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Inclusion Is Important...Even if It Doesn’t Guarantee Friendships

A person leaning next to a person in a wheelchair at a ball field
Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Lately I’ve noticed a particular thread on social media, shared by parents of kids with disabilities. First, let me acknowledge that the concern is real. And, as Ellen Stumbo pointed out recently, “An inclusive education does not always mean friendships for our kids with disabilities.”

Full disclosure: I am not a parent of someone with a disability. But this is clear to me: Disability is not the variable on which the development of friendships pivots. In fact, it turns out, developing friendships is a challenge for many children--indeed, for virtually all humans who want such relationships. So the response of some of the parents has given me pause. Namely, seeking out so-called “special” activities for their kids; that is, segregated activities that include only others with disabilities. The argument seems to be that people (including kids) with disabilities are more accepting of other people with disabilities.

My experience suggests otherwise. First, not all people with disabilities are actually accepting of others simply because they have disabilities. Example: I worked with a young adult who repeatedly said, “I don’t want to hang out with them” (referring to similar-aged peers with disabilities). When explored further, the issue was that he didn’t define himself by his disability status. And he did not want others to do so either. He wanted to get a regular job and earn a paycheck. He wanted to live in an apartment (with or without someone he chose). He wanted to do things he liked to do and to try things he’d never tried before. You know, just like most people. Not really that surprising, is it?

Second, the assumption that people will get along well with others simply because they share a disability label (specific or not) is also flawed. I’m not saying that people with disabilities don’t--or even shouldn’t--have friends who have disabilities. People can develop and be supported in the relationships they choose, with whom they choose. But, for example, if I have depression and only have the opportunity to hang out with others who have depression, maybe we’ll become friends.Or maybe we’ll discover that we have nothing else in common. While this is not necessarily a problem, friendships are often built on shared interests or values.

Finally, developing friendships doesn’t just happen for anyone. It’s not easy. Because it requires skills. But skills can be developed. It may take longer for some. It may be more challenging for people with certain disabilities (e.g. intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, other developmental and/or neurological differences, etc.). Yes. People may need support. Again: skills can be developed.

It's important to think about the unintended consequences of the decisions we make, especially when we have the kind of influence that parents do on their children. Or that those who support people with disabilities have on the people they support (including adults). It is true that being in so-called inclusive settings does not guarantee that someone will find friendship. However, not even having the opportunity to be with others who don’t have disabilities will all but guarantee they won't be included in some important aspects of life.

So here’s our question to the #StopMakingItWeird fandom: What have you (or others you know) done to support people to develop friendships AND be inclusive, in ways that are similar to what you do other words, in ways that are not weird? Please share!

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