Friend Like Me: Moving to the Next Level in Friendships with PWDs

Hello readers,

I’m trying to catch up with December posts, partially because December is this blog’s anniversary month. I thought about doing a post concerning all the things PWDs really want for Christmas, but we’ve talked about those things a lot. You know: respect, the chance at real jobs and real lives, services that actually serve individual needs, and so on. So naturally, I was stumped on what to write today until I remembered something else PWDs might want for the holidays: the chance to have real friends.

Again, we’ve talked about this some. The August 2013 archives contains a post on how relationships with PWDs can often go awry, especially among kids and teenagers, because of stereotypes and misunderstandings. But what we haven’t talked about, is how to move friendships to the next level for PWDs.

What do I mean by that? Well, I do believe that most PWDs have friends on one level or another. For some, these friends may be aides or helpers, as in, “Scott is my friend because he takes care of/helps me.” That is the lowest level, and the one we need to move beyond. It doesn’t require social interaction beyond a setup of “the helper and the helped,” which makes the PWD feel unequal to the able-bodied aide.

Society has gotten better at recognizing this setup as unequal, so they try to move to another level. Teachers, aides, parents, whoever–they want PWDs to experience real friendships. Good for them! But what normally happens is that the PWD is paired with only other individuals with disabilities and told, “These are your friends because you all have handicaps.” Or, they’re paired with able-bodied people who want to be friends, but are stuck on how to do so. The PWD then becomes, not a friend, but a “sometimes friend,” a “special buddy.” Some schools even have “buddy programs” that perpetuate this setup. Again, it’s not a bad setup in itself. It’s a good way to begin integration. But we don’t need to stop there. I don’t believe an able-bodied child, teen, or adult can claim to be friends with a PWD if the extent of their friendship is through a “program,” or a monthly date at McDonald’s.

So, what kind of friendships do PWDs actually want this holiday season? I’ll give you a few examples.

Mentorships. People with disabilities are being hired at “real jobs” more often, thanks to societal inclusion, websites like gettinghired.com, and general education on the part of the temporarily able-bodied. However, many of them are still often “placed” in jobs with “job coaches.” These people are not friends; they are individuals whose job it is to make sure the PWD behaves appropriately at work. Here’s a revolutionary idea: job coaches, quit coaching. Be a mentor instead. Employers, set up workers with disabilities with experienced mentors whose job it is to say, “This is the way we do things here,” but whose job it ALSO is to say, “If you have any questions, ask me. Wanna go out to lunch? What do you like to do after work? Hey, the guy in X department is kinda hot–want me to set you up?”

Standing get-togethers. Ditch the monthly McDonald’s date–it gets everybody in a rut. Make an effort to see your friends with disabilities at the same times, and at the same places, you see friends without disabilities. Suggest going to the movies, or the club, or shopping. Make the effort to find accessible venues, and go out with a mixed group of PWDs and temporarily able-bodied people.

Reciprocation. This is a biggie, especially during the holidays. People with disabilities often receive gifts from people who love them and want to show it. The problem is, PWDs often don’t have the means or opportunity to reciprocate. Some of us are luckier than others in that we can express this desire. For instance, I’ve had people take me out to lunch or for coffee and insist on paying, and I can say, “Please let me pay because when you don’t, it makes me feel like I can’t reciprocate.” But other PWDs don’t get to express this. Let them, and let them reciprocate. If you give a gift, accept whatever it is they give you in return, even if it’s not pricey or glamorous. Pay for lunches or coffees on a rotation if possible, or do activities that don’t cost money to take the pressure off.

Real conversation. Now, I understand this can be difficult to do if you’re a TAB person and your friend with a disability has the mental age of a five-year-old. But remember, chronological age first. If that person is really 16, talk to them like they’re 16. No, I don’t mean discuss your sex life or ask about subjects they’re unfamiliar with. I mean, treat their interests with respect. Ask what they want to know about your life. For example, just because you take calculus and they’re in special education math, it doesn’t mean they only know 2 + 2. Tell them interesting things about your teacher, or what calculus helps us do in real life. If you’re an adult whose friend has a disability, don’t spend your entire time together talking about disability issues (for example, I’m passionate about those, but do give me a break). Talk about regular stuff, because that person is a regular person.

The holidays aren’t nearly as meaningful without family and friends. So this year, give the gift of authentic friendship to PWDs. You may find you’ve accepted a new member into the family you’ve chosen for yourself.

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