High quality photos and inspiring videos for non-profits are made to inspire action. Poverty alleviated, crime stopped, coats donated, and houses built are all very felt needs that can move the hearts of many. People support causes for a variety of reasons, from feeling needed or feeling good to building a resume or for civic duty. In general, what most of us want to know is that we’ve made a real difference.
Serving the needs of people with developmental disabilities is often less straight forward. A common issue that people with developmental disabilities experience is social exclusion. Our culture hasn’t yet embraced how to include people with developmental disabilities as a regular part of our lives. Perhaps it’s because unpredictable or peculiar behaviors don’t fit into our idea of diversity or of being missional. Befriending people with developmental disabilities is incredibly important, but if we expect perfect relationships with immediate chemistry and easy success we will likely be disappointed. Therefore, an initial step in welcoming people with disabilities in our lives is taking on an attitude of humility.
Current programs are designed to segregate people with developmental disabilities. There are many systemic, societal, and logistical hindrances that make naturally occurring or spontaneous relationships between people with and without disabilities very difficult, if not impossible.
Sometimes newly involved advocates in our program can find this discouraging, here are a few remarks from new advocates that exemplify how these hindrances play out so that you know you are not alone:
“He came late and left early”
“She won’t stop calling!”
“The staff didn’t know who I was so the best I could do was hang out with him on the stoop outside his building.”
So how can we know our presence in someone’s life is making a difference? In the mist of these dynamics, we need to remember the real need we are addressing. If the need is bread, do we offer a stone? If the need is friendship… what are prepared to offer? In our social media age where everyone is a ‘friend,’ it is incredibly important to remember the true beauty and potential of friendship.
In an article titled, "Unlikely Alliances" by John O'brien, he points out that the word ‘friend’ comes from the Old English verb, frijon, which means “to love.” Frijon comes from an ancient Indo-European root, prai, which means “beloved” “precious” “at peace with” and “free.”
In our highly individualistic culture, we tend to think of friendship in transactional terms. You give me something for my individual self and I give you something for your individual self. If we are able to give something of the same value, then we consider each other friends. Further, friendship is typically thought of as a way to pleasure, but if those feelings fade, then we find ways to end or distance ourselves from the relationship.
However, Literary theorist, Terry Eagleton says,
“The word “individual” originally meant “indivisible,” meaning that to be a person was to be part of a greater whole. There could never be simply one person, any more than there could simply be one letter or one number.”
We must recognize that we only discover who we are and grow to personal maturity through our relationships to others and that the painful seasons of relationships are just as beneficial as the joyful ones. Friendship is a vital part of anyone’s life. No one is made to be alone.
Take it from Jeff and Cindy Strully who parent a daughter with a disability,
“It is friendship that will ultimately mean life or death for our daughter. It is her and our only hope for a desirable future and protection from victimization.”
OUR ONLY HOPE
Because friendship is vital, it is also important that friendships between people with and without disabilities is not thought of as “novel.” Hindrances from people outside, who control the life of a person with a developmental disability and their circumstances, creates an obvious imbalance of privilege in the relationship between someone with a disability and someone without dependence on human service agencies.
Friendships between people with and without disabilities must strive to find ways for genuine connection. Tom Doody describes a way to foster connection by “interrogating the ordinary.” Many of us have had countless relationships in our lives, but we don’t think much into what makes them work or not work. But when we simply ask, “What do good friends do?” We start to realize the obvious ways that we can make a connection with someone with a disability. Finding common interests or projects to work on will flow more naturally when we remember that we all have passions and dreams.
Finding where the one to one relationship belongs in the context of community life is also necessary when balancing out the power dynamics in relationships between people with and without disabilities. Birthday parties, weddings, and attending church together offer a chance to give and receive from the bond you have in your friendship and it widens the support circle for your friend with disabilities. We’ve also seen that the opposite is true, the one with disabilities widens the circle for the person who’s lived a life in the bubble of privilege.
So let us not be discouraged! There is value in your relationship! In spite of the ever present ambiguity, friendship is one of the most profound ways of responding to the injustice that people with disabilities face. It’s also one of the most profound ways for those of greater privilege to experience a fuller life in the midst of their environment. Yes, we become better people when we learn how to love unconditionally even when we don’t see measurable results or have all the answers.