places like school. The other guys make a big deal out of laughing at his jokes or complimenting him, and they say things like, “Pete’s the little brother I never had.” Yes, it’s better than if Peter had to deal with abuse from them, but this style of “friendship” also minimizes Peter as a person with his own thoughts, emotions, and yes, abilities, especially the ability to socialize.

“Friendship” Style #4: The Great Pretender

This is the one that gets on my nerves the most, and it doesn’t really need an example, so I’ll keep it short. This is the “friend” who approaches a person with a disability, and uses their trust to manipulate. Again, this happens a lot with intellectual or severe physical disabilities, but could happen to anyone. It’s what’s happening when you see a person with a disability giving someone his or her posessions (or allowing them to be “borrowed” but not returned), giving homework answers, taking dares, etc. because “otherwise, I won’t be your friend.” It’s bad enough when it happens to kids without disabilities, but when it happens to kids with disabilities, there’s an even bigger backlash. Either, the kid with a disability walks away hurt, or he or she doesn’t catch on until she hears the classmate laughing about it with others. Hey, you guys–that’s a person, not the class joke.

“Friendship” Style #5: Extra Credit, or the Guilt Card

Eddie has a disability–again, any disability, so we won’t get too specific. He has just moved to a new school or new class, or maybe he’s in the same school he’s always gone to but is having trouble making friends. So what happens? The teacher decides to pair him up with a more popular boy, and calls them “friends.” Eddie’s new “friend” goes along with this, getting the idea that it will please the adults in his life, and make him look good in the bargain. But is he really Eddie’s friend? Nope–not if an adult had to force him to be. C’mon, Teach, what is this, 1962?

This one also has a flip side–and really, they all do. As we’ve said before, kids with disabilities can make bad choices, manipualte, or whatever, just like any other kid. And sometimes, kids with disabilities will approach classmates with the attitude, “You HAVE to be friends with me because I have ___ disability.” And that, my dear readers, is no more beneficial to the kid with a disability than any of these other “friendship” setups.

Now, do all these scenarios go both ways? Sure–you can have, for example, a kid with a disability who hangs around a classmate because they want to be “mothered.” You can have a kid with a disability who hangs around certain classmates just because they’ve got what he or she wants, or who uses popularity to manipulate (YES, kids with disabilities can be popular). Are all kids in danger of these false friendships? Yes, absolutely. But I do think that, because our society is still more inclined to exclusion than inclusion, kids with disabilities–really, anyone with disabilities–are more vulnerable. So the next time you try to make friends with a person who has a disability, or see a child with a disability hanging around a friend who may be toxic? Remember your homework–and remember what you were taught a real friend is. It’s one of the basics of life. Don’t tell me we’ve forgotten it just because we consider ourselves smarter than fifth-graders.


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